October 24, 2008

Crew rows with nations’ best at Head of the Charles

While club sports have fewer resources, less attendance, and less recognition than their varsity counterparts, the men’s and women’s crew club got to do one thing last weekend most varsity teams would kill for: compete at one of their sport’s premier events.

Back on campus since a preseason that began before O-Week, both programs have had a busy schedule this fall, competing in two local regattas on back-to-back weekends before making the trek to Boston last Thursday for the Head of the Charles Regatta.

Featuring a winding, difficult-to-navigate course on the Charles River, the event is the world’s largest two-day regatta. The three-mile race includes 57 separate divisions of both collegiate and independent club teams, and as many as 8,000 athletes travel from around the world to row in up to 1,750 different boats.

Last fall, the men’s program made an ambitious move to enter the highly competitive collegiate eights division for the first time. However, a smaller roster this season led to the decision to field only a four-man boat for Saturday’s race. Third-year Anju Muthiah as coxswain, fourth-years Miles Betley and Hayden Hudson, and third-years Garrett Allen and John Dyer made up Chicago’s contingent, a lineup finalized after weeks of competitive racing among team members. All four rowers are veterans from last year’s eight-man boat.

“This year, we don’t have quite as many guys [as last year],” said Betley, “so it made sense to pit the dozen or so oarsmen against each other to create that fast Charles four.”

So-called “head” races like Saturday’s competition feature staggered starts with individual boats racing against the clock. Because of last year’s absence from the fours division, Chicago’s men began the day seeded dead last. Despite a lack of competitive crews to pace themselves against, the Maroons fought through the pack for a 12th-place finish out of 31 squads.

Finding itself neck-and-neck with familiar UAA competition, the men’s boat finished just 16 seconds ahead of Rochester, who placed 14th. The Maroons trailed the Yellowjackets at the first bridge marker but managed to cut the gap down at each successive split time.

Although their 17:32.1 time made them automatic qualifiers for next year, the crew still expressed frustration at falling short of its goals.

“I think we were a little disappointed in how we placed,” fourth-year Miles Betley said. “We thought we had a top-10 time for sure. But either way, it’s great to have qualified for next year, and I think next year we should have an even quicker time and better finish, with faster boats around to push us even more. We definitely identified some areas for improvement, and we’re looking to make those changes that will put us in a better place to succeed at our next regatta.”

After a spate of illnesses and injuries kept them off of the Charles last October, the women’s program was able to send a boat back to Boston after a fall of measured gains on the water. Since kicking off their season with a loss to Marquette by a minute and a half at the Tail of the Fox Regatta, Chicago has tracked its progress against the Golden Eagles at each successive race and was able to edge out its rivals by two seconds in Boston.

“Coming back from a year where we couldn’t field a four for the Charles, we’ve been rebuilding our team,” fourth-year coxswain Liz Chen said. “Our fall season has been one of steady improvement.”

With Chen at the rudder, the squad of fourth-years Becky Brehl and Ngiste Abebe and second-years Sonya Ringer and Kelly Wolenberg featured a mixture of Regatta first-timers and veterans. Starting with a 25th seed, Chicago pulled its way past several higher seeded boats but was edged by Franklin Pierce at the finish.

“We were tortured by one boat that was less than a boat length away from us throughout the race,” said Brehl. “As it turned out, this team, Franklin Pierce, beat us by one second in the final rankings. Overall, I am happy with the race, but I wish that we’d been able to beat that team.”

Finishing 15th out of 35 crews, the Maroons also clinched an automatic time for next year.

Preparing for the Charles as a club program meant that Chicago had to innovate to overcome hurdles that might not have presented themselves to fully funded teams. The rowers found area alumni to stay with for the weekend, and because the squads don’t own a trailer of their own, they had to rely on Wheaton to haul their rowing shells to Boston. After Wheaton suffered a last-minute breakdown, the Maroons were literally caught up the creek without a paddle.

“We found ourselves suddenly scrambling to find boats and oars that we could borrow or rent,” fourth-year Becky Brehl said. “In the end, one of our new coaches, Peter McLane Daniel, got in touch with his old team at Williams. They graciously lent us both boats and oars, which made it possible for us to race.”