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Head of the Charles

Princeton in it to win it

Women are able to pull off upset

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2010

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For the first time in 10 years, a collegiate team — Princeton University — won the women’s championship eights at the Head of the Charles, defeating the University of Virginia by a little more than eight seconds, with Brown University in third.

The Princeton women were also the last college team to win the eights. Most of the championship-level crews are away at the world championships in New Zealand.

On flat water undisturbed by wind, Princeton was third off the line, keeping a steady pace up the 3-mile meander. In the first half-mile, it was clear Princeton had gained significant ground on University of Washington, which had started 12 seconds before Princeton. Washington faded and wound up seventh.

Virginia, which started fourth, also passed Washington. Brown started fifth.

Princeton hadn’t figured in the prerace handicapping, and its defeat of Yale, Washington, and Virginia was considered an upset.

The Weeks Bridge comes after a long straightaway about 1 1/2 miles into the course. As Princeton pushed into that straight portion, coxswain Lila Flavin decided it was time to make a major move on Washington.

“When we started moving on them, everyone just got really excited and fired up,’’ she said. “We decided that we had to pass them by the Weeks Bridge.’’

Seeing an opening between the Washington boat and the bridge, Flavin called on power from the starboard-side rowers, and within 20 strokes Princeton had slipped past Washington going into a series of “S’’ turns mid-course.

“It was close,’’ said Flavin, “but the starboard side really came through for us. It was very important to our race that we have the inside, and we did it. Everybody in the boat was just so excited. It was amazing.’’

Captain Michaela Strand said the win, in 15 minutes 48.314 seconds, was far from expected, but that the team had agreed on an approach.

“We knew that if we put together a really good race by staying internal, just focused on our own hull and stayed aggressive the whole race, that we had a chance,’’ she said. “We have four seniors in our boat and this is our last Head of the Charles, so we knew we wanted to row a special race and that we could come out on top.’’

As Princeton streaked past a boisterous crowd at the Cambridge Boat Club and toward the finish, the women felt good about their race, but they had no way of knowing the results.

“It wasn’t until we rowed over to the dock and saw the smile on [coach Lori Dauphiny’s] face that we kind of knew something kind of cool had just happened.’’

Strand said she has competed in the Head of the Charles seven times, and while it is different from the shorter, more intense sprints that constitute the heart of Princeton’s spring season, coming to the Charles is special.

“I just love this race, I’ve always loved it,’’ she said. “So many people and all the bridges crowded with people, it’s just so great here.’’

For Flavin, the regatta was a homecoming. A Cambridge native who went to the Winsor School, she attributed her knowledge of the Charles to her ability to steer a winning race.

“There are a lot of tricky things about this course, and it definitely helped me to have the experience,’’ she said. “This is so much different from a [sprint] race, and you have to approach it differently. But that’s also what makes it fun.’’

Dauphiny agreed.

“This was a fun race for our team,’’ she said. “But, I mean, we take it seriously. We were somewhat the underdogs, but we still knew a strong race would make us contenders. This was a great way to start our year.’’

Dauphiny added that, as enjoyable as the Head of the Charles is for her rowers, it does not prepare them for sprint racing.

“No, it doesn’t really translate,’’ she said. “It’s not really training or practice for us. But it is really good to be here and win it.’’