HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England - The Washington men's varsity 8+ capped an undefeated season with a gutsy effort against a stacked British National team eight in the final of the most prestigious event of rowing's most historic regatta, the Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. Ultimately, Washington would match the previous course record, set by the German National Team, but it would not be enough to catch the determined British squad of Olympic medalists, rowing as Leander Club and Molesey Boat Club, who held off the charging young Washington boat to set a new course record of their own in front of their hometown crowd.
It is a testament to this Husky crew's character that they entered the Grand Challenge, an event usually reserved for National Teams, and put up such a impressive challenge against Britain's best eight. This is no small feat. Britain's rowing squad was the best sweep team at the Olympics last summer, and their line-up at Henley was essentially a who's who all-star line-up of British oarsmen.
In making it to the final, the Huskies had already pulled off an upset the day before defeating the Polish National Team (racing as Wojskowy Klub Sportowy Zawisza and Regionalne Towarzystwo Wioslarskie Lotto). The Polish boat was composed of the same rowers - albeit in a different line-up - who placed seventh at the Olympics last summer. It was also the crew that earned silver at rowing's World Cup two weeks ago, narrowly losing to Great Britain's 8+ by half a second.
For Great Britain, a nation who's 8+ had taken Olympic bronze last summer, the narrow win was not enough. In the two weeks since winning the World Cup, they sought to make their eight even faster for Henley. Britain's 8+ would not only include members of last summer's Olympic bronze winning 8+, but also a member of the bronze medal winning pair, and three members of the Olympic Gold winning four. In short, the team's line-up for Henley sent a clear signal to the international rowing world: Great Britain was putting her nation's best oarsmen in the eight.
This was the loaded British crew that Washington lined up against at Henley, and by staying within a length of the Olympic champions and medalists, U.W.'s collegiate crew garnered incredible respect from the crowd and commentators, who declared Washington "the finest collegiate rowing program in the world." Britain's legendary oarsman Sir Mathew Pinsent praised Washington's "punchy" choice to take on the Grand Challenge.
Though Washington will not come home as Grand Challenge winners, they are not hanging their heads. "I am proud," said head coach Michael Callahan. "These guys set out to do something special and they have. They wanted to know how fast they could go and it took racing the world's best to find out. I am incredibly proud of their choice to take on this challenge."
Washington's six-seat Conlin McCabe echoed Callahan, "I think a lot of people are interested to know how fast international eights are relative to collegiate eights and we are willing to find out."
Washington's 8+ featured six seniors. For five of them, this was their first loss in their entire collegiate racing career at Washington, an impressive record. It seems fitting that this crew would want to finish by seeking big challenges rather than resting on their laurels (and they have plenty).
"I'm glad we get to end on a bang at Henley, taking on the Grand Challenge," said senior captain Alexander Bunkers.
"This crew has embraced every challenge they've had," said Callahan, "It has been a thrill to watch them race here. They have made their mark on Washington, Henley, and international rowing."
Notes: No collegiate team has won the Grand Challenge since 1985, and the last Husky crew to win did so thirty-six years ago in 1977 ... on Saturday, Washington's second varsity eight was defeated in the semi-final of the Ladies Plate by the event's eventual winner, another entry from Leander Club and Molesey Boat Club. The Leander boat had recently raced as the British national team's second eight and earned a fourth place finish at the World Cup two weeks earlier ... Great Britain is coached by Jurgen Grobler, who has won medals in the last eleven Olympics, a streak running from 1972-2012.Boat Lineup (Grand Challenge Cup)
Cox - Seamus Labrum (Cape May, N.J.), stroke - Alexander Perkins (Westport, Conn.), 7 - Henry Meek (Melbourne, Australia), 6 - Conlin McCabe (Brockville, Ontario), 5 - Mijo Rudelj (Kastel Ctafilic, Croatia), 4 - Marcus Bowyer (South Mooreland, U.K.), 3 - Sam Dommer (Folsom, Calif.), 2 - Ryan Schroeder (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), bow - Alex Bunkers (Maitland, Fla.).