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Claire Ochal Takes Helm as Head Coach of the Harvard-Radcliffe Heavyweights

Then-Syracuse women's rowing head coach Claire Ochal speaks to her athletes at an NCAA tournament. This year, Ochal replaced long-time Harvard-Radcliffe heavyweight head coach Liz O'Learly this year.
Then-Syracuse women's rowing head coach Claire Ochal speaks to her athletes at an NCAA tournament. This year, Ochal replaced long-time Harvard-Radcliffe heavyweight head coach Liz O'Learly this year. By Courtesy of Syracuse Athletics
By Lauren K. Choy, Contributing Writer

As Harvard women’s heavyweight rowing enters its 2023 season and the historic Head of the Charles Regatta approaches, Claire Ochal begins her first year as head coach of the team.

Ochal replaces previous head coach Liz O’Leary, who had an incredible 37-year impact on Crimson heavyweight rowing. “I feel extremely lucky to have inherited this team that was built and the program that she's built over the last 37 years,” Ochal said.

When asked why she decided to travel to Weld Boathouse and coach at Harvard this year, Ochal explained, “Why wouldn’t you want to come coach at Harvard Radcliffe? These women are amazing.”

Despite only beginning practices six weeks ago, it is overwhelmingly clear that Ochal and the rest of the Crimson are already getting along well and excited for the upcoming season. “It's astounding to me that we've really only been together for about six weeks,” the head coach remarked.

Having coached at Syracuse University for the past five seasons, Ochal has lots of experience and success.

As the Orange’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, Ochal guided Syracuse to third place at the 2019 and 2021 ACC Championships. At the 2021 NCAA Championships, one of Ochal’s crews placed 10th nationally, setting a school record for best performance.

Even before coaching at Syracuse, Ochal had an obvious talent for coaching. In her first coaching position as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Temple University in 2015, Ochal’s freshman eight boat placed first at the 2015 Navy Day Regatta.

Now, as a part of the Crimson, she is ready to bring all of her previous experiences to the team to have the most successful season possible.

“What I want to bring to this team is just that high-performance environment, setting them up for success in every way we can and helping them navigate the challenges that rowing at this level throws at you,” Ochal said.

Ochal also acknowledges that success comes not only from facilitating a high-performance environment but a supportive atmosphere as well. “Trying to bring that supportive atmosphere, while also creating a high-performance environment, is what I'm looking to [to] help these women have and achieve in,” she explained.

Nevertheless, this balance between support and high performance is not simple. “Trying to be able to get to know the women on the team and support them in such a short amount of time, that's a challenge, right? Trust isn't built overnight,” Ochal admitted.

Ochal takes the role of getting to know each of her athletes very seriously. As the new coach on a team that has previously had the same head coach for 37 years, there are going to be a lot of things that both Ochal and the athletes have to learn from one another.

“We've done some things that they're like, ‘We've never done this before,’” Ochal explained. “And I'm just having people who are willing to not only do that but do that with their best effort and a smile on their face — that's a huge, huge thing to have.”

Ochal’s deliberate focus on creating a supportive environment does not go unnoticed. “[Ochal] has really fostered a sense of [community where] you can come to her with anything,” senior captain Heidi Jacobson explains. “I think that's really helped, at least me, coming into this year, being able to talk to her about how things were run in the past and any challenges that might come up. We can just talk through it.”

Ochal clearly understands what makes a team so special. It is about more than winning every race and setting new records but also about creating a strong community that will leave a life-long impact on each athlete.

Ochal felt this happen with her own past experiences rowing at Boston University. “Being involved in teams and being on teams has been probably the best thing that's ever happened to me as a person,” Ochal reflected.

With the Head of the Charles approaching rapidly, Ochal and the rest of the team are excited and ready to bring it their all.

“Having rowed at BU and been the starting line to head at the Charles, I remember how much fun it is to be a crew that's on the river,” Ochal said. “It's your home river, it's the place that you row every single day, and then all these crews from around the world come in and take over the scene.”

Spanning the entire weekend from October 20-22, the Head of the Charles draws in rowers from all over the world to compete in the historic regatta.

“A lot of the time, we're out there and no one knows we're out there because they're still sleeping in the morning,” Ochal pointed out. “They don't see all the work that these women put in.”

This coming weekend, however, all of Harvard rowing’s hard work will be put on display as they race down their river with local and international teams alike.

Ochal and the Crimson are prepared and excited for the big weekend — knowing also that it's just the beginning. After all, the team is excited to dominate not only at Head of the Charles but throughout the rest of this season’s races as well.

“The main thing that I've noticed coming in is that everybody wants to be the best at what they do. Everybody wants to work really hard and they bring a lot of fun to it,” Ochal noted. “Having a group of women who are just extremely excited about the future is something that's really, really special. I do not take that for granted at all.”

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Women's CrewSports FeaturesHead of the Charles 2023