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Athens . . . via Cambridge

Many competing for Olympic spots

It was just a chilly upstream pull on a river that takes a serpentine route to Athens.

"It's the Head of the Charles, not the Olympics of the Charles," observed Dan Walsh yesterday afternoon, after he'd stroked the second US men's eights to a startling victory in 14 minutes 3.401 seconds in the championship race ahead of world champion Canada (14:12.115) and the top American boat (14:16.143). "It's 3 miles, not 2K. It's October, it's not March."

The Olympic selection process may not begin in earnest until next year, but the jockeying for seats will get a bit more spirited after Walsh and his crew of Princeton Training Center seatmates broke the eight-year hammerlock that US Rowing's premier boat had on the Boston Globe Trophy.

"Everything matters," said US Rowing cox Pete Cipollone, whose boat won the silver medal at this summer's global regatta in Milan. "It's definitely not taken casually."

It certainly wasn't by the Canadian women's eights (a.k.a. London Training Center), which went all-ahead-full and set a course record (15:31.082) while ending the two-year reign of US Rowing, which was second in 15:49.558.

"The Head of the Charles is a very big deal," said cox Sarah Pape, after the Canadians had taken the Governor's Cup for the fourth time in the last eight races.

After winning the bronze medal behind the Germans and Romanians at the world regatta, Pape and her crew were eager for a shot at the Yanks, who'd been sitting in second place before catching a boat-stopping crab that buried them in fifth and nearly cost them an Olympic spot.

"We never really got to race them," said Pape. "We were in different heats and they had an unfortunate race, so we didn't know a lot about them."

The US males knew plenty about their Canadian counterparts, whom they chased all the way to the finish in Milan. But they never saw them yesterday, since their neighbors started 16th and were a bridge too far back all the way upstream.

"We knew it would be a disadvantage," said Canadian coach Mike Spracklen, whose crew raced as the Victoria City Rowing Club. "We took the race seriously, of course, but not with the same intensity as a world championship."

The Head of the Charles may hand out trophies, but it's primarily an autumnal gathering of the Order of the Oarlock, a chance for rowers to catch up with old friends and compare notes before the sport goes indoors for the winter.

"This is the biggest race where we actually have a following," said US Rowing cox Mary Whipple, whose twin sister, Sarah, coxed the Princeton Training Center women's entry (the second boat) that finished third.

Still, the results here are posted in every boathouse in the land and used as motivational fodder for next spring. Even though there was no formal trophy, Harvard's heavyweight varsity (last season's official national champs) was the de facto collegiate victor yesterday, beating Princeton by two seconds while finishing fourth overall in the men's championship eights. Yale's women, fourth behind the national crews, earned their own offseason bragging rights.

The American men, meanwhile, have their own unstated Top Gun competition going, knowing that coach Mike Teti is taking notes every time his Athens aspirants take the water.

"They're big boys," said Teti, who had three crews here and whose brother Paul was in yesterday's winning boat. "They know they're competing for spots on the Olympic team. But it's not like it's brutal and cutthroat."

For most of the race, his top two boats didn't even see each other. US Rowing, first off the line, hit the accelerator and kept going. "We knew it would be a slugfest," said Cipollone.

The Princeton Training Center entry was a pastiche of oarsmen from the world coxed and uncoxed fours, the Pan American eight, and a couple of global lightweights (Teti, Steve Warner). "I told them to eat all weekend," said Walsh, who rowed at Northeastern.

The PTCers, most of whom were coming off a marathon race in Germany, caught a break by starting just behind Harvard, which had six men back from last season's unbeaten crew and was a useful rabbit for pacing.

By Harvard's Weld Boathouse, just before the stretch that leads to Dead Man's Curve before the Cambridge Boat Club, Walsh and his colleagues had a six-second elapsed-time lead on the Canadians and 10 seconds on US Rowing, whom they now had in their sights. "I can see the blue boat," cox Marcus McElhenney told his crew.

What the PTCers didn't know, until some Michigan bystanders told them on the row back to Magazine Beach, was that they'd finished at the front of the pack. It wasn't the Olympic trials and it isn't spring. But right now, being at the Head of any elite parade is worth the ride from New Jersey.

"It never hurts to win," said Walsh. "Let's put it that way."

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