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Going into the climactic race of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s national championships on Saturday, the Harvard heavyweight first varsity expected its toughest challenge, a sprint down to the final 20 strokes. Never mind that the Crimson had won every other race this year by more than a length. This time, with the stakes so high, highly touted boats from Washington, Wisconsin and four-time defending champion California were supposed to make it close.
But instead the Crimson’s toughest rivals across the nation were left far behind, just like every other opponent this season.
Harvard won the Varsity Challenge Cup, given to the best heavyweight first varsity at IRAs, for the first time in school history with a surprisingly large margin of victory of nearly four seconds over closest-finisher Washington.
“I sit back and try to figure things out, and I’m still in shock,” said senior Mike Blomquist, the first varsity’s sixth seat. “I don’t see how that’s possible, how amazing this season has gone so far.”
With a victory in the Harvard-Yale regatta this upcoming weekend, the first varsity will become the first Harvard crew to go undefeated since 1980. No Harvard crew has ever gone undefeated and won an officially recognized national championship regatta. IRAs became the national championship regatta in 1995, but Harvard had not competed in it since 1995 due to conflicts with exams and the Harvard-Yale regatta.
Harvard also won the Ten Eyck trophy given to the overall points champion of all IRA races. That includes all Harvard heavyweight races and the Harvard and Radcliffe lightweight races. The Harvard heavyweight second varsity and freshman boat each placed third in their respective divisions.
Racing was spread over three days, with preliminary heats on Thursday, repechages and semifinals on Friday and finals on Sunday. The Crimson first varsity took a 7.5-second win over closest-finisher Northeastern in its preliminary heat, and topped a semifinal heat with California and Wisconsin by a three-second margin.
Harvard was wary of the tough competition entering the Grand Final. California was still the four-time defending champion, Wisconsin had beaten the Crimson at Eastern Sprints a year ago and Washington had not raced Harvard in years.
“We had a pretty good heat and semifinal, but we knew going into the final we had to row a little better,” Blomquist said. “[The semifinal] only gave Wisconsin and Cal a sour taste and they’d be gunning for us and it made the other crews want to chase us down. We went in thinking we’d have to race as hard as we could for the full 2000 meters.”
Instead of the race coming down to the last 20 strokes like the boat had prepared for, the Crimson managed to decide the race by the halfway point.
“We tried to put enough pressure on early so that other crews couldn’t stay with us,” Blomquist said. “About halfway through we were about to create a margin and rhythm that [other boats] could not sustain. We were going into the race thinking that Washington, Cal or Wisconsin would be pushing us the entire way down the course. Granted we were pushed but we didn’t really have to go out of our selves to win the race.”
What has distinguished this crew from the other Harvard crews over history is their margins of victory. Throughout the year the Crimson won many of its races by the largest margins in decades. The 3.8-second victory at IRAs was as close as any boat came to Harvard in a dual race or a grand final of a regatta.
“We’ve just been blessed—it’s been great to win the races by that much,” Blomquist said. “I think it’s a testament to how hard the crew works and how much the crew wants to win. Some people might be happy with six seats. Everyone wants to get the biggest margin possible. We don’t quit till we cross the finish.”
Although competing at IRAs this year was a unique experience, Blomquist said he would not have minded if his boat had never been given the chance to win a national championship.
“I think [IRAs] is an amazing opportunity and a great chance to race the west-coast schools who I had never raced before,” Blomquist said. “But if I had never had the opportunity and just had the Harvard-Yale race I would have been just as happy.”
Harvard’s success at IRAs this year has not changed many of the rowers’ view that training at Red Top for the Harvard-Yale regatta should take a higher priority.
“[Red Top] is like a camp where you’re bonding with your teammates,” said captain Mike Skey, sixth seat of the second varsity boat. “You get to know kids really well, you make rockets out in the field and you fly kites. It’s a really good time. You don’t experience that at [IRAs]. Here you’re at a hotel all day and laying in bed watching TV, then you go and race.”
The second varsity, which entered IRAs undefeated like the first varsity, could not maintain its record in its first meetings with the top western crews, California and Washington. In that race, the Golden Bears jumped out ahead early and both the Huskies and the Crimson spent the whole race trying to catch up.
In the freshman race, Princeton maintained its season-long dominance. The Tiger freshmen, who Skey believes are faster than Princeton’s varsity, won by almost three seconds over California and Harvard. The Golden Bears edged the Crimson by just 14-hundredths of a second.
“Given another 20 meters [the freshmen] would have taken [California],” Skey said.
Although the second varsity and freshman boats did not win their races, they contributed to the overall Harvard victory of the Ten Eyck trophy. They were also the boats that pushed the first varsity throughout the year to its unprecedented level of success.
“Every single person in the boathouse receives some credit for the success of the varsity because at some point they rowed and practiced with them,” Blomquist said. “They pushed as along. Granted it comes down to us to racing to our potential, but our potential was pulled up by everyone in the boathouse.”
—Staff writer David R. De Remer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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