By Jeff White
WEST WINDSOR, N.J. — Their work complete and their race won, the nine members of the fastest boat in women’s college rowing were taking the equivalent of a victory lap Sunday afternoon, soaking in the cheers from the throng of fans gathered on the nearby shore, when they found their progress back to the dock halted.
Their teammates had charged into Mercer Lake to meet the conquering heroes, whose victory in the regatta’s last race, the grand final of the Varsity Eight, clinched the University of Virginia’s second NCAA rowing title in three seasons.
Soon virtually everyone associated with UVa’s program was splashing around in the water, from head coach Kevin Sauer on down, and everywhere there were hugs and tears and smiles. Even Virginia’s director of athletics, Craig Littlepage, for whom the Varsity Eight’s boat had been named last month, got wet.
The P.A. announcer marveled at the raucous scene, saying she’d never seen anything like it in the United States.
“That was total ad-lib,” Sauer later said of the celebration. “I probably would have nixed that if I had known that was going to happen, because we try to stay pretty humble and hungry around here. But it was spontaneous. They couldn’t help themselves. They had to row by us after the finish anyway, so the kids jumped in the water, their teammates, and then [the Varsity Eight] jumped in. It was pretty cool.”
In their first 16 seasons under Sauer, who guided the program from club to varsity status in the mid ’90s, the Wahoos had been crowned NCAA champions in the Varsity Four four times (2004, ’05, ’07, ’10) and the Second Varsity Eight thrice (1998, ’99, 2005). Not until Sunday, however, had UVa won the Varsity Eight, the marquee race at the NCAA championships.
Heading into the Varsity Eight on Sunday, UVa stood third in the team standings, with 39 points, behind Ohio State (46) and California (42). Close behind Virginia were Princeton (38) and Michigan (37).
The ‘Hoos had earned 15 points for finishing second in the Varsity Four and 24 for placing fifth in the Second Varsity Eight. The winner of the Varsity Eight would get 48 points, the runner-up 45, the third-place boat 42, and so on.
Ohio State wasn’t a concern for UVa. The Buckeyes had failed to qualify for the Varsity Eight’s grand final — the top six boats — and so were all but eliminated from the NCAA title hunt. But if the Cavaliers finished behind Cal or Princeton or Michigan in the final race, the NCAA championship would not return to Charlottesville this year.
“I think it’s great that it came down to the Varsity Eight,” Sauer said. “That’s what it’s all about.
“Obviously teams have won [the NCAA title] — we won in 2010 — without winning the Varsity Eight. I’ll take the team title. This is really special. But to be able to win the team title, we had to win the Varsity Eight, and it was up to them, and it was on their broad shoulders, and they did it … All year they’ve done it, and they did it again.”
Before the race, Sauer’s message to the Varsity Eight was straightforward.
“I said, ‘You do what you’re capable of, and you’ll win this race. No doubt in my mind. Zero doubt,’ ” Sauer recalled.
“I said, ‘Just be patient. Do what you do and be patient, and you’ll start moving away,’ and the second 1,000 [meters], that’s what they did, and it was awesome.”
The Cavaliers won the 2,000-meter race in 6:18.72, finishing nearly a full boat length ahead of the Wolverines.
UVa’s top boat consisted of senior coxswain Sidney Thorsten and eight rowers: seniors Keziah Beall, Martha Kuzzy, and Sarah Cowburn; juniors Kristine O’Brien and Susanne Grainger; sophomores Fiona Schlesinger and Carli Goldberg; and freshman Hemingway Benton.
Michigan took an early lead in the Varsity Eight grand final, but UVa didn’t panic. The Cavaliers had beaten Michigan in this event by nearly eight seconds April 28 in Columbus, Ohio, and that gave them confidence Sunday.
“We knew that we just had to go out and do what we’re capable of,” Cowburn said.
A graduate student from England, Cowburn enrolled at UVa last summer and quickly earned a spot on the Varsity Eight. She has competed in the world championships for Great Britain, so she’s accustomed to success in this sport. Still, Cowburn said, her first year at Virginia was unforgettable, and not only because of the impromptu celebration that followed the final race.
“I can’t say I’ve ever jumped in a lake before,” Cowburn said, smiling. “That was big. It’s pretty special coming in and the whole team being there.”
Ultimately, though, what made the NCAA title so special “is that you’re there with these girls every single day,” Cowburn said. “You get up every single day with them. You go down to practice. You sweat every day with them, and you share the experience through the whole year. And so everyone this year has just been on the same page and everyone has just been striving towards winning the championship, and it’s not like empty words. Everyone knew that we had the capability and we had the belief that we could do it. It’s just been really inspirational to be a part of, and I think it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s just incredible today.”
For Kuzzy, this was her third year in the Varsity Eight, which finished second at the NCAAs in 2010 and seventh in 2011.
The NCAA team title “is ultimately the most important thing,” Kuzzy said, “but to win that too, the Varsity Eight, it’s something we’ve never done before, and it made it that much more incredible.”
Beall was a member of UVa’s Second Varsity Eight in 2010. But she came down with mono that spring and missed the NCAAs.
To see the ‘Hoos win the NCAA title that year “was a very inspiring and moving moment,” Beall recalled Sunday, but it was bittersweet, too, because she was a spectator. “So this is really, really satisfying to come back and do this again and be a part of it this time.”
The grand final of the Varsity Eight was scheduled to start at 12:05 p.m. Sunday, but a late-morning thunderstorm forced NCAA officials to suspend racing for about an hour. That simply postponed what was always going to be a dramatic conclusion to these NCAA championships.
“We knew no matter what it was going to come down to the Varsity Eight, because there are so many good teams here,” Sauer said.
“Michigan had a great regatta as well. Their 2V is just unbelievable, and then their Varsity just threw everything in the world at us, and we were able to respond. And then Cal had a great regatta as well, and Princeton, so it’s just really cool to be able to walk away with this thing.”
A videoboard set up near the finish line showed each race as it unfolded, and that’s where most fans assembled Sunday. Over the P.A. came periodic updates.
During the final race, Sauer said, “I was at the finish line the whole time. I was walking around like an expectant father most of the time, but I was there. I just couldn’t watch some times, couldn’t listen some times … But then as they started to really settle into something and really started to go, it got pretty exciting.”
With several hundred meters to go, it was clear that UVa, barring a disastrous turn of events, would win the Varsity Eight. For Bell, the final stretch “kind of floated by. I visualized that moment so many times, crossing the line.”
On shore, Sauer sprinted past the finish line and down a path in the woods, from which he yelled congratulations to the Varsity Eight, whose members had their arms raised in triumph. On his way back, Sauer ran into associate head coach Steve Pritzker, and they embraced.
After the thunderstorm moved on, the sun had finally come out at the lake, and the afternoon became uncomfortably hot and humid. The ‘Hoos didn’t mind. On the stage set up for the awards ceremony, the team belted out as rousing a version of the Good Ol’ Song as you could ever hope to hear.
All hail the champions.
“I just had two grandchildren in the last 11 months,” Sauer said. “That’s more special than this, but this is pretty cool, you know?”