In Helping PU Women’s Lightweights Win IRA Title, Senior Captain Sanchez Excelled On and Off the Water
PULLING TOGETHER: Lauren Sanchez, center, enjoys the moment after a race for the Princeton University women’s lightweight varsity 8. Senior captain Sanchez helped the Princeton top boat place first in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship grand final earlier this month. (Photo by Ed Hewitt, Row2K, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
The Princeton University women’s lightweight varsity 8’s 26.3-second win over Wisconsin in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship grand final earlier this month might have looked easy, but the path there was anything but that for Lauren Sanchez and her teammates.
The lightweight team had several members of last year’s boat that was in position to go for a title in 2020 graduate and was missing others this season who took a gap year. The Tigers only had enough rowers to field an eight boat and a double scull boat. The small group of lightweight rowers on campus had to sustain fitness and training while undergoing regular weigh-ins despite the uncertainty that they would ever get to compete.
“Just going through that process without knowing if you’ll be able to race is challenging,” said Sanchez, a senior captain and a native of Medford, N.Y.
“Our team adopted a mentality that we were going to race. And if we didn’t, we were going to cross that bridge when we got there. But we put all our faith in that it would happen and would work out and we were going to train for something great.”
The Tigers didn’t find out until April that they would row this year, and didn’t get the OK for the IRA national championship regatta until just two weeks before it. Princeton overcame those hurdles and performed incredibly for a decisive win over Wisconsin in the final to capture its sixth national title, but first since 2003.
“It meant just so much,” said Sanchez. “Not only this year, but our team has been the last four years working toward this national championship. We were primed and ready to do it in 2020, and it was very disappointing that we didn’t get a shot at doing it, particularly for our seniors. Being able to do it this year meant the world.”
Sanchez’s gold was one more honor to cap her Princeton career along with being nominated for the university’s Art Lane ’34 Award, which goes to an undergraduate for selfless contributions to sport and society. Sanchez was nominated because of her accomplishments on the water as well as being a leader of Princeton’s Special Olympics rowing program.
“It meant a lot for that recognition for the Special Olympic program,” said Sanchez. “The program means a lot to me. It’s great to see people recognized for it.”
Sanchez also won gold at nationals in the double scull as a freshman. The next year in 2019, she jumped to the varsity 8 and took silver. Princeton won bronze in 2018 in the varsity 8.
“Obviously we improved each year,” said Sanchez. “We took third my freshman year. We took silver my sophomore year. In
junior year, we won Head of Charles by a large margin and were feeling really ready for the spring season. We did have a sense of building momentum. And over the past year, we really just tried to hold on to that. It was a big part of our team culture to remember all the work that previous generations of lightweight crew have put in and to not lose that momentum.”
The national title capped a year unlike any previous. The Tigers weren’t able to race a lot, but their small sample size was impressive. They debuted with a narrow 2.6-second win over Drexel’s open weight boat. They barely lost in a rematch with Drexel at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, falling by only 1.9 seconds, but importantly getting a look at another lightweight crew when they cruised to a 21-second win over Georgetown.
“We knew we were a really fast boat, just from the times we were putting out in practice back on Carnegie,” said Sanchez.
“We knew we were a fast boat in a normal year, and we thought that we would be a fast boat in a COVID year. For this year, our only lightweight competition that we raced was Georgetown back at Dad Vails, and we had a 21-second margin over them. We didn’t know what that meant. That could just mean that maybe Georgetown was missing a lot of people, maybe they didn’t get a lot of time to train, there are so many things with COVID, one of their eight could have gotten COVID that weekend and just been pulled out. We felt like we’re going to be really fast, but you never know, which is unusual for us.”
Princeton would see most of its competition in a regular year two or three times. They hadn’t raced against Wisconsin until nationals.
“In a normal year, you pretty much know how the field is going to stack up, you know what the margins are going to look like because you’ve seen everyone once or maybe twice,” said Sanchez.
“This was our only time racing up against Wisconsin. We had some sense, but we wanted to throw it all out there because we didn’t have any idea what Wisconsin would look like.”
Just to have the chance to row again in competition was significant to Sanchez and her teammates, especially her classmates who were able to end on a high note. They had been a part of a rise of the Tigers
program to national champions.
“It is really special to get on the start line with that P on your chest and with the girls that you’ve been training with all year and get ready to race,” said Sanchez.
“It was really great to be able to have a season. It was really special for the senior class because most of us were there. We didn’t have too many gap years. To be able to finish it out together was huge.”
Sanchez isn’t done with rowing yet. A politics major, after graduating from Princeton she is going to use her fifth year of NCAA eligibility up Route 1 at Rutgers with the Scarlet Knight rowing program, where she will pursue a certificate in public policy. And aside from some new teammates, she sees some similarities.
“It’s nice that I’ll be near some friends at Princeton still,” said Sanchez. “The team seems great. They did quite well at nationals so I’m excited to keep the momentum again.”
In addition, Sanchez is excited about continuing to serve the Special Olympics community. She is looking to bring the same program that became such a big part of her life to Rutgers now. As a freshman, she was introduced to the Special Olympics rowing program that was run by Princeton rowers.
“My little brother is autistic,” said Sanchez. “He did programs like Special Olympics growing up, but there was nothing specifically Special Olympics branded near me. I never really got involved because that was his space. Then coming to Princeton, a senior on the team was running the program and promoted it among to freshmen and I wanted to get involved immediately. I missed my brother at home. And I felt quite guilty going to Princeton and having all the resources I did.”
Sanchez found altruistic value in the program as she enjoyed helping a community that had no such option otherwise.
“The program was a great way for me to feel more at home but also to feel like I was doing something more important than going for national titles, which are great and fun and obviously mean a lot, but the program itself makes a sport that is historically really inaccessible open to other communities,” said Sanchez.
“It’s a great way for the student-athletes at Princeton to give back and share in the skills they’ve been able to foster at Princeton. I got involved with it and have been really involved. We continue to run Zoom circuit sessions every weekend here. It was great to see the athletes every week.”
Quickly making it an important part of her life, Sanchez took a leadership role after serving her first year, and saw the program grow.
“I ran the program for three years,” said Sanchez. “It meant a lot. It’s great to see the athletes progress. The program at least doubled in size since my freshman year. So being able to bring more and more people in – both volunteers and athletes in the community – and it’s gotten to do more and more. My junior year, we were about to get them to their first race but it got canceled due to weather. I’m confident the new heads of the program will continue to push and continue to grow it.”
Bringing it to Rutgers will add opportunities for more to try rowing. Sanchez hasn’t heard of any other Special Olympic programs that support rowing. It’s a big venture, but not the only significant change she’ll be adapting to at Rutgers. Sanchez will be making a big jump. Rutgers does not have a lightweight program, and she will be in the mix with the rest of their roster for spots in an open boat.
“I am 5’5” so I will see how that pans out,” said Sanchez. “There’s a reason I rowed lightweight. But I think fast is fast. Our top lightweight boat could compete with our open weight boat. We do every Wednesday. We race our open weight team back on Carnegie. It’ll be about trying to blend my stroke and continue to get faster.”
Undaunted by challenges, Sanchez has been through a series of other hurdles at Princeton and views her year at Rutgers as another opportunity.
“It’s exciting being in the open weight category, not only because I don’t have to weigh in and that takes a huge stress of rowing, but it’s also new competition,” said Sanchez.
“The lightweight rowing field is quite small. It’s great. It’s highly competitive, but we race the same six or seven teams three times a season every year. It’ll be fun to get to race new teams and to see what that kind of speed is like.”