Rowing is a sport where rankings tell the story and the winner can be predicted before the race even begins.
But the men’s rowing team rewrote the script Saturday, taking home the top trophy at the GW Invitational for the first time in the regatta’s 26-year history.
It was an upset victory over powerhouses like the U.S. Naval Academy, showing the strides the program has made over the last two years.
“It was a really good weekend of racing for us,” men’s rowing head coach Mark Davis said. “We had the best weekend we’ve ever had at the invite.”
Parents, students and tourists sat along the Potomac River for much of the four-hour event Saturday, but as boats zipped by for the last 500 meters, the spectators rose to their feet and lined the banks of the waterfront.
Perfect conditions – sunshine, fair winds and cherry blossoms – set the stage for the Colonials to prove themselves at the largest rowing competition in the D.C. area.
“I love the invitational because it’s our home race – our home water. Family, friends, teammates get to come down and see us race, and then we can kind of show ourselves off to other teams and our rivals,” said senior James Stafford of the men’s Varsity 8, the team’s top boat.
The weekend was the program’s chance to build on last year’s solid season, when the Varsity 8 boat had its best finish in program history, 15th, at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships.
After competing at the San Diego Crew Classic last weekend – with the Colonials’ No. 17-ranked Varsity 8 boat making it all the way to the Grand Finals – Davis said his team was worn out from racing and travel.
“I love the invitational because it’s our home race – our home water. Family, friends, teammates get to come down and see us race,” – senior James Stafford
But no one would have known that from the way the team performed Saturday: They lost just one of 11 races and swept all of their Day 2 races.
After finishing Day 1 in first place with 39 points, the men’s Varsity 8 started Saturday even with the Crusaders for much of the course, but were able to outlast them, pulling ahead in the final 500 meters.
“I think the Holy Cross race in particular was really tough,” Davis said. “They haven’t been in the water in a while, but Holy Cross has a lot of speed and a lot of talent, and it showed.”
An open water victory by that same Varsity 8 boat over University of California at San Diego later in the afternoon secured GW’s first-ever Carr Bowl victory.
Though the team didn’t go head-to-head with Navy – which received four votes in the recent top 20 NCAA ranking – the Colonials’ 108 total points were enough to beat the Midshipmen, who finished in second, with 93 points.
The performance showed the program’s steady growth over the past few years, with an especially strong Freshman 8 that won at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships last year. Three of those now sophomores – Robert Feeney, Connor Barley and Jordan Tewksbury-Volpe, as well as one freshman, Jonathan Gaul – are a part of the Varsity 8 boat that is finding its stride this year.
“The nice thing about that group is that while they had a pretty strong freshman year, they’ve come back and they’ve all had a pretty strong year as sophomores,” Davis said. “They haven’t just said, ‘OK, we’re done,’ they realized to make the next step at the varsity level, it’s much harder and they need to get faster and stronger, and they’re doing it.”
This year’s group of freshman was just as crucial in the victory, securing two victories on Friday over the University of Virginia, finishing a full 22 seconds ahead of the Cavaliers in the second Freshman 8 race as they crossed the finish line at a controlled 37 strokes per minute.
Women’s team can’t keep pace with Navy
The women’s team struggled on Day 2 and finished the Invitational in fifth place after Navy swept the Colonials in three races Saturday.
The Colonials won three of their four Day 1 races over conference foe Duquesne, and secured their only win Saturday in a Varsity 4 race against MIT. Navy went on to win the Howard W. Wilkens Bowl with 108 points.
Still, especially for the seniors, the regatta holds meaning and serves as one of the memorable moments from their time out on the Potomac River.
“It has always been particularly special to me,” senior Sarah Pickus said. “Rowing is not often a huge spectator sport, so it’s amazing to have an opportunity like this to finally showcase all of the hard work we’ve put in. I’m sad that it’s my last one, but I’m excited to see how this regatta will continue to grow in future years.”
Both the men’s and women’s teams return to action April 18 and 19 at the SIRA Championships on Lake Mellon in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
-Nick Ong contributed reporting.