HEAD OF THE CHARLES '06: The Pressure's On

After failing to qualify for NCAAs last year, the Radcliffe heavyweights are eager to get back on top. The program’s history will allow nothing less

Alexandra C. Bell

With the expectations of a historic program resting on Radcliffe's shoulders, anything less than a return trip to the NCAAs will be unacceptable—and the team knows it.

Last year, in many ways, was a rebuilding one for the Radcliffe heavyweights.

This season, the squad is still young and looking to grow, with almost half the roster made up of sophomores—15 in all.

But for a Black and White squad that failed to qualify for the NCAA championships for the first time in nine years last spring, the team must grow now—and fast.

The Radcliffe heavyweights are surrounded by history. Just this year, the team celebrates the 100th anniversary of Weld Boathouse. As a result, the crew is constantly reminded that last year’s disappointing season cannot happen again—for the team this year and for the stellar teams of its past.

“We have no intention of last year continuing this year,” heavyweight head coach Liz O’Leary says. “Was last year a disappointment? Yes, but we will improve.”

Last year, the middle of the spring season saw the Black and White fall the farthest. After earning victory over then-No. 2 Brown, the varsity eight went winless in its final four races. The losing streak was capped by a loss to Boston University on the Charles River in the race for the Allen-Dewolfe trophy, a shocking defeat for the heavily favored Black and White.

But the squad showed signs of improvement at Eastern Sprints in May. The team finished fifth in the Grand Finals against the top competition in the EARWC, including Sprints champion and eventual national champion Princeton.

Also significant was the third-place showing of the second varsity eight, whose young members will look to step into the first varsity and bring the squad back to the top.

“I think everybody who was on the team last year is disappointed,” junior Esther Lofgren says. “But there is an attitude this year that everyone is psyched to overcome that and change it—from top to bottom.”

And the team was not so far out of the national picture that such improvement would be unlikely. The team was on the bubble at the conclusion of the EAWRC racing season, for the NCAA committee only offers bids to 12 squads. With a year of experience, the young team can only look to rise—to erase the memories of Radcliffe’s first season without an NCAA trip in nine years.

And with a rising star in Lofgren—who won gold at the U23 World Championships this summer—success, in the form of a return to the NCAA National Championship, is very much likely. After a season like 2006, the team simply expects more.

“We have to get back to our top level,” Lofgren says. “But we have confidence that we can bring this program even more—another national championship.”

These lofty expectations show a team that is ready to rebound, and with new captains in seniors Katie Golden and Carrie Williams stepping up with Lofgren to lead the team, signs point in the right direction for the squad.

But there is still the pressure that comes along with wearing the uniform of one of the nation’s most storied programs: anything less than a trip back to the NCAA Championship next year will be damaging to the program, which has competed at such a high level for so many decades. The team not only feels the push to succeed for itself, but history also mandates it.

“The tradition of Radcliffe crew motivates us—not just in last nine years, but since 1972 there has been a tradition of excellence,” O’Leary says. “We try to keep that a part of who we are.”

In the modern era of heavyweight competition, the Black and White heavyweights have amassed two national championships in a period of continuous success, earning a first national title in 1973 and grabbing number two in 2003.

This is a daunting statistic for the squad to carry with it. But Radcliffe is used to it, and as the crew takes strength from the history in its boathouse, it also seeks to make this a year about the current team—to make a name for itself that can stand up over time.

“The history is a really important piece of the strength of the program,” O’Leary says. “But at the same time, it’s our year.”

—Staff writer Walter E. Howell can be reached at