June 8, 2022

PU Women’s  Lightweight Crew Makes History, Winning 1st IRA National Team Championship

SHINING LIGHTS: Members of the Princeton University women’s lightweight crew program show off the spoils of victory last Sunday at Mercer County Park after they earned their first-ever team title at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta. The Tigers took first in the varsity 8 and the double sculls on the way to the title. Both boats went undefeated this season. (Photo by Row2K, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Bill Alden

Having not lost a race this season, the Princeton University women’s lightweight varsity 8 wasn’t messing around as it hit the water last Sunday for the grand final of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta.

“Our race plan was to throw the kitchen sink at them; we wanted to get up on the first 500 meters, the first few strokes and just hold them to the last,” said graduate student Rebecca Mays, who rowed in the No. 2 seat on the boat. “I think we were really successful doing that.”

Even though Georgetown made a late push and narrowed the gap, Princeton held on for the victory, posting a winning time of 6:55.89 over the 2,000-meter course, 1.596 seconds better than the Hoyas.

“Not at all, we knew what we had left in the tank,” said Mays with a smile when asked if she was concerned about Georgetown’s surge.

The varsity 8’s win helped Princeton earn the national team title for the first time in program history as double sculls also placed first and its varsity 4 took fourth.

For Mays, the win by the varsity 8 resulted from months of hard work.

“It didn’t feel real at first because we have worked towards this all year long,” said Mays, a native of Annandale, Va. “The whole past year, this has been the goal. We finally accomplished that, it was really beautiful. It was really overwhelming.”

It was the second straight crown for the boat, which had won the title in 2021 by beating Wisconsin in a two-boat grand final.

“It was incredible, last year we knew we could have done it against a full field,” said Mays. “It is just really exciting to finally put that into action and see it through to the end.”

With the victory capping an undefeated campaign for the varsity 8, Mays said the boat’s even-keeled approach paved the way for its success.

“I think this is a really calm internal boat, we are unshakable and we have total faith in ourselves,” said Mays, who was joined on the top boat by coxswain Margaret Murphy along with Sarah Fry, Sarah Polson, Daisy Devore, Lily Feinerman. Cecilia Sommerfeld, Kalena Blake, and Princeton High grad Nathalie Verlinde.

“It is the confidence that we had going into every race and the belief that we had in our boat and ourselves that really pushed us to the win.”

Mays, who could have hung up her oars after graduating from Princeton in 2021, was thrilled to get an extra season as a grad student when Ivy League eligibility rules were modified in the wake of the pandemic.

“It was huge motivator when I learned last year that I could both do grad school and take another year of rowing; the decision was made,” said Mays, who is studying chemical engineering. “I knew this is what I had to do. This is the end for me. This is going to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, I know it.”

Princeton head coach Paul Rassam enjoyed a memorable weekend watching his rowers win the national team title.

“It is hard to sum up a year like this and the year before, it had been super challenging,” said Rassam. “When you keep winning, it can look easy from the outside but what these athletes pushed through to achieve what they have achieved is really special. We talked in September about trying to win the team title. It seemed like a little bit of a pipe dream at the time honestly. They just worked it through the year, month to month and made out a reality. It is surreal when it comes to fruition.”

The double sculls of Amelia Bole and Kasey Shashaty got Sunday off to a great start as they won their grand final in 7:46.06, topping runner-up Boston University by 7.036 seconds, culminating an undefeated campaign.

“For them to go out and lead the race wire to wire that set the tone,” said Rassam. “It takes a lot of guts in a championship race to throw it out there.”

The varsity 8 showed plenty of guts as well. “They are some really determined young women in that boat, they are fiercely determined,” said Rassam. “The field kept creeping up on us as the season went on. Other boats started to find their speed, they started to find their legs. That can be a nerve-wracking thing when you are the top crew and you see that happening. They held their nerve. Every time they race, they found a way to win.”

Rassam credited Mays with helping the boat keep its nerve.

“We are young team, we are not graduating a lot,
unfortunately Becca is one of them,” said Rassam. “She is an example of just bloody-minded determination. She was not a 5-star recruit out of high school. Every year she progressed to the point she is at. She is steady as a rock through it all. She is a leader by example, she doesn’t say much but her actions are always steady. We are going to miss that sort of ballast.”

In Rassam’s view, the Princeton program should keep progressing with its core of young rowers.

“We had a ton of sophomores and freshmen in these three boats; we graduated only one from the 8 and one from the 4,” noted Rassam. “We have a great recruiting class coming in. We definitely feel like this is chapter one of a longer story for sure. There is no reason we can’t come back stronger next year.”

For Mays, the story of her Princeton crew career ended ups being a testament to determination and diligence.

“I started rowing in high school but I came on to this team as a walk-on,” said Mays. “I have had five wonderful years on this team. I feel like every year everyone has improved just a little bit. It has been so special to see where I started from and where we are now. I wasn’t recruited and I was not up to speed with the rest of the team when I came in. I was just so inspired by everyone on the team and I tried to work hard with them.”