Behind Lightweight Crew’s 2016 National Championship

Nich Lee Parker, head coach of Columbia’s national champion lightweight crew, says he has three rules for his rowers: “You’re responsible for your own development, for your own performance and for making yourself better. If you can do those three things, we’ll be OK.”

The Lions were more than OK in 2016. After finishing a disappointing second to Yale at the Eastern Sprints last May, Columbia exacted revenge by beating the Bulldogs by more than half a boat length at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships on June 5 on Lake Mercer in West Windsor, N.J. It was the first IRA lightweight title for the Lions and the rst national championship for any Columbia varsity eight since 1929.

Columbia began defense of its crown with several Cup Regattas in March and April leading to the Eastern Sprints on May 14 in Worcester, Mass., and the IRA Nationals on Lake Natoma, near Folsom, Calif., June 2–4.

“Now that we’ve climbed the mountain, we’ve got to find another one,” says Lee Parker. “It’s like Usain Bolt in the 200m race at the Olympics in Beijing, when he got off to such a fast start. When you’re up like that at the halfway mark, who is he racing now? Himself. That’s our next step, to try to be even better. We don’t want to lose a sense of who we are because we won one big race.”

Lee Parker is constantly trying to optimize the Lions’ workout regimen and has enlisted the help of P&S on physiological testing of the crew. This approach has impressed longtime followers of Columbia rowing, including Jim Weinstein ’84, BUS’88, who says, “He’s always trying to figure out every new training technique, always talking about physiology and biomechanics. He’s also very good at communicating with his rowers on what they need to do.”

Lee Parker joined the club rowing program while a student at Ohio State and quickly got hooked on the sport. “I went to a coaching conference as a senior and really enjoyed it. I got a fellowship to study kinesiology and help coach, and that’s how I got started.”

After time as an assistant at Ohio State and later Purdue, in 2007 Lee Parker became the program coordinator and head coach of the New Haven Rowing Club while assisting with the Yale heavyweight crew. He joined Columbia in 2010 as a heavyweight assistant coach while also assisting with the USRowing Boys Junior National Development team, which he guided to two national championship titles and two silver medal performances at the 2009 USRowing Club Nationals. After two seasons with the Columbia heavyweights he became an assistant on Scott Alwin’s lightweight staff, and when Alwin became head coach of the heavyweights in 2013, Lee Parker succeeded him as head coach of the lightweights.

An action shot of men rowing on a river


Lightweight rowing — no rower can weigh more than 160 lbs., and the average for the entire boat excluding coxswain can be no more than 155 lbs. — tends to rely more on body composition and technique rather than raw strength, as compared with heavyweight rowing, which is open to rowers of all sizes. “The weight is more of an equalizer on the lightweight side,” says Lee Parker. “But rowing is still rowing, and that’s one of the beauties of the sport.”

Columbia finished third in the IRAs in Lee Parker’s final season as an assistant coach, so he inherited a program that was on firm footing, but still, he says, “It felt like there was something missing.” So when he became head coach, he placed a greater emphasis on training and conditioning and changed the rowing style to eliminate the torque on the rowers’ backs. “Doing really hard things became really fun,” he says.

The Lions again finished third in the 2014 IRAs, but their four-man boat finished first — the fist individual 2,000m title for Columbia since the heavyweights in 1929. “ That was significant,” says Lee Parker. “All the guys said, ‘We can do this.’” After Columbia finished second to Cornell at the 2015 IRAs, Lee Parker pushed the team hard in fall training for the 2016 season.“We learned our limits and adjusted accordingly,” he says. “Guys were throwing themselves at workouts like I had never seen, doing things they had never been able to do, and then they were doing them again and again.”

Despite losing team captain Jakub Buczek ’16, who suffered a broken leg in a skiing accident, the Lions won six of seven races in the 2016 Cup season, bowing only to Yale in the Dodge Cup. At the Eastern Sprints, the Lions once again could not keep up with Yale and finished second. After those two losses, a tactical change was in order. “We had a very scripted race plan,”says Lee Parker,“but at the IRAs I told them,‘We’re done with the race plan.You’re just going to get off the start line and you are just going to go.’” Rowing for Columbia at the IRAs, from bow, were John Maloney ’18, Oliver Ingram ’16, Jeffrey Monahan ’18, Colin Ross ’16, William Solberg ’16, Jenson Carlgren ’19, David Mottola ’17 and Benjamin Landis ’18, with Yih-Jen Ku SEAS’16 as coxswain.

The Lions won their preliminary heat on Saturday, but Yale was a second faster in winning the other preliminary heat. Although an impending storm caused offcials to move the start time of Sunday’s final from noon to 7:30 a.m., the Lions were more than ready. “They came off the line really strong and they never slowed down,” says Lee Parker. “By the midpoint we had taken a length lead and everybody was moving beautifully, clipping along at a pretty high stroke rate, and they controlled the race to the end.”

The victory delighted the contingent of family, friends and alumni who attended the race, including former varsity rowers like Weinstein and Eric Dannemann ’67, BUS’72, a member of the 1964 undefeated freshman lightweight crew. “When you’ve waited three-quarters of a century for something like this, you make sure you show up, even if it’s early in the morning,” says Weinstein. “Literally, tears of joy were flowing” among the Columbia supporters, says Dannemann. “These guys deserve great recognition. What they did was amazing. They awakened the echoes of the Hudson Valley.”

— Alex Sachare ’71