June 15, 2007
by Cathy Bongiovi
There was nothing but calmness and serenity. No boisterous shouts from coxswains, no oars hitting the water, only the steady movement of the four rowers in front of her. Coxswain Mary Eddy knew her boat was crossing the finish line as the NCAA Varsity Four champion.
"The rowers knew more than I did that we were going to win," Eddy said. "I couldn't turn around and see the boats, but I couldn't hear the other boats anymore, so I knew it was a clear win."
The Virginia varsity four claimed its third NCAA championship in the last four years while helping the team to its third national runner-up finish.
Manned by coxswain Mary Eddy, Mindy Fiesler, Rebecca Ryall, Amanda Chase, and Chrissie Monaghan, the varsity four had an outstanding year, winning all of its races, including the ACC and South/Central championships. The pressure to continue UVa's winning streak at the NCAA Championships weighed heavily on the team members.
Perhaps the most eager Cavalier to return to the NCAA Championships was Eddy, a junior from Arlington, Va. After guiding the varsity four to the South/Central Championship in 2006, the coxswain was disappointed to end the season there. Virginia did not advance to the 2006 NCAA Championships, the only year the Cavaliers have missed the national competition since its inception in 1997.
"Mary Eddy was on the four last year as coxswain," said assistant coach Steve Pritzker who trains the varsity four boats. "The four won the South/Central regional, but unfortunately the team did not get a bid, and the four was unable to go. I think she was really chomping at the bit this year, trying to make up for it."
"I did feel an increased chance of anticipation," Eddy said, "because I had been waiting two years. I felt more anticipation than pressure."
Fiesler, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., is no stranger to the varsity four or its winning ways. While she rowed last season with the second varsity eight which won the ACC championship and captured ACC Crew of the Year accolades, she is a two-time national champion in the varsity four having also tasted victory in 2005. Her competitiveness and experience were keys to Virginia's NCAA title this season.
"Mindy was also the stroke of the boat in 2005 that won," Pritzker said. "She's probably one of the most competitive athletes I've ever been around. She's a really good racer and loves to race. I have put a lot of trust in her as the stroke of the boat."
But Fiesler really felt the pressure to bring the varsity four title home.
"I was in the 2005 boat that won," the sociology major said. "Our team had a lot of pressure on it all year long. Our coaches told us we were so strong. It was hard. Our fours have done this the last few years. We were the first race of the day, and we wanted to set a good tone for the rest of the team."
Rebecca Ryall, a freshman from Auckland, New Zealand, had a significant impact on the team during her first season at UVa. She was a member of the New Zealand Junior rowing team and a gold medalist at the 2006 Waikado RPC U-21. Named Best Woman Rower of the Year and Sportswoman of the Year at Kings College High School, Ryall proved early on that she had the experience to help the varsity four.
"Becky is very talented," Pritzker said. "She had been in the eights and moved around a bit. She fit very well in the (three) spot. The three seat is a very technical spot, and matching Becky up with Mindy was a very good place for her."
A sophomore from Woodbridge, Va., Chase gained experience last season with the novice eight, winning the ACC championship in that event. Movement into the varsity four boat was a natural transition for the second-year rower.
"Amanda Chase walked on last year," Pritzker said. "She had a few months of high school experience, but was relatively new. She was the strongest of the group. I was a bit worried at the beginning of the year if she could make it because of her relative inexperience, but she did a great job. She's one of the hardest workers I know, and she's shown the biggest improvement in the team so far. She really showed tremendous growth."
Thrown into the fire, Chase was a little overwhelmed by the pressure at the NCAA meet.
"It's only my third year of rowing," said the anthropology and studio art major. "I felt the pressure of `I have to win' and I was scared to lose."
And perhaps the biggest surprise to the varsity four crew was Monaghan, the lone senior from Flanders, N.J. Through her years at UVa, Monaghan has won several ACC and South/Central championships with the eights. She was a member of the varsity eight line-up this year until a fateful day in late March almost ended her collegiate career.
"Chrissie was in a pretty serious biking accident and managed to come back," Pritzker said. "She's one of the toughest people I know, having to come back from an injury like that. She wasn't in the four early on, and it was a challenge for a while; she had to prove herself. I think she really did. Having her leadership was very helpful."
"I was not wearing a helmet, and that was the main reason the accident was serious," Monaghan said of her biking mishap. "My boyfriend and I were biking. He was wearing a helmet; I wasn't. Somehow our handlebars intertwined, and I did a couple of flips over the handlebars. I fractured my skull, punctured my eardrum, and suffered a major concussion. I did not wake up until I was in the hospital several hours later."
Monaghan continued training almost immediately, but she didn't return to the top four until the South/Central Regional Championships.
"I was very conscious that I would need to be as quick as possible, not to let time go by," she said. "It might not have been intelligent for me to go back to working out even though I was cleared by the doctors. I knew if I didn't keep myself fit, rowing would be out of the question. The spin (stationary) bike helped me a lot. At the hospital I kept asking, `When can I row?' The doctors told me to slow down. They must have thought I was crazy. I knew slowing down would have been the end of my college career."
Luckily for the Cavaliers, Monaghan's hard work and persistence paid off.
"Watching seven months of work slip away..." Monaghan continued, "I didn't want my last college race to be as a spectator."
Graduating with a degree in history in May, Monaghan will continue in rowing as the novice coach at the University of Michigan next season.
"Steve prepared us so well for that race," Monaghan said. "We knew if we could hit certain numbers, we'd be on pace. If we were on pace, we knew no one could hang with us past the halfway mark, and that's exactly what happened."
But the varsity four is just one part of the bigger picture.
"One thing that gets lost when you see one boat winning is how everyone else works to make that happen," Pritzker said. "The eights work very hard, and it's very competitive. Any team can find eight good people, like basketball can find five good people. That's why you find 300 competitive basketball teams. In rowing, you can find eight or nine good people. That's why the varsity eight is so competitive. But even after the first eight, there are a lot of kids that work really hard and help push them. That's part of the team environment we're trying to build. If you don't make one of the boats that goes on, you're still a part of something special."
Guided by head coach Kevin Sauer, the UVa crews- the varsity eights, varsity fours and novice eights- have won eight consecutive ACC Championships and participated in the NCAA Championships 10 times, finishing as the national runner-up three times. But the training of the varsity four boats falls on assistant coach Steve Pritzker, who was recently named the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association National Coach of the Year and the South/Central Region Assistant Coach of the Year.
A former rower at Yale, Prizker is also the `Hoos director of recruiting. Having guided the varsity four to the national title in 2004 and 2005, he credits the team's depth with the crew's success.
"We've been fortunate enough to have pretty good depth over those four years," Pritzker said. "Actually we've seen progress over the four years, so now this year our second and third fours went one-two in the open four which is just as impressive as our top four winning. That shows more about what we're doing as a program than in just one year. If you look back three years at the first time we had four freshman rowers and a sophomore coxswain, the next year we had three freshman rowers, a sophomore rower, and a freshman coxswain. We're getting some older kids in there now, and it's a little harder for someone to come in right away and that speaks to the depth that we're trying to build here."
For UVa's varsity four of Mary Eddy, Mindy Fiesler, Rebecca Ryall, Amanda Chase, and Chrissie Monaghan, the 2007 national championship was bittersweet. Like their 60-plus teammates, they wanted to return to Charlottesville with something bigger- the overall team title that has eluded Virginia since the NCAA started the championship.
"We placed second," Fiesler said. "I really want our team to win a national championship. I really hope we can come together and get it done."
Based on the success of this year's program, the Cavaliers will be a favorite again next season to cross the finish line first.