By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA rowing championships start Friday on Eagle Creek Park Lake in Indianapolis, where 22 schools, including the University of Virginia, will compete for the team title.
To be crowned NCAA champion, as UVa has been twice (2010 and ’12), a school must fare well in the marquee race, the Varsity Eight, whose winner is awarded 66 points.
Two other races are held at the NCAA regatta — the Second Varsity Eight and the Varsity Four — but their winners receive 44 and 22 points, respectively.
When the NCAA revealed the 22-team field May 20, it also announced the seeds in each race. Virginia was seeded No. 4 in the Second Varsity Eight and No. 2 in the Varsity Four, to the surprise of no one in head coach Kevin Sauer‘s program.
In the Varsity Eight, however, the Cavaliers were seeded No. 7. The news stunned Sauer’s rowers, Fiona Schlesinger among them.
“Seventh,” Schlesinger, a member of the Varsity Eight, said this week when asked how she reacted to the news. “That’s where people think we are. We take it on our back, and we have some things to prove.”
The Wahoos have finished sixth or better overall at the NCAAs in each of the past seven seasons. When Virginia won the team title in 2010, its Varsity Eight placed second. In 2012, the Cavaliers’ top boat finished first.
“It is what it is,” Sauer said of the Varsity Eight’s seed this year. “It doesn’t matter in the end of it all, but I think they felt like, `Wow, we thought we might get a little higher seed than that.’ But in the end you go race on the water. It doesn’t really matter.”
Schlesinger agreed. “We’re not backing down,” she said.
Had the boat performed better at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, April 19 near Ann Arbor, Mich., its seed undoubtedly would be higher. But the Varsity Eight lost twice that day, first to Michigan (by less than two seconds) and then to Ohio State (by more than four seconds).
“That was a big weekend,” Schlesinger said. “You can’t deny it, and I feel like every single one of us would like to re-race that. But we accept that’s where we’re put, and we work from there. And that’s not just our boat. That’s across all three boats.”
A native of England, Schlesinger plans to return home to Surrey after the NCAA championships. She’ll work part time for lululemon, an athletic apparel company, while training with England’s national team.
Schlesinger graduated May 18 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. Among those who watched her walk the Lawn were her parents, her brother and her godparents.
“I was so happy,” Schlesinger said, “because graduation is such a different event from England to America. I really wanted everyone to experience it, especially because the UVa traditions are really exciting.”
She did not grow up dreaming of rowing for UVa. In fact, Schlesinger said, she knew nothing about the University before she began considering her college options.
Another English rower, Michelle Vezie, was on the team at Stanford, “and she told me top five schools that she raced,” Schlesinger recalled. “UVa was one I’d never heard of. So I went on to Google, saw some pictures, and the University looked very good.”
So she contacted Sauer, who invited Schlesinger to visit UVa.
“It’s great to get those kind of emails,” Sauer said, “from a kid like that who’s been awesome here and rowed in the Varsity Eight all four years.”
Virginia was the only school Schlesinger visited. She was confident the University had everything she wanted as an athlete and a student, and time has proven her correct.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Schlesinger said. “I found what I wanted to find: amazing facilities, amazing people, and I’ve had an amazing education at a university that I knew very little about.
“And I’ve met the most amazing people. When you first arrive and you meet the team, you think, `Oh, wow, everyone’s so nice. What a great show.’ But, no, that’s what everyone is like, and that’s definitely what I appreciate … And I just loved how every single person at the University wants you to succeed.”
In a program that began competing at the varsity level in the fall of 1995, Schlesinger is one of only six women to have rowed on the Varsity Eight for four years.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “I’m not going to sit and think about it until afterwards, but I’m a bit like, `Oh, wow, that is a big achievement.’ But right now we’ve got something bigger, and I feel like going into the [NCAA] championship that that’s far bigger than any single achievement from any one girl.”
Schlesinger doesn’t post elite scores on the ergometer, which measures work output on indoor rowing machines, but “she’s a racer, and she knows how to move a boat,” Sauer said.
“In England they learn to scull first. They’re in singles, so it’s like, `OK, this doesn’t move a boat? This does.’ You’re not hidden in an eight somewhere and trying to figure it out. She’s always known how to move a boat pretty well, and she’s just getting better and better and better.”
Her team has improved, too, as the NCAA regatta has drawn nearer. In their most recent competition, the `Hoos, ranked fourth nationally, swept all four races at the ACC championships May 17 — the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight, Varsity Four and Third Varsity Eight — to win their fifth consecutive conference title and 14th in 15 seasons.
“I thought everybody rowed pretty well,” Sauer said. “In general to win all four races like that, by open water, with increased competition in the league from Notre Dame and Syracuse, was pretty pleasing. But it didn’t mean that we thought that we’d arrived, either. So we came back and mixed things up a little bit. [The lineups] ended up being pretty close to what it was at ACCs, but we needed to look and see if there was more that could be done.”
Now comes the final test. In 2013, also in Indianapolis, Ohio State captured the NCAA team title, and California was runner-up. Virginia finished fifth.
“I thought it was pretty wide open last year, and it may be even more wide open this year,” Sauer said. “There’s just so many talented teams: Ohio State, Stanford, Brown, Cal, Washington, ourselves, Princeton, Michigan.
“It’s just crazy. There’s just a lot of different teams out there that could win, if all the stars line up, and you need a little bit of luck.”
Sauer considers the `Hoos championship contenders. “I really do,” he said. “It’s going to take everything we have in every boat, from every person, and every coach, but I think we have what it takes to do it. ”
Live results and video streaming links from Indy will be available through VirginiaSports.com. The NCAA championships begin Friday morning and run through Sunday. The scoring breakdown for each race is as follows:
* VARSITY EIGHT — 66 points for first place, 63 for second, 60 for third, 57 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth three points.
* SECOND VARSITY EIGHT — 44 points for first, 42 for second, 40 for third, 38 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth two points.
* VARSITY FOUR — 22 points for first, 21 for second, 20 for third, 19 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth one point.