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Lightweights Earn Trip to Royal Regatta by Winning Eastern Sprints, Then Bow to Yale
By Bill Steinman

The race course at the Henley Royal Regatta, the crown jewel of rowing, is 2,112 meters long. To reach the starting line, crews begin from slightly beyond the finish line and row the length of the course to get into starting position.

Columbia’s varsity lightweight crew rowed at Henley this summer, but began much further away than those 2,112 meters. Two years further.

The Lion lightweights had made this trip before, in 1998. Coming off a second-place finish in the national championships at the IRA Regatta, they were sent, through the generosity of supportive alumni, to Henley, where they reached the quarterfinals of the Temple Challenge Cup before losing to Durham University.

Every person who made that trip for Columbia wanted nothing more than to go right back the next year, in 1999. But it wouldn’t be easy.

“We were told that the alumni felt finishing second in the IRA that year [was reason enough] to be sent to Henley,” James DeFilippi ’00 recalled, “but to go back again, we had to win something big, like the Eastern Sprints or the IRA.”

It was not to be. The lightweights lost their first three races, won two cup events, then finished second to Princeton at the Eastern Sprints. Those two crews entered the IRA as co-favorites, and while Columbia managed to reverse its order of finish with the Tigers, the two crews crossed the line fifth and sixth, with Harvard winning the race. There would be no return trip to Henley.

“It was a strange season. Nothing was predictable,” said DeFilippi. “We were confused and disappointed by the fifth place. I was haunted by that all this past year. But now, looking back, we all took that as fuel to work that much harder.”


It worked. The varsity lightweight crew that returned last fall, and that coaches Tom Terhaar and Dan Lewis ’94 molded through the fall and winter months, was even more formidable than in 1999.

“We knew from the get-go we had one of the strongest boats in the league and the nation,” said DeFilippi, now a senior and co-captain with Ryan Ficorilli ’01. “We just had to keep working our butts off, and make the extra effort to learn technique. We had the power and speed, we needed the technique.”

Columbia lost its first two races, upsets at the hands of Georgetown and Rutgers. “We were not rowing together very well,” said DeFilippi. “Things hadn’t come together yet — we hadn’t jelled. To Tom [Terhaar]’s credit, he kept our heads up and focused. We never counted ourselves out.”

But the Lions needed to halt the pattern that was developing. Could they do it the next week, in the most grueling test of the regular season, the Dodge Cup against Yale, ranked first in the nation among varsity lightweight crews, and Penn.

It was foggy that April morning on the New York Athletic Club’s Orchard Beach course, and spectators couldn’t see the crews until they were almost at the finish line. When they came into view, Yale was in front, as expected, but Columbia was closing fast. Very fast. In fact, although Yale held on to win, Columbia finished just three-tenths of a second behind.

The race signaled the beginning of collegiate rowing’s most closely contested rivalry of 2000. It also proved, both to the rowing world and to the Lions themselves, that Columbia was a force to be reckoned with. “It confirmed for a lot of us that we weren’t lying to ourselves,” said DeFilippi. “We really were fast! We realized that if we worked, we could win. Through the next two races, we kept our eyes on our goals.”

Columbia beat Cornell and MIT in the Geiger Cup, then topped an accomplished Dartmouth eight in the Subin Cup. That set the stage for the Eastern Sprints, on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass.

The Eastern coaches had seeded the team fourth, to which the Lions took exception. “Yale had won the HYP (Harvard-Yale-Princeton) race, so we knew we were as fast as Harvard, Yale or Princeton,” DeFilippi said. “We didn’t expect to win, but none of us thought that we couldn’t do it. We knew if we were to win, though, we would have to row the race of our lives.” Even Terhaar, their coach who never goes out on a limb, said he “thought it was possible to win the Sprints.”

At many major regattas, an observer rides along the race on a motor launch, providing a play-by-play that is broadcast to spectators near the finish line. But right before the lightweight Grand Final, the ship-to-shore connection went out. So after the race began, 3,000 spectators were forced to wait on edge until the leaders came into view.

When they did, Harvard was in front, followed by Yale. And neck-and neck with them was Columbia.

“At 500 meters, we were even with Harvard and Yale,” Ficorilli recalled. “In the last 400 meters, we started sprinting. We pulled ahead of Harvard and with three strokes to go, we were tied with Yale. We pulled ahead in the last three strokes!”

Dean Austin Quigley (right) enjoys a moment at Henley with Coach Tom Terhaar.

The boats crossed the finish line so close together, no one in the crowd knew who had won. They milled nervously about, awaiting the officials’ decision on the photo finish. On the lake, the crews sat motionless.

“I put my head down and said a prayer,” DeFilippi said. “We all said prayers and kind of held our breaths. Yale was doing exactly the same.”

Finally came the announcement: “In third place with a time of 5:55.63, Harvard.” It was met with a chorus of groans from the Crimson fans. “In second place with a time of 5:52.59, Yale.” This elicited more groans, and a collective gasp from the Lion faithful. Then came the cheers, almost drowning out the announcement that for the first time since the Eastern Sprints began in 1946, a Columbia varsity stood atop the list. Columbia won in 5:52.48, a scant eleven-hundredths of a second better than Yale.

Even as the Lions were getting their medals and throwing both their coxswain, Julia Baehr ’02, and their coach in the lake, thoughts had turned to Henley. “We started thinking of Henley when we put the boat in the slings after the race,” said DeFilippi. “We can go, we thought, we’ve won a big one.” In fact, Tom Sanford ’68 had brought a packet containing a Henley application with him, and after the race he slipped it to former lightweight rower Jim Weinstein ’84, who approached Terhaar.

So the wheels were already turning when the lightweights left Worcester, heading directly for Dartmouth and a 10-day pre-IRA training camp. They talked about the trip when they got to Dartmouth, and worked on adjusting their schedules, postponing summer jobs, classes and vacations.

“We were so excited about Henley,” DeFilippi said, “but we had to get our minds off it and concentrate on the national lightweight championship at the IRA in two weeks.”

The IRA, held on the Cooper River in Camden County, N.J., is a three-day affair which until recently featured only heavyweight crews. The lightweight competition takes place only on the final day, a Saturday. The preliminary heats are the first event, usually at about 7:30 a.m. The crews then go back to their hotels and rest until the finals, which takes place at about 3:00 p.m.

On the strength of its Sprints victory, Columbia entered the IRA as the top seed. It won its qualifying heat, but got off to a slow start in the championship race. Harvard took the early lead and held it until the final 400 meters, when Yale pulled even and then edged in front, with Columbia and Princeton closing fast. Those three crews finished just six-tenths of a second apart, but it was Yale that came in first, with Princeton second and Columbia third.

Columbia’s rowers were disappointed to have missed the title by so little, but they also were proud. “We had put ourselves back into contention [after the slow start]. We hadn’t given an inch,” DeFilippi said. “We knew we hadn’t won, but we rowed a very, very good race.” And Henley beckoned, just a few days later. “We started thinking of Henley right after our race was over,” DeFilippi said. “We knew we still could go to Henley and do very well.”

Some crews may approach Henley as a week-long holiday, a reward for their hard work. Terhaar’s crews are not among them. “It’s a carnival,” the coach said, “with a really serious race in the middle of it.”

Columbia rowers ham it up for the camera.

Columbia wasn’t there for the carnival. “We weren’t over there to go sightseeing,” DeFilippi said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to do anything. We practiced twice a day. The rest of the time we watched TV, read, or walked around the town.”

Columbia rowed in two preparatory races. In the Marlow Regatta, the varsity eight entered two races, a 1500-meter row and a 500-yard sprint, and won them both, beating Yale in the finals of each. A week later, Columbia rowed in the Reading Town Regatta, also on the Thames. This time, Yale won the Elite Eight race, by a length.

Official racing began at Henley on June 28, a Wednesday. Columbia had been seeded — “selected” in Henley lingo — and didn’t have to race until Thursday, against Imperial College of London. “We were nervous before the race,” DeFilippi said. “It was our first race at 2000 meters or more since the IRA, and we didn’t know anything about Imperial College’s team.”

Columbia got off to a lead, Imperial caught up, then the Lions moved out again. Suddenly Imperial’s boat began to zig-zag across the course, finally running into a barrier on one side of the course. By the time Imperial got going again, Columbia was well in front and stayed there, winning “easily,” which is rowing parlance for quite a few boat-lengths.

The next race was on Friday against the University of Glasgow, which had placed third in Great Britain’s national collegiate championships. Glasgow’s rowers were larger than Columbia’s, averaging 174 pounds to the Lions’ 161, but Columbia had seen Glasgow row and “knew it was a race we could win,” said DeFilippi.

Lewis, the assistant coach who rode in the umpire’s launch, described the race as he saw it. “We had a little bit better start, then we settled,” he said. “We were already ahead. We put a little move on and established open water [between us]. That was it.” Columbia crossed the finish line for the 2112-meter course in 6:37, beating Glasgow by a comfortable 212 lengths.

In winning its first two races, Columbia had learned not only how to race over the Thames River course, but how to deal with the huge crowds drawn to the spectacle that is the Henley Royal Regatta. Over 100,000 people attended the Friday races, lining the entire length of the course on both sides.

The Band of the Grenadier Guards plays in the Steward's Enclosure, part of the pagentry of Henley.

“All those people are fun, but extremely distracting,” DeFilippi noted. “Every time you take a stroke, there are people watching it. You get accustomed to racing in the U.S., where the crowds gather at the end of the races. For the first half or three-quarters of the race, it’s extremely quiet because nobody’s on the side watching. Here you have an audience all the way down the course.”

The victory over Glasgow had moved Columbia into Saturday’s quarterfinals — and another showdown with Yale. The two schools had met six times during the season and post-season, and each had won three times. From the moment they saw the draw, and realized they could meet each other in the quarters, that match-up had been on the minds of both schools’ rowers.

The crowds had swelled, to put it mildly, by Saturday’s races. More than 500,000 fans crowded into little Henley-on-Thames, lining the course 50 and 60 deep in its entire length. The two Ivy League crews, rowing slowly to the starting line, looked at the multitudes in awe. Then the race began.

Yale had the better start. “They led after 400 meters, then they put on a move, which we matched,” DeFilippi said. “We put on a move to catch them, but they matched it. All the way down the course, they matched, we matched.”

Columbia had become known for its ability to come from behind, but that’s very difficult at Henley, especially since heavy rains the day before had caused a stiff current on the Thames, flowing against the racers. “In the first 400 meters, Yale got what they needed,” Terhaar said. “We rowed as hard as we could. Anything we gave up early, we started to earn back. They fought the whole way, like they fought the whole season. But on a day like today, there was no catching up.”

Yale swept across the finish line the winner in 6:40, with Columbia a half-length behind. The Bulldogs went on to win its semifinal and upset Oxford Brooks University in the finals to win the Temple Challenge Cup.

“I’m disappointed to have lost, but we rowed a great race, and I’m happy for Yale,” DeFilippi said as he prepared to leave Henley.

“Yale did a great job,” Terhaar said, “and we did a great job.”

For the second time in three years, Columbia’s lightweights had traveled to the crown jewel of rowing, the Henley Royal Regatta, and had done themselves proud. There was little doubt they’d be back.

About the Author: Bill Steinman is senior associate director of athletic communications, a fixture in the athletics department for three decades and the lifeline you want to have left if the topic is Columbia sports trivia.


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