Oct. 25, 2010
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Taking chances is nothing new to the men's crew program at the University of Washington.
Unafraid to break up the status quo, Michael Callahan acknowledged he took plenty of risks in how his team approached the Head of the Charles Regatta, which the Huskies won with a remarkable effort on the windy, 3.2 mile course outside of Boston. Throughout his tenure at the UW, Callahan has frequently pushed the envelope in regards to training habits, philosophy and the team's overall mindset.
But in leading his program to its second overall win at the celebrated event, Callahan placed a lot of trust in the eight rowers and coxswain who put forth an extraordinary effort last Sunday.
For one, Callahan brought a green coxswain, Valaree Fowler, to Boston. Common racing logic suggests a course with near 90-degree turns is not the place to test out a new coxswain, but Callahan liked how Fowler steered the varsity 8 during fall training and selection.
"You have to be so precise with your steering (at HOCR)," Callahan said. "You could row a perfect race but lose valuable seconds if you don't handle the turns properly. Bringing Valaree out here, we wanted to make sure we had a decent enough course plotted, and then enough practice to make it work."
Callahan also gleaned some knowledge by scouting the local teams during their warm-ups. Harvard, Boston University and Northeastern each use the Charles River as its home venue, and Washington was able to gain some insight into seeing how the coxswains of those teams handled the course.
But rowing at the HOCR is not just a coxswain's race. Crews often have to lean on their bow oarsmen because of the turning radiuses, and this year did not have the experience of Max Lang - who rowed bow the past three seasons for the V8 - to rely on. Instead Callahan went with junior Robert Munn, and challenged him to be physically ready to handle the course. Munn spent his summer competing with the U-23 team in Brest, Belarus, and has rowed at Charles twice during his prep career.
"I told him that you really have to lay yourself out there," Callahan said. "He was in a hard spot. He had to row with maximum effort during the turns, but then he had to have enough in reserve to maintain the rhythm of the boat when it got on the straightaway."
There was redemption for one rower in particular - Tom Lehmann. The junior from Germany rowed seven seat in the varsity 8+ last year at Charles, but caught a crab at one portion of the race. Washington dropped a substantial amount of time, but used an extraordinary effort to come within milliseconds of beating Cal as the No. 1 collegiate team. On Sunday, Lehmann rowed a technically proficient race, and drew plenty of kudos from Callahan afterward.
"I know for him it feels good to put that away," Callahan said.
There was plenty of competition among the Husky oarsmen to make the boat. Callahan let his rowers know there would be three spots open on the varsity 8, and this spurred some intra-squad jousting for the openings. In the end, Callahan tapped one experienced rower (Nenad Bulicic) that had rowed with the Huskies in the HOCR win in 2008, and one (Dusan Milovanovic) that was part of the undefeated freshman 8 last season. Milovanovic's role was important as the six seat because he had to match the power and rhythm of Mathis Jessen, the team's stroke. The Huskies used Hannes Heppner in that seat last year, but felt the big German was better suited to rowing port in the five seat.
"It wasn't perfect before we left," Callahan said. "But we made a lot of strong adjustments these past couple of days. Dusan played a huge role in this race."
The Huskies were also encouraged by a passionate alumni contingent along the banks of the Charles. Scores of Washington alums (crew and traditional graduates) emptied their lungs at the Huskies as they sped through the Eliot Bridge, propelling the team across the finish line. The motivation worked as UW trailed Harvard time-wise for much of the race, only to rebound in the final stanza.
"It definitely made a difference," Callahan said.
Despite having some time to kill in the Boston area, Washington made this trip about business. After last year's loss to Cal in the IRA Grand Final, there was plenty of impetus this summer to make a statement on the Charles River come October. But the Huskies made sure to soak in the victory, doing so in the team's ultra-competitive style.