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Harvard Rowing Finds Multiple Paths to Success at Head of the Charles Regatta

The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team heads towards the Anderson Memorial Bridge on October 19.
The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team heads towards the Anderson Memorial Bridge on October 19. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miller Y. MacDonald, Contributing Writer

The Harvard rowing teams logged multiple high-placing finishes during their biggest home regatta of the year, the Head of the Charles, marking a promising start to the 2023-24 season for the four crew programs.

The men’s heavyweight team registered two eight-man boats to compete in the Sunday championship race, coming away with the best and twelfth-best collegiate times overall. The A team’s time of 14:26.4 was beaten only by USRowing. It was just over 1.5 seconds faster than Princeton and almost 10 seconds faster than Yale, the first time the Crimson have beaten the Bulldogs at Head of the Charles in this event since 2016.

“It’s the best performance we’ve had in a few years,” said Harvard heavyweight associate coach Patrick Lapage ’12. “You’re always trying to evolve and change and… I think it’s just a good reminder that the things we’ve been doing to start the year off have been working.”

The men’s heavies also placed ninth in the club eights and seventh and 20th in the club fours.

Rain and wind created tough racing conditions on Sunday, with the top men’s championship eights time coming in at almost a minute slower than last year. Lapage said that the team wasn’t fazed by the poor weather.

“We didn’t actually make really any adjustments for it,” said Lapage. “We try to practice in both headwinds and tailwinds, so they’re used to racing in conditions that feel fast and conditions that feel slow.”

Lapage also emphasized the convenience of having the Charles River in Harvard’s backyard. “It’s obviously a bit of an advantage for us… for the coxes to be able to get a run over the course, practice their lines, practice taking the corners, that type of thing,” he noted.

The women’s heavyweight roster recorded a win in the collegiate doubles event and second place in the club fours.

The championship eights squad clocked the 24th fastest collegiate time, while the club eights finished sixth

“As a first race, I thought it was very eye opening and a good learning experience,” said Radcliffe heavyweight head coach Clair Ochal, who coached her first Head of the Charles for the Crimson after starting her head coaching tenure at the beginning of the fall.

“I don’t think we did exactly what we wanted to do at the Charles,” said Ochal, citing the championship and club eights as performances that could be improved. “But I think sometimes you learn the most from those moments, and you need to have those moments in order to move forward.”

Ochal highlighted that the weekend still contained many special moments. This year, the Head of the Charles introduced the Liz O’Leary Trophy to commemorate the career of the recently retired Radcliffe women’s heavyweights head coach. Radcliffe heavyweights Monah Javidan-Nejad ‘24 and Meredith Kent ‘24 won the trophy with their triumph in the collegiate doubles event

“That was a really special moment,” noted Ochal. “They just named this trophy after Liz and the gals on the team won it in its first year.”

The men's heavyweight rowing team rows past Harvard Business School and towards Weeks Bridge on October 19.
The men's heavyweight rowing team rows past Harvard Business School and towards Weeks Bridge on October 19. By Julian J. Giordano

The men’s and women’s lightweight boats both took gold in the lightweight eights event for the second straight year, the first time either team had repeated as champion in the event in over a decade.

“We were over the moon,” said Radcliffe lightweight co-captain Calliste Skouras.

Despite success at last year’s Head of the Charles, the spring season ended with a fifth place result at the IRA National Championships. Sunday’s win saw the Crimson triumph over Boston University, Princeton, and Georgetown, three of the four teams who bested them at nationals.

“We definitely did not believe that the win would just be handed to us,” Skouras added. Radcliffe edged out second place BU by just over 4 seconds, clocking a time of 17:15.7 over the 3.6 kilometer course.

The Radcliffe lightweights also placed fifth in the coxed 4 championship race against a strong field that included the A teams of Stanford and Wisconsin.

“You never know exactly how you’ll perform at the Charles,” said co-captain Madeline Brody. “But yeah, overall super solid team performance and everyone was excited.”

“That’s the kind of motivation you need to just keep working harder,” she added.

Men’s lightweight captain Michael Fairely said that with the success of last year’s spring campaign, where Harvard placed second at the IRA National Championships in the lightweight eights, the victory was more of an expectation than a surprise.

“Last year was a different situation because we were coming off a pretty rough year where we didn’t do so well,” said Fairely. “So it was much more of a shock.”

“This fall, we had a little more expectations coming into it,” Fairely noted, “which in some ways was a little more pressure… but it made it that much more exciting.”

Despite the victory, the Crimson is certainly not dominant over the rest of the Ivy league –– their time of 14:51.9 beat second place Cornell by less than half a second. Fairely said that he preferred the close victory. “It’s honestly a really great result… like, you won, but it’s really close.”

“It’s an extra bit of motivation that I think is really good,” Fairely added.

The Harvard lightweight squad also found success in the fours event, placing fifth and sixth with their two registered boats.

While the Crimson might have enjoyed the weekend, it now looks ahead in preparation for the spring season, when the biggest races of the year take place.

“This is so early in the season for us,” said Lapage. He emphasized that while the team celebrated the win, they had to move on quickly. “We sort of essentially congratulate them and take a day off and then get back to work, right?”

“It’s funny because the Charles is such a great race… but at the end of the day it really doesn’t mean anything towards NCAA selection,” added Ochal.

Athletes echoed the coaches’ sentiments. “Our results last year at the Charles were not necessarily indicative of our results in the spring,” said Brody. “Now we have a target on our backs so we can’t just sit. We have to go faster.”

Fairely wasn’t shy about outlining the men’s lightweight team’s goals for the spring. “Even though last year was really great, our main goal was to win [Nationals] and we fell short,” he said. “So this year is our chance to change that.”

Ochal, who has emphasized the role of the coach in building community and confidence, was optimistic but realistic about the state of the team given the recent coaching flux. “I think we’re in the early stages of building a great team,” added Ochal. “There’s gotta be a little bit of discussion between the athletes of asking each other to step up.”

Despite already looking toward the next races, both athletes and coaches alike took some time to remark on the special place Head of the Charles has in the Harvard rowing community.

“There are tons of alums coming back,” said Lapage. “It’s awesome to have all these people coming back and saying hello… your whole boathouse gets taken over, which is really cool.”

“The community of Harvard Radcliffe rowing is enormous and I think that was very much on display at the Charles,” said Ochal. “It’s such a special event to participate in.”

“People call it rowing Christmas,” Brody said. “It’s just so magical.”

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