Despite Abbreviated Season, Limited Training, Princeton Rowers Excel in Nationals Competition
SHINING LIGHTS: Members of the Princeton University women’s lightweight varsity 8 enjoy the moment after they placed first in their grand final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta last Friday at Mercer Lake. The boat included Annie Anezakis, Isabelle Chandler, Lauren Sanchez, Kalena Blake, Sarah Polson, Lily Feinerman, Ashley Scott, Nathalie Verlinde, and Rebecca Mays. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Bill Alden
Although the Princeton University rowing programs had just a handful of regattas this spring as opposed to their usual slate of around eight weeks of regular season action culminated by the Eastern Sprints/Ivy League championships, the Tigers crews still excelled in national championship competition last weekend.
Taking part in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta last Friday at nearby Mercer Lake, the Princeton women’s lightweight varsity 8 provided a highlight as it won a national title.
Rowing in a two-boat grand final against Wisconsin, the Tigers covered the 2,000-meter course in 7:42.73, more than 26.3 seconds better than the Badgers.
Having seen his varsity 8 take second in the 2019 national final and third in both 2017 and 2018, the triumph was special for Princeton head coach Paul Rassam.
“It’s a bit bittersweet,” said Rassam as quoted on the PU Athletics website in reflecting on the top boat’s first national title since 2003.
“I say that because we had the speed to win last year and obviously the people from that boat didn’t get that chance. When I think of this group my heart nearly bursts with pride. They are cut from granite. They are one of the best boats I’ve ever seen. They are champions in every way and words don’t do them justice.”
The championship crew included included senior Annie Anezakis, senior Isabelle Chandler, senior Lauren Sanchez, freshman Kalena Blake, sophomore Sarah Polson, freshman Lily Feinerman, senior Ashley Scott, freshman Nathalie Verlinde, and senior Rebecca Mays.
“After four years of growing momentum on this team and 15 months of training through uncertainty, it feels incredible to finally see it all come together to win a national title,” said Anezakis.
“Today’s result means so much to us because it is a reflection of the unshakeable faith and grit our whole team has shown all season in addition to our determination to race for the Class of 2020 and our coaches who we are all beyond grateful for.”
The Princeton double scull placed fourth in its final with a time of 9:44.56. Boston University took the title (9:08.72), followed by Stanford and Oklahoma City.
The Tiger men’s lightweights also earned medals at the IRA as the second varsity 8 placed second with a time of 6:47.28, 5.9 seconds behind champion Navy.
Princeton’s varsity 8 finished third, coming in at 6:55.54 with Navy taking first in 6:44.89 and Penn placing second ion 6:47.54 The bronze marked the third straight medal for the varsity 8 at the regatta and the fourth in the last five IRAs.
The third Princeton program competing in the IRA, the Tigers men’s heavyweights, earned a pair of top-10 finishes as the varsity 8 took second in the B final to finish eighth overall. Princeton clocked a time of 6:11.71, just behind Boston University’s mark of 6:08.82 in the race.
The second varsity 8 took sixth in the A final, clocking a time of 6:36.44 with Washington winning the national title in 6:15.42.
Princeton head coach Greg Hughes liked the way his rowers battled through the downpours that drenched competitors over the weekend in West Windsor.
“I thought they really stepped up well, it was obviously a challenging couple of days over there with the weather,” said Hughes.
“It was fitting, we were joking about it. In this year after everything we have been through and all of the challenges we have overcome, we are also going to have a white-capping headwind. We had not really had any opportunity to prepare in anything like that.”
The varsity 8 made progress through the weekend. “That time trial was a good, strong effort for those guys. They were in the thick of it,” said Hughes of the first race in Friday.
“That semifinal was really challenging with the conditions. They just had not had the chance to do anything where they could rehearse in that. They learned a lot from the mistakes they made in that race. They retooled and came right back 12 hours later and had a final where they did an awesome job.”
With its lineup revamped in the weeks before the competition, second varsity came together in a hurry. “For those guys, that was a really awesome effort,” said Hughes.
“The combination that they were rowing in had probably rowed five times before the racing because we were really juggling bodies and dealing with some injuries and what not. The way that they stepped into that was really inspirational, it was great to see.”
Looking back on a uniquely challenging year, Hughes was inspired by the effort he got from his rowers on the final weekend of the season.
“What was rewarding for me was just seeing that they got this opportunity and the way that they took it on,” said Hughes.
“It was just such a crazy year. For them to stay focused, committed, and resilient through so many challenges, even in this last month where we were losing a couple of guys and it was just changing our dynamic and what we could do. They never once stepped out of it. The most rewarding piece of the year for me was just being with them and experiencing that. They made it a really special year for me.”
That special commitment will help the program next year and beyond.
“For so many of those guys, they had no experience at all, and now they have an experience,” said Hughes.
“They understand, ‘OK, this is what it is like to actually go to one of these events and now I have a sense of where I want to go with it.’ I think that will be really, really important. Getting them introduced to our program and to really feel and experience our culture during the racing season is huge. They understand that this is the role that I have to play going forward and these are the goals that I want to set. I think that is going to be really important.”
The Princeton women’s open rowers headed south over the weekend to compete in the NCAA Championships in Sarasota, Fla., and they also excelled. The varsity 8 placed fourth in the B final to finish 10th overall nationally while the second varsity 8 finished second in the C final to come in 14th overall and the varsity 4 won the C final to take 13th.
The top boat clocked a time of 6:32.56 in taking fourth in its final, trailing third-place Cal by .08 in a race win by Ohio State with a mark of 6:27.72. It marked the fifth straight top-10 finish by the Princeton varsity 8 at the NCAAs but that was not the most important thing to Tiger head coach Lori Dauphiny.
“There was a streak but I didn’t even know about that, I don’t count that stuff, “ said Dauphiny.
“They did finish in the top 10 which I think was fantastic given the challenges we have faced. I was extremely proud of the team. They poured out the best race that they had. That was super exciting. They were in the lead, they were tied for the lead for a bit and they were in second position going into the third 500. They just got nipped out by Cal at the finish for that third position.”
The second 8 produced an exciting race as well in its final, coming at 6:45.47 just behind the winning time of 6:43.42 posted by Duke.
“The second varsity came in second into C final and it was a real battle and they were moving,” said Dauphiny.
“They were leading, they were in it, it was just exciting. They gave it their all. It was a fantastic finish for them.”
Princeton got off to a flying start in the finals action on Sunday with the varsity 4 covering the course in 7:27.36 to place first and edge Navy, which came in at 7:31.68 to finish second.
“The 4 winning the C final was a really nice way to finish for them,” said Dauphiny.
“It was the way we started that Sunday of finals. It was so uplifting to see. It excited the rest of the team. That was their best race too. We know these boats well and it was absolutely their fastest race for all three.”
While seeing that speed was nice, the character displayed by her rowers over the year meant more to Dauphiny.
“The coaches recognize what these women have been through and what they had to overcome to be there,” said Dauphiny.
“There was every opportunity for people to walk out the door and say ‘you know what, I have had enough, what is the end here, this is too much.’ There were plenty of opportunities for these women to give up without knowing what was going to happen.”
In Dauphiny’s view, the bonds forged by the rowers kept them from giving up on the season.
“I think it is the love of the sport but I think it is also the love they have for each other,” said Dauphiny.
“They really care about each other; what I have noticed with this team that they count on each other. There are friendships on the team, they are close and they care about each other. I think that stepping away from the team was not an option as a whole. I think they felt
dedicated to each other.”
That dedication will yield dividends for the Tigers going forward. “I told these women that they have helped this program immensely by the fact that they really salvaged a tough season and they didn’t give up,” said Dauphiny.
“That will have great impact on our program now and in the future. They are stars. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate their fortitude. It didn’t matter what happened last weekend but I thought they crushed it.”