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When the Harvard lightweight crew took to the waters of the Cooper River last May at the IRA National Championship, its fate was anything but certain.
In a year that had seen several schools claw their way into the top spot in the national rankings only to be cast down in the following week, no clear-cut favorite stood head and shoulders above the rest.
“It was exciting,” co-captain Chris Mercaldi said. “Every week we’d look at the results and try to make sense of them and not be able to.”’
The Grand Final was no different.
Heading into the season’s concluding heat, each of the eight-man squads could legitimately argue its own supremacy.
By the time the final boat had crossed the finish line, all but one had been silenced.
Catching each of its opponents off guard, the Crimson broke ahead of the pack at the first opportunity and never looked back, leading the rest of the way in posting a two-second victory and sewing up one of the most hotly-contested titles in history.
“That was a great race,” junior Nate Rogers said. “From 500 meters in we led the whole way.”
Boarded at Sea
While the waters in which they rowed were barely above freezing at the season’s beginning, the Harvard lights were red-hot from the first dip in the water.
Against Cornell and Pennsylvania in early April, the lights posted an impressive first performance, winning by more than three and 10 seconds, respectively.
Dominating victories over Georgetown, Dartmouth and MIT followed over the next two weeks as Harvard climbed to No. 1 in the country.
But its success was not destined to last.
Despite posting solid victories in each of its first five sprints duals, the Crimson was ensnared by the topsy-turvy division in which it seemed like any varsity eight could take home the top prize on a given race day.
Navy proved to be that unforeseen bump in the road.
“We lost by a bowdeck to Navy, a crew that hadn’t done much that year,” Mercaldi said. “It made you realize that everyone is going to be going into a race thinking they have a shot at winning.”
Harvard had previously overpowered its opponents with breakaway speed in the first 1500 meters, placing itself so far ahead that walking back through in the final 500 would be nearly impossible with opponents too tired and short on time to accomplish anything.
The Midshipmen defied the Crimson’s strategy and ended the dream of a perfect season.
“We lost the Navy race in the last 500 meters,” Rogers said. “We were ahead until the last 500 and we lost it in the sprint. That kicked us into gear to train for the whole race.”
Just a week later, the improvement was clear. Harvard defeated both Princeton and Yale by more than three seconds to close out its dual season with just a single loss and a new sense of momentum following the solid victory over its archrivals.
Any other year it would’ve been the Crimson’s time to shine at Eastern Sprints—the talented team overcoming its midseason adversity with poise and skill, overcoming its flaws and persevering to capture the title that had just weeks before been almost guaranteed.
But that isn’t what happened. Harvard’s day in the sun would have to wait.
Despite making the Grand Finals for a record 58th consecutive time, the Crimson would be upstaged by the Tigers who had been so passive in defeat just two weeks prior.
“Princeton won by a fairly surprising margin,” Rogers said. “We had a solid race in the finals but not our best piece.”
The Tigers coasted in a sheltered lane while top-seeded Harvard stumbled all the way down to fourth.
“I’d say in terms of winning the national championship, the defining moment was at the eastern sprints four weeks before when we finished out of the medals,” Mercaldi said. “We knew we were better than that. That really lit a fire under us.”
But the disheartening finish was not the last word to be written on the Crimson’s agonizing journey to the top.
“We just had a really grueling three weeks between sprints and IRAs where we just hammered out the practices,” Rogers said.
And as they have every odd year since 1991, those practices resulted in the national title.
Filling the Gaps
Eight rowers, including six returning oarsmen—co-captain Alex Binkley, Mercaldi and senior Jake Sattelmair along with juniors Pat Haas, Mike Kummer and Rogers—rowed every stroke of every regatta together last year.
“Last year was really a special year,” Mercaldi said. “Out of the two years I’ve been in the varsity at Harvard it was the one time we really enjoyed being together. We were together the whole year.”
Practicing with one another daily, friendships blossomed despite disparate personalities and unique eccentricities as the eight melded into one.
“Usually everyone gets to practice about half an hour before we start,” Rogers said. “That’s where everyone shoots the shit. There’s definitely a kind of fun team aspect there.”
Only Nick Blannin ’03 and senior Dave Stephens, who is taking a year off to train with the Canadian national team, have left holes to be filled as the team prepares to defend its title, which is easier said than done.
The 2001 national championship winning crew returned to Cambridge to defend its title the following year under similar circumstances, but fell victim to injury along the way, missing the Grand Final at IRAs and settling for a disappointing seventh.
“The final boat in 2002 didn’t really happen until sprints,” Rogers said. “If the boat hasn’t been together for very long it’s not going to be very fast.”
With its core group assembled since the start of last year, that shouldn’t be a problem for the 2003-2004 squad.
“I would say [our chances are] pretty good,” Rogers said. “But it’s been said that it’s harder to defend a national championship than to win it.”
But with the dedication the rowers have to the crew and each other, this group seems primed to rise to the challenge.
Strongly bound together, the returning six have shown twice in just one season their capability for overcoming strife to attain their objective.
“All the wins, all the losses were together as a crew,” Mercaldi said. “Bouncing back and winning H-Y-Ps by open water was huge. We were young and everyone was out to prove stuff and had fun.”
Though they are older now, there is still plenty left to prove. Despite winning a national title, none of the veteran six is guaranteed come springtime.
“The boats for the spring are anyone’s seats,” Rogers said. “Winter training can change a lot of results. Last year’s head of the Charles first boat was not last spring’s first boat.”
Not even the lineup for Head of the Charles was firmly set less than a week prior to its first race, so the rowers are paying little attention to events six months ahead.
Instead, each is focusing on the individual challenge that lies ahead—earning one of those coveted spots on the early team to beat.
“What’s most important this year is that none of those six guys [from last year] is sitting cool and confident in his seat,” Mercaldi said. “It’s going to benefit us a ton. I’d say that right now, this year, we have an especially deep program and guys right through who are between the 2V and the 3V now but might have a shot at the varsity in the spring.”
With that kind of pressure in Newell Boathouse, you can bet there’ll be quite a few rowers hitting the ergometers a little harder before the ice melts in April. But after the final roster is set and the first weekly boat is posted, they’ll be teammates shooting for a title together once more.
“When you have fast guys around you, it makes you more confident,” Mercaldi said. “They’re your teammates and you’re going into battle with them.”
With the assemblage of talent massed across the river from Harvard yard, the opening salvo this weekend should be quite a sight.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.
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