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The Head of the Charles rolls into town today, and when it does, Radcliffe lightweight crew will not settle for second best.
“Our goal this year is to be the top women’s lightweight college like last year, and to try to be the top crew overall,” said co-captain Elizabeth Tisei.
Last year, the Black and White lightweight eight finished second in its field only to Riverside Rowing club, whose crew traditionally serves as a feeder for national teams.
Radcliffe will only enter one boat in eights competition this year because the crew did not qualify the second entry for the lightweight fours event, which is based on the previous year’s finish.
At least one Radcliffe alumni boat, however, has entered this year’s fours event.
Three’s A Crowd
In addition to the high level of competition from around the world, Radcliffe feeds off the atmosphere surrounding the regatta.
“Head of the Charles is my favorite race the entire year,” senior Laura Spence said. “It is the most amazing feeling to pass Weeks Bridge and Weld Boat House and hear the cheering spectators as you row by. It’s utterly inspiring.”
“It’s a great event and we’re lucky to have it at home,” lightweight coach Cecile Tucker ’91 agreed.
Tucker knows from experience, having competed in the regatta while a student on Radcliffe heavyweight crew.
“It is by far the highlight of the fall,” she added. “It’s the best rowing gets as far as a spectator goes.”
As Tisei pointed out, the home crowd cheer will not be the only thing inspiring the Black and White on Saturday.
In recent years, Princeton, Radcliffe and Wisconsin lightweight crews have emerged as a triumvirate of sorts on the water, vying with one another for sole claim of best on the water. The Head of the Charles regatta is no different.
Spence recalls the extra incentive that propelled the team forward at last year’s regatta.
“Last year we started right ahead of Princeton. Since we faced backwards the entire way, we watched them the entire time rowing,” Spence said. “Seeing them rowing behind us really pushed us on our way and motivated us to keep going harder.”
Even Coach Tucker does not deny the rivalry between the teams.
“Princeton has been at the top of the heap for the last few years,” Tucker said. “Radcliffe has finished second and third behind them. I’d say that’s what makes a rivalry; it’s purely the nature of the competition.”
While Radcliffe bested Princeton at last year’s Head of the Charles and a week later at the Princeton Chase, the Black and White faced the Tigers five times this past spring and lost every time, including at Eastern Sprints and Nationals.
“There’s definitely a rivalry with Princeton,” senior Avaleigh Milne said. “Head of the Charles is not as important as Nationals, but we’re always out to get them. There’s never an exception.”
In the 2000 and 2001 regattas, Wisconsin placed first overall in the lightweight eight competition. The Badgers also beat Radcliffe at Nationals in 2002.
Though they did not plague the Black and White last spring, there’s no counting them out.
“Every year teams change, so it’s hard to know what you’re getting before the race,” said senior Christina Minami. “A lot of schools—like us—have only been on the water for five weeks, so it’s hard to tell.”
Milne agreed, saying, “It’s really unpredictable from one year to the next, so we assume they’re just as fast as they were last year and work to get to that level.”
Though the competition is high and the event greatly anticipated by rowers and spectators alike, Radcliffe’s finish at the Head of the Charles Regatta will not make or break its year.
“Everyone wants to place as well as they possibly can. But it’s not the most important thing,” Tucker said. “We look at crew as a yearlong sport, with the spring season being the primary focus.”
“Obviously, a strong finish in the fall is a good sign for the spring,” Tucker added, “but there’s a lot of in-between time, so they’re really separate.”
The difference lies in the nature of the racing. The fall features head-on races, in which teams race one after the other according to a clock, for lengths of about three miles.
The spring races, on the other hand, feature head-to-head competition in which crews face off side-by-side so you can watch your opponent the entire way. The spring also features distances of 2000 meters per race.
Spence concurred with her coach, saying, “Head of the Charles doesn’t carry over to the spring season, but it’s definitely what drives us through the winter.”
“To beat Princeton at Head of the Charles and at the Princeton Chase gives you a mental edge that might carry over,” junior co-captain Ame Bothwell said.
Opening Up the Field
While the perennial trifecta of Princeton, Radcliffe and Wisconsin offers a friendly rivalry for fans and rowers alike, the lack of other strong women’s lightweight programs is a notable lament for the sport.
Tisei noted that while there are a number of emerging programs, including Stanford, Georgetown, MIT and URI, colleges have a long way to go in developing the lightweight level for women.
“It’s certainly something that’s been disappointing, in that it comes down to the three,” Tisei said.
Beyond the traditional trio, Milne noted that, “there’s the occasional odd surprise of a team chasing us,” such as Mercyhurst, hardly a dominant presence on the water, but one which nonetheless placed third at the 2002 Nationals.
But the occasional surprise, rather than a larger pool of competitive crews as on the women’s heavyweights level, is the exact point of concern.
“The problem is a lot of Ivies won’t introduce lightweight programs for women,” Spence said. “Yale has an amazing women’s heavyweight program and a great men’s lightweight program, but they don’t have a women’s lightweight program. The same goes for Brown, Cornell and Columbia.”
Tucker held an optimistic view on the matter.
“Stanford is only two years old, so they’re just starting out,” she said. “I expect Stanford will be a powerful program in the future. Georgetown is developing a strong program, as is MIT. They’ll be up-and-coming teams to watch. It’s some growth, and we’d like to see more.”
—Staff writer John R. Hein can be reached at email@example.com.
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