Champions and heartache

Crew is not a sport where Gatorade is typically dumped on the coach, although women's varsity coach Jan Harville had a bath of the sports drink after her boats' victories yesterday.

But not everyone walked off the dock sharing the same blissful experience of winning.

Of Washington's eight boats that took to the water this weekend, four won and four lost, and despite the bronze medals the Huskies accumulated, this team seems to know only one slogan -- national championship or bust.

The men's freshman eight and varsity four grabbed the gold, as did the women's varsity and junior varsity eights, and the Huskies completed another trophy-filled season that began while the UW community was still basking in the sun of last summer.

The yearlong grind of morning practice workouts that burn a full day's calorie intake before the rest of us reach for our cereal bowls ended in 2,000 meters of struggle this weekend. The IRA Championships and NCAA championships are the end-of-season regattas for the men and women's teams, respectively. They are their game seven, bottom of the ninth or fourth quarter.

But they only get one shot at it, and there is no tomorrow.

"We've worked nine months for this one race, it's almost like our child," said freshman eight two-seat John Heylin. "We conceived this race. This was (coach) Fred Honebein's child and it was born as we crossed the finish line."

Nine months of training is like climbing Mount Everest. For the Husky rowers who made the trek, some stood atop the highest peak and held their hands to the sky, while others stared stunned as close as inches from the summit.

Washington's women's varsity eight and junior varsity eight made it to that peak, and the Huskies won both the limelight races for the first time since 1987. Despite their mastery of high-profile races, the Huskies could not secure the team title after losing to Brown by four points yesterday afternoon. Women's crew is a NCAA-sanctioned sport, so they crown a team champion while men's crew does not.

Make no mistake though; Washington prefers the wins on the water.

"I probably wouldn't change positions with them (Brown)," Harville said. "They may go home with the trophy, but I'm not going to trade two wins for that."

Brown won the varsity four, giving them 12 points towards a team title, while the Huskies finished fourth in the petite four and did not reach the grand final in the varsity four. The deficit was insurmountable at that point, but to the Huskies those were just numbers on paper, which have nothing to do with the heart and soul of racing.

The varsity eight had another 2,000 meters of heaven, leading the whole way and finishing a boat-length ahead of Brown at 6:36.41. The junior varsity needed a boost from their sprint to win, charging into their high-rate finish with 750 meters to go. The early sprint is a risk because it can leave the rowers out of breath 50 meters before the finish line if the whole boat is not conditioned well enough.

Washington passed Brown and Virginia and finished in 6:46.39, making up an entire boat length and stealing the individual title like a pickpocket.

The wins mean the varsity and junior varsity were perfect this year. Neither lost a single race, and while you might expect the junior varsity to have animosity towards their varsity teammates, these two boats never sunk to that level. They practiced closely with one another, and rowers moved between the boats whenever their coach asked them to without a sour attitude.

Now the two boats are the best in the country, and teammates from each boat began bickering for the first time -- over the design of their national championship rings while they flew home from Indianapolis.

"I was walking around asking people to pinch me to see if I was dreaming," said senior captain and junior varsity stroke Jenni Vesnaver.

For the men's team, the grand final of the IRA Championships in Camden, N.J., Saturday was part dream, part nightmare.

The Huskies left nothing to speculation. They felt every boat could win a national championship, and it was clear nobody wearing the purple W would be racing for second place.

The varsity four raced like its hair was on fire, pulverizing the hallowed shores of the Cooper River. It set a new course record with a time of 6:17.38, besting the old record by 12 seconds.

"By 500 meters, we were up on all the crews and we kept moving away," said senior Andy Altman. "We didn't settle for one seat. Every time we got a seat, we would take another. We kept taking more."

The boat took such an incredible lead their coxswain almost fainted trying to explain her own joy.

"I can't explain it, there's no words," said coxswain Melissa Wengard. "I've never wanted to be dumped in the lake more."

The unfortunate thing about these championship regattas is seeing the contrast -- as one Husky jumps for joy and is tossed in the water, another wallows in disappointment.

"It's horrible, this wasn't the way it was supposed to go," said senior Chris Hawkins of the varsity eight's bronze medal performance. "Maybe in the future, with some hindsight, I'll be able to look back on it with a bit more gracious attitude. But right now it's tough to be so close."

It made it worse that Cal did it to them.

The Bears won the grand final, taking their fourth-straight piece of varsity-eight hardware back to Berkeley, after recording a time of 5:26.81. When the Huskies fell behind, they made moves early that sapped a lot of their energy in an attempt to stay in the race with Cal. In the end, Washington was overtaken for second-place by a Wisconsin crew that the UW beat in its dual meet in Seattle.

It's like the movie Tin Cup. The Huskies did not take par and play for second-place. They took the risk, hit the drive and went for the green and this time Wisconsin made them pay.

"I think it's distracting when you are fighting to win the race and when you discover in the last third of the race that you're not, then you can get picked off by someone that maybe you would normally beat," said varsity coach Bob Ernst. "I'm not taking anything away from Wisconsin, they deserve the silver medals. But we were here to try and win this race today and we didn't."

The junior varsity experienced the same terrible feeling deep in their stomach. They fell behind by a boat length 500 meters in, and chased Cal the rest of the way, earning back seconds in the middle part of the race. Near the finish line, they battled with Cornell, the same boat they lost by a whisker's length to in the preliminary heat. The Huskies found the short end of the oar this time, losing by 0.21 seconds.

Saturday was not Washington's day, but the races revealed something more about the direction of the program. For the second consecutive year, the Huskies won the frosh eight title.

They cruised the course in 5:39.6 and finished the season as the men's crew's only heavyweight boat to be undefeated, marking the second straight season for the frosh eight to do so.

"That's where it all starts," Ernst said. "It's all about recruiting and training good athletes, and he (Honebein) is doing well. That bodes well for the varsity program next year."

The program is bigger than any one race. To win national championships, you have to build each year until you have a boat full of seniors who have won in the frosh and junior varsity boats. Washington is doing that, and that's a recipe for a bright future.

Then maybe they can all celebrate together, and pour Gatorade on every coach.

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