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Entering the 2003 season, the Black and White certainly had high expectations, but no one mentioned the NCAA championship as one of them.
When discussing the year’s goals, the crew focused mainly on the larger events at the end of the season.
Goading the team on was head coach Liz O’Leary, who set high, but attainable goals for the team.
“Early in the fall we all talk about our goals for the season,” said O’Leary. “And although each athlete has her own personal goals, the one goal that the whole team was very committed to was winning the overall points trophy at the Eastern Sprints. That goal meant that we needed to be strong and deep as a whole squad and that really is what creates a fast team.”
And the team understood quite well how high the bar measuring expectations had been set.
“Our goals were: All boats in the top 3 at Eastern Sprints, the team trophy at sprints, and all 3 boats in the grand finals at NCAA’s,” said senior Anna McLoon. “Winning NCAA’s had not been a goal on our radar, but happened because we were able to meet and exceed the goals we did set.”
The team trained with incredible passion over the winter, striving to emerge as prime contenders after the spring thaw.
“There were practices last year that were real energizer bunnies of a practice,” said McLoon. “We kept rowing, and rowing, and rowing...but in the end, it all paid off. It paid off because of the work of every rower, in every seat of every boat, and because of [coaches] Holly [Fling] and Liz [O’Leary] and Cory [Bosworth].”
Once the Charles River ice melted, the Black and White started to burn up the competition.
The Making of Champions
The first two races of the Black and White’s dual season were postponed due to inclement weather.
Radcliffe opened its season against then-No. 3 Princeton, No. 14 Cornell and Wisconsin at Lake Carnegie on April 13.
Princeton jumped ahead early in the varsity race to grab the lead, but the Black and White, then No. 13, walked back through the field to edge out the Tigers by two seconds.
The victory over rival Princeton was the first since 1989 for the up-and-coming squad. And more importantly, it was the first chance for Radcliffe to reap the fruits of the training and strategy for the Charles River that it had worked to develop.
“We were not sure what to expect nor did we have a polished race plan,” said O’Leary. “We were clear that we wanted to be very strong through the middle of the course. Obviously the plan worked and I think the result was that we found a level of confidence in ourselves that was different and we were excited to sense that all the land training we had been forced to do in March was really working.”
A week after the victory, Radcliffe, after climbing to No. 3 in the polls, successfully defended the O’Leary Cup, defeating No. 17 Syracuse and Dartmouth, sweeping all five races contested.
The story of team leadership hidden behind the numbers was even more impressive. Sarah Marvel ‘03 had been walking on crutches the entire day because of an injured ankle.
Without Marvel in the line-up, the varsity boat’s chances at victory would have been seriously diminished. But she still took her place in the boat, setting aside both her pain and crutches.
At the end of the day, the varsity eight boat had won by over four seconds in a time of 6:11.1, the fourth fastest time in Radcliffe history and just over four seconds away from the all-time record for the team.
“The seniors played a big part in our achievements, not just because they were technically good rowers and were strong, but because they were good role models,” said McLoon. “The captains, Courtney Brown and Sarah Psutka, had high expectations for the team, but were willing to follow their own advice.”
As the team proved that it belonged with the best in the country, expectations rose as well.
On the weekend of April 26-27, Radcliffe took to the Charles for two competitions—a feat rarely attempted by any crew. The Black and White faced off against No. 9 Yale and No. 13 Virginia on Saturday, before competing in a postponed regatta from earlier in the year against Brown the following day.
“This was a tough weekend,” said Fisher remembering these two days in April. “Racing twice in one weekend is always exhausting, especially against two consistently fast teams.”
Holding the top rank in the Eastern Association of Women’s Rowing Colleges (EAWRC), Radcliffe started off the weekend in top form, with the varsity eight boat beating Yale by 2 seconds to reclaim the Case Cup, with UVA one second behind further off the pace.
In the second varsity eight and varsity four races, the Black and White also finished on top by three and 15 seconds respectively.
Everything seemed to be working with Radcliffe crew undefeated in the duals season and its national ranking at No. 1.
But Sunday’s race served the Black and White reality check.
The crew’s fatigue from the previous day’s racing took its toll as the varsity eight boat finished three seconds behind No. 8 Brown’s lead boat.
Rather than sulk and wallow in defeat, the loss to the Bears became a rallying cry for the remainder of the season.
“We used that loss to fuel our training for the rest of the season,” said Fisher.
“After the race, our coach told us that together we could find three more seconds to gain the margin of victory. As a boat we were able to come together and find even more speed to win in the end.”
The Black and White Strikes Back
A few weeks later, Radcliffe had its chance to exact revenge and display its extensive improvements, squaring off against Brown at the Eastern Sprints Championship on the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey.
Ranked second in the field and fifth in the country before the race, the Black and White staked it’s claim to the top, beating the five-time defending champion Brown crew by an open-water margin of five seconds. While still staying on a determined course for the NCAA Championships, the victory serves as a microcosm of the team’s development through the season.
“We began the season with some amazing talent in the boat,” said Fisher describing Radcliffe’s progress. “Throughout the season we continued to push ourselves to be stronger, faster, and to row better together. We gained speed throughout the entire season, which is what allowed us to keep rising to the competition at each level.”
“Winning Eastern Sprints was the defining moment of the season. Going into the race the press was talking all about the round-robin at the top,” she added, referring to Brown, Princeton, and Radcliffe. “We stayed focused and rowed with the precision and attack that we had trained with all season long. Once we won Sprints, we headed to Nationals with reckless abandon.”
Each rower had to refocus for the climax of all the training and energy each member had poured into the team throughout the year: the NCAA Championships. In 2002, the team had placed 11th in a field of 12, but 2003 was destined to be different.
The Black and White started the competition with performances that sent a message to opposing crews, qualifying three boats in the Grand Finals. No other team had placed as many boats in the Sunday morning final that was to decide the championship.
“We realized that we had a shot at the NCAA championship when the results were posted from the reperchages [for the 2V and V4] and the varsity semi-finals,” said senior Sarah Ronis.
“I think the team approached the grands with a sense of ‘there’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain,’ which made for some fantastic racing Sunday morning. After winning Sprints, we headed to Nationals with the assumption that anything was possible.”
With the second varsity and the varsity four boat posting mixed results in the morning—placing fifth and sixth respectively—the task of wrapping up the victory fell to the varsity eight boat in the last of the races.
The fate of the NCAA season would come down to this one final race.
Following its strategy perfectly, the Black and White let Washington seize the early lead. But Radcliffe owned the middle of the course on through the finish line.
“How did I feel after winning? Great. Relieved. Proud,” O’Leary said, adding she was “impressed with the remarkable group of women who had just raced the whole regatta brilliantly.”
And it all began with the coaches and rowers setting their goals and training hard throughout March to prepare themselves for the trials would challenge their character and skill.
“The defining moment came in early March when the river was still frozen and we were still jammed into the erg room, hot and tired, and I saw the team make a decision to go,” said coach O’Leary.
“Their split times on the ergs came down, they pushed each other, they showed a level of toughness and determination that came not from me as a coach, but from their hearts. It happened in one workout and there was no looking back after that.”
The New England winter draws near once more and the Radcliffe heavyweight crew once again begins to look forward to he spring season and how to develop this year’s squad into champions.
“This is a new year, and the team has different strengths and weaknesses, but we are not just going to pat ourselves on the back and say ‘wow, we were a fast team last year,” said McLoon. “We are going to continue to work to be as fast as possible from every seat in every boat. We are going to work hard, and Radcliffe boats are still going to be fast.”
Keeping this goal in mind and carrying over last season’s determination, no one will be surpsied with a repear performance from the Black and White this year.
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