UVa Rowers Shift Focus to Postseason Goals

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM Kevin Sauer
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Kevin Sauer
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

April 30, 2013

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LAKE MONTICELLO -- Kevin Sauer raised a megaphone to his mouth Saturday morning and asked his audience, "Do I need to use this?"

"No!" came the reply, and so UVa's longtime rowing coach proceeded without the aid of amplification.

"This is a special day for us," Sauer told a spirited crowd composed of his rowers and their family members, plus fans and friends of UVa's program., including former University president John Casteen.

Then Sauer introduced the Cavaliers' seniors: Sarah Cowburn, Molly Frear, Susanne Grainger, Anna Kobayashi, Taylor Levine, Erin Metcalf, Betsy Nilan, Kristine O'Brien and Ann Reid.

Most of the nine were on the team in 2010 when UVa won its first NCAA title. Two years later, all of them received NCAA championship rings after the Cavaliers were crowned again.

"It's a special group," Sauer said.

On a spectacular April day, the fourth-ranked Wahoos hosted their only home regatta of the spring season, the UVa Invitational. Virginia's seniors were honored between racing sessions.

In the morning, UVa swept three races against Michigan State -- the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four -- and dispatched Duke in the Novice Eight and Second Varsity Four events. In the afternoon, UVa's Varsity Eight and Second Varsity Eight boats won against Wisconsin's, but the Badgers prevailed in the Varsity Four race.

The Cavaliers train on the Rivanna Reservoir, and they race there once each fall. Each spring they make the trip to Fluvanna County to race on Lake Monticello.

Already this year Virginia has competed in Tennessee, California and South Carolina. To be able to row near Charlottesville is a treat for the Cavaliers.

"It's nice for our friends from other teams [at UVa] and friends from school to be able to come and see what rowing's all about," O'Brien said. "People hear about it, but they don't really understand it, and having people able to come out and cheer us on is great."

Sauer said: "It's just easier on everybody, that's for sure. We don't have to mobilize quite as much, so from that standpoint it's great to have it close by. It's nice to sleep in your own bed, and it's nice to have friends out there. Family will travel to [out-of-state regattas], but friends don't travel.

"So it's cool to have that. But water is water. There's no home-court advantage. This is an away home race for us, because we don't even train here ever. The first-years saw it yesterday for the first time."

During the Cavaliers' practice Friday on Lake Monticello, O'Brien's parents told Sauer that their daughter was emotional about the impending close of her college career.

"I'm emotional about it, too," Sauer said Saturday, "and I said, `Look, let's just delay that as long as possible, OK?' There are some tremendous seniors that we're going to lose this year, and I don't want to talk about it yet."

That's fine with O'Brien, who's from Massapequa Park, N.Y., on Long Island.

"It's bittersweet, moving on," she said. "But I love my team more than anything, and being here the past four years has just been incredible. The thought of leaving this group of girls ... you pull for them every day for four years."

She paused. "I'm tearing up right now," O'Brien said, forcing a smile. "This past week, with the last full week of school, it really hit me hard, knowing this is my last home race at UVa, and after this I only have ACCs and NCAAs as a Cavalier."

The ACC freshman of the year in 2010, O'Brien is a two-time All-American who has rowed in the Varsity Eight throughout her college career. She believes a third NCAA team title is possible before she leaves.

"Honestly, the team's rowing really well," O'Brien said. "We still have a lot to work on across the board, but we're staying humble and hungry. Yeah, we're gunning for it. We want that title to be ours. Definitely, I think it's within reach. There's a lot of really good teams out there, though," including Southern California, California, UCLA and Ohio State.

"There are a lot of really deep teams, and a lot of teams have gotten a lot more depth over my four years here," O'Brien said. "It's really great having that competition. You wouldn't want it any other way. But that just means we have to work even harder."

The ACC championships are May 12 at Clemson, and Virginia will be favored to win the conference title for the 13th time in the event's 14 years. Then come the NCAA championships, May 31 to June 2 in Indianapolis. A year ago, their victory in the Varsity Eight race at the NCAAs clinched the team title for the 'Hoos.

"The Varsity Eight's going pretty well," Sauer said. "The Second Varsity Eight and the Four, we're working them, trying to get them up to speed a little bit more, but they're aware of that, and it's a matter of getting that done."

Several UVa rowing alumni drive out to Lake Monticello on Saturday, including Melanie Kok, who won a bronze medal for Canada at the 2008 Olympic Games. Another former Virginia rower, Lindsay Shoop, who grew up in Charlottesville, won a gold medal at those Olympics.

In the spring of 2009, UVa dedicated one of its boats to Kok and Shoop. That boat, however, has been sold and replaced with a newer model, which was "re-dedicated" to Kok and Shoop in a ceremony Saturday morning.

Kok doesn't go for champagne, a smiling Sauer told the crowd. And so Kok, a 2007 alumna, christened the new boat with some Woodchuck Hard Cider. Then she addressed UVa's current rowers.

"There's a reason I keep coming back here to visit," said Kok, who's completing her Ph.D in neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario. "All I can say is, enjoy the time you're here. It's a special time. All the people I rowed with are still my best friends."

To the rowers who have followed them at UVa, Sauer said, Kok and Shoop are great examples of "how far you can go in this sport. They see it's possible to be an Olympic medalist."

At UVa, the rowing team first competed at the varsity level in 1996. A year later, the Cavaliers finished fourth at the inaugural NCAA championships. Virginia finished second at NCAAs three times -- in 1999, 2005 and 2007 -- before breaking through in 2010.

"That was definitely a point of excitement for the alumni," Kok said. "It's been a long process. It's just a really cool group of women, and I'm really proud that they were able to pull it off."