Saturday, June 03, 2006

Wisconsin - Again!

The University of Wisconsin came out of the reps to win its third consecutive National Championship today. Facing the most talented field in the history of women's lightweight rowing, Wisconsin won the gold by 4 seconds over second place Georgetown and 8 seconds over third place Radcliffe. Princeton, UCF, and Bucknell rounded out the field.
IRA Final

Wisconsin had the race pretty well in hand after 500 meters, although it had to fend off Radcliffe most of the way until Georgetown began storming back on the field at the 1000 meter mark. Georgetown, who was rowing in fourth place for the first half of the race, seemed to catch a second wind at the halfway mark and rowed through both Princeton and Radcliffe to take the silver. Wisconsin looked cool and in control, rowing long in the wind, and powered their way down the course to start dynasty talk in Madison.
IRA Final

In the petite, MIT pulled out a win to signal that they're not content to rest on their history any longer. Dayton came in second, just ahead of URI. Lehigh, Ohio State, and Stanford rounded out the field.

A few years ago, observers would criticize this event as not competitive. Last year the spread between first and sixth was 35 seconds, and the spread between first and tenth was 58 seconds. Two years ago the same spreads were 37 and 64 seconds (1st and 12th). This year the spreads were 15 and 37 seconds. Two months ago, not many outside of the category would have thought that the women's lightweight eight final would be this competitive. Women's lightweight rowing has come into its own this year and I don't think it will ever look back.

A discussion of this race would be improper if it did not mention the elephant in the room - lane assignments. This was a major topic of discussion in the boatyard and among coaches (losing, that is). The first inkling of a problem came when the starting line announcer commented on a strong crosswind blowing from lane one to six. This means lane six is favored. The wind was the least of the problem, however. Yesterday afternoon, the river was drained resulting in a several hour delay. When racing resumed, lane assignments were reversed, with those crews earning a higher seed in earlier racing assigned lane six. This afternoon the river was rumored to have been drained again, beginning around 1pm or 1:30pm. When the river is drained, lane one has a decided disadvantage because it has to row against the heart of the current. This disadvantage eases up as you move to lane 6. This meant that those crews earning the best seed for the final, Princeton and Radcliffe, would be at the greatest disadvantage. The lanes were not switched today.

This kind of talk is heard at regattas all over the country, and is easily dismissed as sour grapes. On row2k Ed Hewitt said that the river was not drained and that the water naturally spilled over the top of the dam. While denying a heavy drainage current, this statement actually confirms the existence of a current. Watching the races that were run after 1:45 (giving the alleged drainage a bit of time to develop a current), there certainly appeared to be a problem with lane one. Despite the row2k report, I heard observers say they could see current in lane one, particularly near the start, and a rower or two who claim to have actually seen the gates open. Readers of FITD know I like to look at statistics, and this situation seems to lend itself to that kind of analysis.

I reviewed all the finals run today except those in which the lanes weren't set until after races today (unfortunately I didn't note those lane assignments) and one race with an incomplete result (MO4+ grand). Not all had six boats. In these races (25 in all) prior to the MV8 grand (at 2:15), the average finish of lane one was 2.4, while the average finish of lane six was 4.2. Further, 39% of the time lane one finished first, and 68% of the time lane one was in the top three. Lane one was last just once. In the four races for which I know the lane assignments after 1:45pm, lane one was last, last, fourth (Princeton), and last. Lane six was 4th, 4th, and 2nd (Georgetown).

Now let's look at specifics. In the men's heavy V8, Yale finished last from lane one. In its heat Yale finished second, 1 second behind Princeton, and won its semi, beating eventual winner Cal. Favorite Princeton rowed in lane two and lost to Cal in lane four. In the WLV8 petite, Stanford, who never had a time slower than any of the boats in the petite, finished last from lane one. In the MVL8 Navy was in lane one. Navy, seeded second going into the regatta, won its heat with a faster time than eventual winner Cornell. Navy finished last in the grand from lane one.

I find this to be pretty damning evidence. In our case, it turns out that the best thing that could have happened to Wisconsin was to go to the reps. The absolute worst thing that could have happened to Radcliffe and Princeton was to win the heats. I'm particularly sorry to see this happen to Princeton (lane one) because yesterday they were a crew risen from the dead, and there is no better story line in athletics than redemption. Radcliffe (lane two) was on course to row possibly its best race ever. I don't think the data suggest an advantage to the outside lanes, but it clearly shows a disadvantage to lane one. Even if true, Ed's report that the water was only spilling over the top of the dam is confirmation of a current and evidence that the lanes should have been switched. They switched lanes yesterday and they should have done so today. Without the switch the five most important races of the day were suspect. Quite honestly, I'm upset that any of us has to spend time talking about this. A few things seem to be obvious - there was a current (from the row2k report) which disadvantaged lane one, there was a cross wind (from the race announcer's report) which disadvantaged lane one, and the lanes should have been switched (from the regatta committee's actions on Friday). Who knows if it would have changed the outcome, but we wouldn't be here now talking about it.

So, that's the conspiracy theory, believe it if you will. Like all good conspiracy theories, the "authorities" deny it but the evidence "proves" it. Despite the lane problems, we all participate in an outdoor sport in which factors beyond our control come into play. We have to believe that for every day conditions go against us, there is a day when they are with us. As Darrell Royal once said, "Breaks balance out. The sun don't shine on the same ol'dog's rear end every day."

Congratulations to Wisconsin, they took the long road to the championship and did the Midwest proud. With all of the East Coast vs. West Coast talk it's great to see the Badgers stand up for the Heartland to remind everyone that people row there too. Six Wisco seniors now head off into the world with cheese hats and three National Championship gold medals. Georgetown finishes its best season ever and will never again be taken for granted. New coach Jim "Beastmaster" O'Conner must be doing something right. Despite seeing bronze once again, Radcliffe is clearly on the way back. With the number one ranking for most of the season the Black and White were the top program in the Weld boathouse and are challenging the men for top program at Harvard. Over this season I've called Princeton the Sybil crew and the light switch crew. Today I have a new name for them - the most courageous crew. They beat their heads against the wall several times this year and, like a knocked-down champion fighter, kept coming back for more, punishing their opponents all the while. After a few years of knocking on the door, UCF and Bucknell are now among the elite of lightweight women. They, along with the crews in the petite final, are part of a new vanguard in women's lightweight rowing making the category stronger than it's ever been and proving that history doesn't make the difference, athletes do.


Anonymous said...

Maybe instead of viewing the finals in such a pesimistic way, it would be best to go straight to the congratulating. All six crews train in adverse conditions, be it rivers or lakes, and while a current may have affected lanes 1 and 2, keep in mind that UCF who almost beat Princeton and edged out Wisco in the heat was sitting in Lane 4, far away from lanes 1 and 2 and ended up in the 5th place position. I think its also necessary to concentrate more on how well Georgetown placed, especially because they're sometimes swept aside under the traditional three that are Wisconsin, Radcliffe and Princeton. The results of the race are similar to sprints three weeks ago, just with Radcliffe and Georgetown being flipflopped in finishes. Thank you for noting though that rowing is an outdoor sport and not completely downplaying the results. Also thank you for doing such an intense job of analyzing the races this season though, because it has sparked more interest and chatter about lightweight rowing.

JW Burk said...

Points well taken. See my next post.

Anonymous said...

While I am very appreciative of your coverage of lightweight rowing throughout the season, I am quite disappointed by this final post. Instead of concentrating on the racing, the majority of the content focused on lane assignments, a "mysterious current," and an obviously bitter rower's "view" of the river spilling over. If you're looking for statistics, before your closing paragraph only 25% of this post (26 lines) concentrated on the actual rowing, while 75% of the post focused on giving excuses to crews who did not medal/win and discrediting those who did. Please give respect where respect is due - Wisconsin recovered from the "truck that hit them," winning a third consecutive national championship (a huge accomplishment), Georgetown finished their best finish ever - despite three weeks of doubt as to whether or not Sprints was a fluke (apparently it was not), and Bucknell and UCF gave the top three quite a scare. I am also disappointed by the lack of coverage of the Petite Final, and a comment on the growing programs of Stanford, Lehigh, URI, etc. For a blog that has been in the past very positive and supportive of all lightweight programs, this, what should be your most exciting post of the season, was surprisingly negative and anti-climactic. Perhaps the "wounded Tigers" have added another wounded supporter to the pack.

Anonymous said...

thanks for noting the conditions. it was a rough race and most of us got handled by the wind and the waves.

Anonymous said...

Not to down play the fact that the event has indeed become more competitive as the years have gone on... you must acknowledge that it still has quite a ways to go. The spread from 1st-6th in the MV8? 5.1 seconds. And 1st-12th? 18 seconds. What about the ML8, 1st-6th, 1st-12th? 4.4 and 35 seconds. This highlights the lack of depth in the ML8, but puts a neon flashing sign over the complete dearth of top end deapth in the WL8. Observers, armed with this information, would still criticize this event as clearly less competitve. Also, how many current/past or future national team members does the WL8 have in it? And the ML8? And the MV8? While the decreasing spread in the finishing margins is a positive sign, the event and boat class as a whole still has a significant spread to make up to truly be considered a "competitive event".

Anonymous said...

Also as a note, the Rutgers 8 caught 3 crabs during the petit final, so the last place time should probably be considered delawares... decreasing the overall spread to 28 second

JW Burk said...

Yes, I do agree with your assessment, and my comments are really relative to the WLV8 in other years, not other events. I think you are a bit harsh in your assessment of this year's grand final. The heats were incredibly competitive, although the reps were won by wide margins. Women's lightweight rowing is really in its early growth stages and does have quite a bit to make up. I've pointed this out in other posts that have taken a look at world record times (heavy vs. light). So, I generally agree with you, but I would still consider the six boats in the grand to have been competitive.