To cap off an unusual season, the Penn men’s lightweight and heavyweight rowing squads competed at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championships, notching several high-place finishes in the process.
The Championships, which took place at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J. on both Friday and Saturday, saw Penn’s lightweights finish second in the Varsity Eights and third in the Second Varsity Eights. In the Varsity Eights, Penn entered as the second-ranked boat and finished with a time of 6:47.476, just three seconds behind Navy’s first-place finish, which earned Penn a silver medal. Penn’s Second Varsity Eights squad also finished behind Navy, this time with a 6:54.105 finish, but fell behind a second-place Princeton squad as well to garner a bronze medal.
While the team appreciated its strong results, even being able to compete at all came as a pleasant surprise to them, according to Penn men’s lightweight rowing coach Colin Farrell.
Farrell and his team had thought that their season would end earlier based on all the travel and competition restrictions that the Ivy League had put into place. It was only a few weeks prior to the race that they realized they were going to be able to compete at the IRA Championships.
“The guys were definitely very excited,” Farrell said. “Just even getting to be at this race was a huge opportunity and I think they were really excited to be able to race some other teams and sort of see where we stacked up. So I think that the mood on the team was definitely a positive one and an energized one.”
Due to there being no family or fans allowed, the atmosphere at Mercer Lake was quieter than it would normally be for the event. Once the rowers got on the water, though, Farrell thought that it felt like any other race for them.
The event was also the last time that the seniors on the team would be able to race, which was especially meaningful, given the difficulties they had faced during the latter halves of their careers.
“They did a great job not just on the weekend, but the whole season,” Farrell said. “I think for a lot of them it was sort of they just weren’t sure what this year would be like and what it would bring, and I think that the message was just sort of like, ‘Hey you’re not going to regret going for it and trying your hardest,’ and I think that they felt that and they brought an energy to the squad because of that. I think that that really set the tone for everybody else.
“I think the IRA was a big deal, and I’m really glad that our administration pushed for us to be able to go because I think that that ended up being a special moment for them, and these guys do it because they love the sport and they want to race at a high level and be challenged, and I think that the IRA presented that. I think that they appreciated that opportunity.”
Despite the departure of these seniors, Farrell views the team as being in a good spot going into a more normal season next year after having the freshmen on the team develop into more established roles.
In the heavyweights division, Penn placed a Four in the regatta and finished with the fifth-best time in both Friday morning’s time trials and the Saturday morning’s Grand Final.
The team consisted of one sophomore and four freshmen, making it an extremely young unit. Additionally, Penn’s heavyweights were not a full squad in comparison to the other teams, which had sent much larger groups to Mercer Lake.
For heavyweight head coach Bryan Volpenhein, the competition was one that allowed his inexperienced rowers to gain some much-needed exposure to big races.
“I wanted them to get good racing experience because they were all freshmen and one sophomore, and they hadn’t raced at the championship before, so for them just to get good experience racing and kind of see the level they need to be at,” he said. “So my expectations were if we made the final, we would’ve done a good job, and so I think that they achieved that.”
While training for the event might be a struggle with some athletes, Volpenhein found that his team was more than ready to meet the challenge.
He was impressed by how quickly his team said yes to not only going, but also to committing to spend three weeks training after finals and doing so in a meaningful way.
“I think what stood out was that they kind of all showed up every day,” Volpenhein said, “and they all tried to get better, and I think that makes a big difference in how much fun it is to coach and how much fun it is to come to the boathouse every day and really kind of work your craft.”
The team didn’t medal in either of their races, but the group appears well-adjusted going into next season as they welcome a new class of recruits and attempt to have a full squad for tournaments like these.
With that comes the necessity of rowers who were freshmen and sophomores this past year having to step into leadership roles on the team.
“What I hope with this group is that they bring these experiences from this last year into the group and into the team and kind of show some leadership there, even though they’re young, because it will be a very young team,” Volpenhein said. “The majority will be freshman and sophomores. Well over half the team will be that new, and so I think they’re gonna need a little bit of this experience from these guys.”
Both of Penn men’s rowing squads will be back in action next year after having finished out their current season at Mercer Lake.
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