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Head of the Charles - Alumni Rowing 2009 Recap

[Contributed by Fred Malloy ’94 heavyweight who won Eastern Sprints and IRAs almost twenty years ago, but never medaled in a Head race until 2009.] 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Many people say college is the best stage of life. Clearly it is a wonderful stage given the social life and the freedom to pursue academic areas of interests as well as extracurricular activities.  I disagree it is the best time, simply because many of the great things about college evolve and continue after graduation. There are also new joys including marriage, children, and professional accomplishments.   

However, the one thing almost impossible to recreate after college is being part of an intense athletic team. Pushing yourself beyond your limits because you know your teammates need you, daring great triumphs, and bouncing back from devastating defeats can be done individually but it is not the same as with a team of like-minded individuals.  Enduring winter training and then audaciously trying to win Eastern Sprints with only seven weeks of water time are group challenges that just cannot be replicated.  One can join a masters rowing program, but there are large differences in ability, reason for rowing, and too often, there is satisfaction with mediocre results. I have been told that national rowing teams are so internally competitive that, again, you miss many of the benefits of having real teammates.

The Alumni Eight event at this year’s Head of the Charles Regatta provided us graduates with a glimpse of the glory years back in Hanover. Rowing hard with Dartmouth rowers – despite our different coaches in different eras - was an incredible experience.  My original goal as I put together the line-up was to have some fun, and finish in the top half to secure an entry for next year.   As some great rowers joined the squad and started circulating their recent athletic accomplishments, I started thinking we might win.  Guys were really excited and training hard.  I forgot all about next year and started training 6-7 days a week.

After our third place finish was announced, I overheard some bigger, younger guys in the other Dartmouth Alumni boat wondering how they lost to our boat. After all, our average age was a venerable 32 years old.  Beating our younger Dartmouth brethren was not one of our goals – we just wanted to go really fast.  In the hopes that it helps them or other Dartmouth boats go fast in the future, I’ll share our secrets:

  1. 1.Line up—W e stacked the boat in two ways:

  2. Our stern four included national team veterans Dan Protz (98), Jamie Peschel (99), and Greg Lewis (94), plus Henley winner Andy Magee (02) who stays fit with a Masters rowing program.

  3. A preference for “still-lightweights” over “even-heavier-weights” resulted in the crew’s average weight being under 190 lbs. Bow four included short-but-not-too-fat heavies Matt Fitzgerald (94) and Fred Malloy (94), iron-man lightweight Austin Whitman (99), and lightweight sculler Andy Hilton (99).

  4. 2.Fitness:  We erged as much as possible in the month leading up to the race. The boat’s average score for a 4000 meter piece was under 14 minutes (<1:45 splits).

  5. 3.Practice: Those of us who were local practiced several times in a four. The first row was terrible, but each one got better. When we were able to take the full eight out on Friday, our stern three had already gotten to know each other.

  6. 4.Steer like you mean it: Cox Greg Rolfes (’09) nailed the course and race strategy amid the chaotic racing expected in an Alumni event.

  7. 5.Race Plan—Go High: 

  8. Stroke Dan Protz said before the race: “Long and strong at 28 is a sure fire way to lose badly while feeling like you pulled a great piece. The way to win a head race is to

row 31-32. Higher if you can. Hurts more but is much faster.”  

  1. 1.Race Plan—Go Hard Early: 

  2. Six-man Greg Lewis inspired the crew based on lessons learned over 15 years of racing the Head of the Charles in a single: “After the BU bridge, we’re going to turn into a headwind. Other crews will be feeling it, but we’ll be going after it, emptying the tank. That’s where the race is won or lost.  The tailwind and the crowds will help at the end, so don’t save anything.”

As the oldest and least fit guy in the boat, I was a little nervous with this race plan. But just like in the glory years back at Dartmouth, I was confident in my teammates. I figured that things would be okay as long as I took the same number of strokes as everyone else.

We went over the starting line at 33 strokes per minute and passed one boat immediately after the BU bridge. Soon after, the predicted headwind started slowing down our competition.  I saw puddles from our next victim and heard bow man Andy Hilton yelling “Yield! Yield! Yield!” Next thing I knew, we were almost clashing blades with a crew on port, and simultaneously passing a crew on starboard!  A very gutsy choice by Rolfes to split two crews on the turn near Riverside’s boathouse, and it worked perfectly.

Soon thereafter, we passed one more boat and rowed in clean water for the next mile, rowing 31 ½ to 32.  We were fortunate to have eventual winner Northeastern push us hard for the last mile. They started 3 spots behind us and were moving strongly as we started the long turn towards the Eliot Street Bridge.  Again, Rolfes made some gutsy choices. He gave them a tiny bit of room, daring them to pass us on the sharpest part of the turn, while simultaneously taking 10’s and calling up the rating to 33-34. The crew responded, and stopped NU’s charge about a length of open behind us. Eventually their cox blinked, moving to the outside in an attempt to gain the inside on us for the final turn. Again, we sped up and held them off the entire way to the finish line.  They won first place handily, but holding them off felt great because we heard they were 5th year seniors who practiced five times a week all fall. The only other crew to beat us was veterans of The Boat Race from Cambridge University.  We beat crews from Yale, University of California, Penn, Columbia, Georgetown, Cornell, and four different boats from Harvard.


Special thanks to Alex Stein for coxing our Friday row and guiding us on the logistics/deadlines/etc, to Topher, Mike and Kate for helping us with equipment, to Scott Armstrong for teaching most of us to pull hard, to Andy Hilton and Brian Palm for helping with training facilities, and to Austin Whitman, who filled Olympian size shoes after joining the crew at the last minute. Thanks to the stern four for bringing it, and to my friends in the bow four for keeping up.  Finally, thanks to my wife who put up with me wearing ill-fitting rowing trou around the house for the past month.