The thousand-plus fans lining the shore of Lake Natoma expected no contest. All season long, the Oakland Strokes Women's Varsity 8+ had been the fastest high school boat in the nation.
The previous fall Oakland had won the prestigious Head of The Charles, eclipsing its nemesis Marin Rowing by more than eight seconds. Oakland trounced Marin twice more during the season, and then at the San Diego Crew Classic, the nation's biggest spring regatta, Marin pulled even with the Strokes half way through race, only to fade to third. Marin, the reigning national champion, was struggling to find its form.
The Southwest Regional Championships this weekend near Sacramento were shaping up as another Strokes cakewalk. In the Women's Varsity 8+ final -- a 2,000-meter contest -- Oakland quickly established half a boat length on Marin. By the 500-meter mark it was bow to stern.
On the shore in the tent with the video feed, Oakland Strokes fans cheered. But then something unexpected happened. Thirty seconds later, Marin won back a seat, then another. The Oakland fans grew quiet. Just after the mid-point, Oakland and Marin were neck and neck. The dueling boats hit the final stretch where swirling gusts topped 25 miles an hour. Marin inched ahead. All day long races had been won and lost here.
Into the wind, the Marin oarswomen dug deeper -- Sophie Rosenoer, Bridget Konttinen, Elizabeth Littman, Camille Kisseberth, Logan Harris, Charlotte Passot, Marlena Morshead and Megan Oechsel. Coxswain LuRay Joy drove them on and the inches grew to a seat lead, then two. A few hundred meters from the finish, Oakland was nearly half a boat down.
But it was far from over. Out in the white-capped water Oakland began to reel in Marin. With 300 hundred meters left Marin 's lead narrowed to only three seats. At a hundred meters just two seats separated victory and defeat. Oakland was gaining.
Hundreds of fans screamed as the two sleek long shells slid past the finish line. There was no word from officials for a few anxious minutes as they reviewed the video. The Marin and Oakland teams slowly spun their boats and headed back to shore, and then as the Marin girls saw their coach, Sandy Armstrong, hold up a single finger, they shot their arms up into the air and screamed.
Half a second had been the margin of victory.
Five minutes later the Marin girls tossed their coxswain in the lake for a bracing celebration. By the shore, the Oakland Strokes girls watched the scene, and then congratulated the Marin girls, sharing hugs and hand shakes.
The following day many of the same girls faced off again in the Varsity 4+ final. Oakland again was the favorite, notching the fastest time in the heats, while Marin could do no better than the third best time.
The temperatures soared into the high 80s for the final, Oakland confidently grabbing nearly a boat length lead by the 500-meter mark. Marin had started poorly and was still fighting for second, behind its B boat. But somewhere near the midpoint, coxswain LuRay Joy upped the stroke rate and Marlena Morshead, Elizabeth Littman, Logan Harris and Charlotte Passot responded.
Three hundred meters later Marin had a few seats on Oakland, and never looked back, cruising to gold by a comfortable four seconds
Five weeks from now the two Bay Area Women's 8+ squads, the top ranked high school girls' programs in the nation, will likely meet at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in Oak Ridge Tennessee.
It's going to be one heck of a battle.
Jonathan Littman is the founder of Snowball Narrative, author of The Beautiful Game and co-author of the Art of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation