June 7, 2023

Polson Savors Last Ride with PU Women’s Lightweights, Helping Varsity 8 Dominate IRAs as Tigers Win Team Crown

LIGHTING IT UP: Members of the Princeton University women’s lightweight varsity 8 crew show off the spoils of victory after taking first in their grand final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championship Regatta last Sunday on Mercer Lake. It marked the third straight national title for the Tiger top boat. The victory culminated a historic day for the Tiger women’s lightweights as their double sculls and varsity 4 also prevailed in their grand finals. Princeton won the team title at the event for the second straight year. (Photo by Row2k, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Bill Alden=

Sarah Polson wasn’t sure how she would measure up after deciding to join the Princeton University women’s lightweight crew program.

“I didn’t even get recruited to Princeton, it was too much of a high shoot for me,” said Polson, a native of Chicago, Ill. “Thankfully I got into Princeton. I rowed in high school at CRF (Chicago Rowing Foundation) and when I came, I knew I wanted to walk on. I had no idea that I would be able to make the top boat.”

Polson made the varsity 8 and emerged as a star, making the varsity 8 and helping the top boat win the IRA grand finals in both 2021 and 2022.

This spring, Polson, rowing from the bow seat, has helped the Tigers win the Eastern Sprints and continue a winning streak which has seen it not lose to another lightweight boat since the 2019 IRA regatta. She was recently named as one of five finalists for the Otto von Kienbusch award, given to Princeton’s top senior female athlete.

Last Sunday, Polson capped her Tiger career in style, helping the varsity 8 win its grand final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championship Regatta on Mercer Lake. Princeton posted a winning time of 6:40.03 over the 2,000-meter course, 6.2 seconds ahead of runner-up Stanford (6:46.31).

The win by the top boat clinched a sweep by the Tiger women lightweights as they started the day by winning the grand finals in the double sculls and varsity 4. The double produced a winning time of 7:37.79 with Harvard-Radcliffe coming in second at 7:42.26. The varsity 4 crossed the line in 7:28.74, 0.8 of a second better than runner-up MIT. As a result of those winning performances, the Tigers earned the team title and IRA Commissioner’s Cup for the second straight year.

In reflecting on the top boat’s dominant victory, Polson attributed the performance to some intense preparation.

“We knew we had to have a really fast start as is typical of our Princeton boats; we just wanted to leave it all out there and really attack the start,” said Polson. “After the Eastern Sprints, we really recycled our base and we went back to threshold. We had a lot of confidence in our training plan. We peaked at the right time which is really exciting. It is super cool. The work we did in the past month really showed off today so it was really nice.”

For Polson, ending her Tiger career on such a high note was special.

“Being in the top boat in the nation for three years in a row has just been so amazing,” said Polson. “I am just speechless, I am just so grateful. We have the best coaching staff and the best teammates in the whole world. It is really special to get to share this moment with them and work together towards something.”

Reaching the top of the women’s lightweight heap has resulted from a combination of consistency and camaraderie on the part of the Tiger rowers.

“I think it is a total commitment, all nine of us, every single day,” said Polson, who was joined on the top boat by Margaret Murphy, Sarah Fry, Lily Feinerman, Cecilia Sommerfeld, Kalena Blake, Daisy Devore, Hannah Höselbarth, and Lina Schwartz.

“Starting in September and even over the summer, it has been a complete commitment from everyone and love for one another. I am thankful to say that I am racing with my best friends. The whole team has been supportive, it is such a cool team to be part of.”

Getting through the pandemic in 2020-21 helped strengthen that commitment.

“COVID was really hard, being away from everyone and training alone was really, really difficult,” said Polson. “It is really all about the culture that we have here that lifts me up personally as an athlete. Everyone I know feeds off of each other. Even when it was a harder for us alone, we would call each other and all of that kind of stuff. It is pretty crazy.”

Princeton head coach Paul Rassam saw the program’s sweep of the three grand finals as amazing stuff.

“We have been talking about it for three years, bit by bit getting there so it means a lot,” said Rassam. “When you talk about something for three years and then you accomplish it, it is almost surreal, quite frankly.”

Coming into Sunday, Rassam was confident that all three boats were poised for that accomplishment.

“These athletes prepare really, really well and we knew after the heat, they were going to recover super well,” said Rassam. “It is hard to put into words. I think this is the strongest team I have ever coached and maybe one of the stronger women’s lightweight teams ever. The athletes should be incredibly proud of how they built that.”

The Tiger varsity 8 displayed strong character and unity in earning its title three-peat.

“They are a tough bunch man; their toughness stands out with their resiliency and their ability to shrug off a bad day or a bad week,” said Rassam. “You could just feel before the races how much they want to pull for each other. There is talent, there is the work ethic. There are all of those qualities, but you don’t always feel before a race how people just really love each other and how people just want to crush it for each other.”

Rassam urged his rowers to savor their big day on Sunday.

“When people see dominant performances and they see winning and they see undefeated, it can look easy but it is never easy,” said Rassam, whose varsity 4 included Elena Every, Claire Brockman, Nathalie Verlinde, Emma Mirrer, and Bonnie Pushner with Amelia Boehle and Kasey Shashaty rowing in the double.

“The main thing I feel is pride for the athletes and what they produce day in, day out,” said Rassam. “I think my heart almost burst when the four crossed the line, not just from stress but from pride because they were the one boat that didn’t win last year. That is never a fun position to be in. For all boats to go out there and win like that; one thing I said to them is that they have to live in the present. We don’t get that very often. Princeton students are always looking at this, looking at that as is anybody in life. I just hope that they really enjoy the moment.”

Coaching Polson has been a joy for Rassam.

“She is the type of athlete who makes the coaches look good; she gets better and stronger every single year,” said Rassam of Polson. “It was a total gift when she walked on. I think the really cool part about being a coach is to watch how people grow into being leaders. She wasn’t ready to be a leader her freshman year. She was a leader through the pandemic year and then into that undefeated year last year and into this year. She was a captain for both undefeated springs last year and this year. That is pretty special, not a lot of people captain two years. She is a rock — we are going to really miss her.”

Polson, for her part, credits her crew experience with helping her grow on many levels over the last four years. 

“I am so much of a different person in everything I do in life,” said Polson. “I have gained so much confidence and drive from rowing. This team has taught so much in terms of work ethic and making sure to lift everyone up around me. I see so many amazing examples in my teammates, people who are amazing to be around and always striving to be that for others.”

It has certainly been an amazing journey for Polson since she walked on to the lightweight squad as an uncertain freshman.