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Jonathan Littman

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The Perfect Row

Posted: 06/17/11 01:53 PM ET

Three Marin County, CA rowing teams traveled to sweltering Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the June 10th to June 12th U.S. National Junior Championships. They had an outrageous goal: three boats, three national championships.

Coach Sandy Armstrong's women's varsity 8+ boat was coming off a great season, with a second place finish in October at the prestigious Head of the Charles in Cambridge, MA, and a victory at the Southwest Regional Championships this May. But the team of junior women from the northern California Marin Rowing club had been soundly beaten by the powerhouse Connecticut Boat Club of Norwalk in April at the San Diego Crew Classic.

The Marin Rowing men's varsity teams had a different challenge. Last fall starting in 69th position at the Head of the Charles, they had pulled off a miraculous victory, and all season long the varsity men's eight and varsity men's lightweight eight had turned in stunning performances. But half the Marin lightweight boat had been manned by the club's trim heavyweight rowers. For the National Championships several novice rowers (and one novice coxswain) would have to step into their seats to fill out the lightweight boat.

There was another hurdle. No U.S. junior team in history had ever won the Head of the Charles and the National Championship in the same season. And last year Marin's eight and lightweight eight had both been narrowly defeated at the National Championships. Men's coach Graham Willoughby's boats had won five silvers at the nationals, but he'd never taken gold.

The weather was especially daunting for Marin's teams. Training and racing all year in mild Northern California weather, they had not contested a single race that season in temperatures above the low 70s. Temperatures at the Melton Hill Lake Tennessee course were expected to hit the 90s.

The women's eight had tough news before they even arrived in Tennessee, having drawn the hardest possible of the four heats. They would have to beat Connecticut to pass directly to the semifinal. No team had beaten Connecticut in two years, the elite Eastern squad amassing an amazing string of 30 straight victories. The heat was scheduled at 4:27 p.m., the temperature a blazing 94 degrees. Marin started slowly, slipping a few seats back at 500 meters, and then Connecticut walked away with the race, finishing 2 seconds ahead.

"We went out there to beat them," said Marlena Morshead, rowing in bow seat. "That was our job and we didn't do it."

Though Marin had the second fastest time of all the 24 boats, the team would have to row an extra race (what's called the "repechage") to make the semifinal the next evening. Shortly after noon on Saturday, Marin cruised easily to victory in the Repechage, earning its way back into the competition. The semifinal, set for just before 7 p.m. that same steamy day, would be tough. Only the top three in each semi would make the final. Three of the nation's fastest boats were stacked up in Marin's semifinal, including its nemesis, Connecticut.

Caitlin Byrnes, rowing in 4 seat, said there was some tension in the boat after losing the first heat. But in the semifinal Marin got a better start, stayed even with Connecticut and then cruised to an easy second place finish, roughly four seconds back of the Eastern powerhouse. The mood changed. "Everybody felt very confident," said Byrnes. "Sophie Rosenoer (stroke seat) came up to me and said, 'We're going to win.'"

Coxswain Naomi Cornman was working on a race plan for the final: "I found out where Connecticut's moves were. Where they picked up their stroke rate."

Before heading to the lake on Sunday, the day of the final, assistant Marin coach James Long-Lerno, who had rowed in the Cal varsity 8+ that upset the University of Washington in the 2010 national championships, told the team: "All bets are off when the race starts. That's when you find out who you really are."

On the short drive to the racecourse, the women listened to Al Pacino's rousing "Inch-by-Inch" speech from Any Given Sunday -- Sophie Rosenoer, Elizabeth Littman, Maddie Wolf, Charlotte Passot, Caitlin Byrnes, Logan Harris, Camille Kisseberth, Marlena Morshead and coxswain Naomi Cornman.

The final was scheduled for 2:07 in the 92-degree heat. Marin was the last boat in its final to launch. "There was no extra chatting in the boat," said Cornman. "There wasn't a lot of time. We went through drills that help us on catches and rhythm. We kept passing bottles of water around."

As the women eased down toward the start, next to them on the racecourse the first act in the Marin drama was unfolding. The team's lightweight men's 8+ had its own hurdles going into the championship. Four men had been hovering at the maximum weight of 160 lbs all weekend, and had to survive on salads instead of carb-loading pasta. The nine men had also never raced together, having only been united for four weeks. But this remarkably young squad with five novice rowers and a freshman coxswain were pulling off a shocking feat. At 1000 meters the men already had a bow to stern lead. They won easily in 6:12.62, nearly five seconds ahead of the next boat.

One race down, one gold medal for Marin, and the young crew of Michael Brewer, Cooper Goldman, Julian Goldman, Elliott Gutekunst, Jamie Naso, Oliver Bazalgette, Tavish Traut, Daniel Nagler, and coxswain Riley Overfield. Patrick Schulkers had just coached his first national championship.

Down near the start line, the Marin women made the turn to maneuver into place. One of the rowers threw up on port side, then starboard. Byrnes reassured her teammates: "She's going to feel fine."

They eased their stern into the starting dock in lane five, the second boat in. With just seven minutes to go, Cornman knew there was time to practice their start but decided they were more than ready. She had them check and recheck the nuts and bolts on their riggers.

"Breathe, relax," she kept repeating to the crew. "Breathe, relax."

Byrnes thought of her teammates. "I went down everyone in the boat," she said. "I had faith in every single person."

Then a headwind started to pick up, pushing Marin's bow off center, the women having to "scull" it around to keep the boat aligned. So many coxswains were raising their hands to show that they weren't ready to race that the officials decided to go to a countdown start.

The starter polled each boat, and then it was like a NASA liftoff.

"5"
"4"
"3"
"2"
"1"

"Attention," said the starter, raising his red and white flag.

"Go!" he yelled, dropping the flag.

Marin's start was explosive, the boat surging through the water with tremendous power and swing. At 500 meters, they had a few seats on the field, soon stretching it to half a boat length. Byrnes had never felt that before. "That move was possessed. I don't even know where the power came from."

When Cornman told them they had got seats on Connecticut, Charlotte Passot (5 seat) figured they were four down -- not four up. Then she squinted out of the corner of her eye and saw that they were up on Connecticut. She thought to herself: "No one's going to take this from us."

James Madison High of Vienna, Virginia was in second, Connecticut in third. With just 400 meters left, James Madison and Connecticut were sprinting. With just 250 meters to go, James Madison was less than a length back.

"This isn't supposed to happen," Cornman told the crew. "Let's make history."

James Madison and Connecticut were trying to walk back on Marin, and then Cornman called out the last ten strokes.

Marin crossed the line at 6:48.17, in first place. Arms shot up in the air. The women splashed each other.

"It felt so good," said Byrnes. "We were expecting to be throwing up. No one fell over. It was great!"

James Madison finished second, Connecticut third.

Coach Sandy Armstrong had just steered another Marin women's varsity eight to a national championship -- her third in four years.

The women rowed back to a riotous scene at the dock, cheered by other teams, fans and parents.

The afternoon was not done. Out on the racecourse, the Marin varsity men's eight was readying for the final race of the three-day championship. They had come up achingly short last year. Now, after a well-executed semifinal, they knew they had the capability to win. But they had no idea what might happen in the final. The bow seat had fallen ill with a 102-degree fever upon arriving in Oak Ridge. Given the soaring temperatures on the course, Coach Willoughby was concerned. Fortunately the stoic rower, despite fever and chills, was ready to step up to the challenge.

Zander Bonorris, Griffin Whitlock, Scott Roycroft, Patrick Konttinen, Peter Woolley, Sam Seder, Scott Kennedy, Greig Stein and coxswain Harry Blatt backed the varsity 8+ boat into lane 4, ready for anything another crew might throw at them.

"Attention... Go!"

The Marin men took 15 clean strokes of a flawless start, when suddenly the race was stopped. The lane 1 crew had failed to start and the officials decided to call everyone back to restart the race. It was unclear why the crew had abruptly stopped, an unusual twist in a national championship. Marin would have to gather itself.

"The boys felt really good about their first start but they had to do it all over again," said Coach Willoughby. There was also the mental factor. Teams have been known to intentionally false start to gain a psychological advantage.

The second time the starter dropped the flag, the race was on. The first 500 meters were tightly contested, with many teams jockeying for the lead. The Marin crew answered each question and steadily gained seats on the field. At the 1000 meter mark, the club's cheer could be heard reverberating across the lake. Other Southwest teams that had finished competing had gathered to cheer on the Marin men in the final race of the National Championship.

Soon Marin had open water, glorious wide-open water, the men's victorious fists thrusting jubilantly into the air as they crossed the finish. The time would have been competitive in a collegiate event -- 5:59.08, the second place boat more than seven and a half seconds back. The margin of victory was the largest in the history of the men's youth 8+ National Championship.

Coach Willoughby and the men had done what no team had ever done before, won the National Championship and Head of the Charles in the same season.

All three Marin teams would take the podium together, their photo leading U.S Rowing's website with a simple headline: "Marin Wins Three."

Sometimes the outrageous, seemingly impossible, is possible.

Jonathan Littman is the co-author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation
and founder of snowballnarrative.com.

 

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