Crew rows to multiple successes across the pond

Sports Editor
Sunday, July 19, 2009

The men’s crew team had a fantastic finish to its season on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

After placing third in the nation at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta, the freshmen eight placed second and the varsity eight won the Ladies’ Plate at the prestigious Henley Regatta in England.

“We had a few terrific races over there,” said Head Coach Paul Cooke ’89. “The freshmen did a great job, making it to the final, and the varsity rowed some terrific races to win the Ladies Plate. It was a big step for everyone, a big victory.”

It was especially sweet for the graduating seniors.

“Henley is just one of the most special rowing events in the world,” said Matt Wheeler ’09. “I couldn’t think of a better way to end my rowing experience at Brown.”

The Bears began the postseason on a roll, sweeping all five races at the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Sprints on May 10 to win the Ivy League title, before traveling to Sacramento the following month to face the best colleges in the country at IRAs.

June 6 began slowly for Brown, as the four placed second in the petite final, good for eighth overall. But all three of Brown’s eights made their grand finals, reserved for only the top six boats. The freshmen eight placed third, just 0.437 seconds behind second-place Harvard and nearly 2.6 seconds ahead of fourth-place finisher Cal. The second varsity eight took the silver and the varsity eight placed fourth, less than 2.3 seconds off the medal stand.

Brown’s 174 points were good for third, just four points behind runner-up Cal. The University of Washington won the national championship with 198 points, sweeping the eights.

“Other than Washington, I really thought we had about as good a performance as any crew,” Cooke said. “I was very proud of the effort out there; the guys raced very well. We would have liked to be closer in the varsity in the final than we were, but it was a great performance team-wide.”

Brown was one of only four crews, along with Cal, Harvard and Washington, to place all three eights in grand finals.

“That was pretty amazing,” said Rob O’Leary ’09, the varsity eight coxswain. “It really showed how strong and how deep the team was this year.”

Coming off that strong showing, the Bears traveled to England to spend the Fourth of July weekend racing a field loaded with international powers on the River Thames. The freshmen advanced to the finals of the Temple Cup before falling to Princeton.

After passing a stiff test against Leander in the semifinals on Saturday, the varsity eight advanced to the championship the following day.

“The whole finals day in Henley definitely has a unique feel to it — you’re racing in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” O’Leary said. “There’s nothing like that anywhere in America, where there are so many spectators and it’s such a high-profile event. Going into that race, everyone was really motivated. We had the whole team behind us.”

Their teammates were among the few supporters the Bears had at Henley. Brown was facing the British under-23 national team, and opinion was squarely against the Yanks.

“The shores were packed all the way down the 2000-meter course with people cheering against us, so it was very tense at the line and there was a lot riding on it,” Wheeler said.

“Going down the course, the crowd got so loud at the end we couldn’t hear our coxswain who was steering us.”

But the Bears disappointed the throngs. Pushing hard off the starting line, Brown took a small lead in the first third of the race and held on through the middle. But the current of the Thames shifted for the last third of the race.

“Coming into the last part of the race the river was against us … and the other crew sort of had an advantage coming for them, but we were able to really dig in hard and just kind of hold them,” O’Leary said. “We won by a half-length, which was a really close margin. It basically came down to a really tough, hard-fought race, just really aggressive all the way down the course.”

The victory earned Brown its fourth Ladies’ Plate, following championships in 1984, 1993 and 2000. Cooke coached the freshmen in 2000 and said both titles were special.

“The race in 2000 to win was closer,” he said. “It was just a few feet that Brown won by.”

“But actually they were very similar experiences,” Cooke added. “It was an opportunity for the varsity to race against some really good crews, and to see them win those races was gratifying, in both cases.”

It was an unforgettable way for the seniors to end their Brown careers.

“It was definitely great to finish with such a big win,” O’Leary said. “Personally, (it’s) hard to come off such a big win and have to be done with the sport now. But (it was) definitely the most memorable experience I’ll have here at Brown.”

Two Brown rowers are not done yet for the summer. Wheeler and Scott Morgan ’10 will travel to the Czech Republic to represent the United States at the 2009 World Rowing Under 23 Championships starting on July 23.

The rest of the Bears will soon turn their attention to next year. Cooke said he was unsure that the success would carry over, but he knows that the foundation is strong.

“Every year is a new year,” he said. “It will be interesting and different. It will depend on the leadership of the guys and an understanding of what they want to do so that they have another good year. We certainly have some depth with the people returning, and we’re excited about the coming year.”

Wheeler believes his former teammates will go far.

“There are a lot of great leaders on this team right now,” he said. “I feel like I’m graduating with the team in extremely good hands and a really committed coaching staff. I know the guys are going to get right back to work next year and aim for the national championship.”