September 11, 2008

Lightweight Crew Builds on Tradition

Print More

This past June, long after the rest of us had packed up and sped away from Ithaca for the summer, the men’s lightweight rowing team lingered on the Cayuga Inlet in hopes of making a little history before leaving Ithaca for the second, third, or last time.
In 2007, the Cornell lightweight rowing program became the first ever to win back-to-back national titles at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships. With only two of those two-time champions remaining in the varsity boat this past spring and struggles on the road early in the season, rewriting the history of lightweight rowing with a three-peat win hardly seemed in the stars for these Red rowers.
Yet while Cornell students were all cozy at home or making new friends at their respective internships, the lightweights spent a few days in Camden, N.J., and became the fastest lightweight crew in the United States for the third straight year — an unprecedented feat at Cornell.
The Red finished over three seconds ahead of the second-place boat in the grand final of the IRAs. This incredible feat extends beyond any other achievement ever by a lightweight crew, with the closest accomplishment occurring in the late 1960s when Harvard had a streak of five straight Ivy League championships.
The extraordinary thing about the Cornell lightweights’ national domination of rowing is that each year, the boat has consisted of different men. The ’55, ’56 and ’57 Cornell heavyweight eight produced a similar three-peat, but the same men rowed in all three boats.
“It’s been such a great turnover,” said former lightweight head coach and current Spirit of ’57 Director of Rowing and heavyweight coach Todd Kennett ’91. “Different guys have stepped into new seats each year to get the job done, and it’s become a competition to beat last year’s boat. Their speed is ever-increasing.”
In fact, only four seniors sat in the varsity boat this past spring, leading everyone to believe that it was a year for rebuilding.
“The team has a legacy now, and it’s the competition thing,” Kennett said. “It really turns on itself. Each year, it wasn’t you making the boat fast, it was the group graduating. And this year is your turn.”
One of the reasons a three-peat with different guys in different seats each year is so unprecedented is because the sport of rowing requires such an intense level of teamwork and communication. For three diverse sets of nine athletes to find such an efficient rhythm on race day is quite remarkable.
“The whole week before a race would be a roller coaster of emotions, but come race day, the guys just have an innate ability to focus,” Kennett said. “They would say, ‘Here we are today, the nine of us can make something happen.’”
Outdoing your national caliber teammates also requires a tremendous amount of dedication to the rigorous lifestyle of a lightweight rower.
“The guys say to themselves, ‘What do we need to do? How much harder can we train? How can we live smarter and healthier?’” Kennett said. “They took pride in challenging me to work them harder. If they worked hard enough, I would back off — they could beat me at my own game.”
While the possibility of a four-peat looms on the horizon, this year’s lightweight rowers will have to accomplish the feat with a new coach. Kennett assumed the duty of Director of Rowing and heavyweight coach in June, while the lightweights were capping off a tremendous season that included an Eastern Sprints title and team points trophy, an IRA championship and finally a second-place finish at the Henley Royal Regatta in England.
“I told them that regardless of me, there would be somebody good here,” Kennett said. “They control more of the winning and losing than I do. We get good kids who work hard and make themselves phenomenal. Work ethic makes it happen.”
Chris Kerber, named the Robert B. Tallman ’41 head coach of lightweight rowing in August, has been handed the daunting task of continuing the legacy of the historical Cornell lightweight crew.
“My job is maintaining and extending the tradition of excellence and achievement across the team,” Kerber said. “Any transition is going to have change, but the guys make the legacy. I just have to make sure to put them out of their comfort zone sometimes.”
This year, nobody will make the mistake of considering it a year for ‘rebuilding,’ as Kerber claims the roster looks better than ever.
“The entire team is just getting better and better,” Kerber said. “It looks to be the best sophomore class we’ve ever had in terms of potential, but I can’t say I like potential — we are looking for them to make a statement. The upperclassmen all came in and hit the ground running.”
Senior captain Mike Gavalas started the fall season with the fastest weight-adjusted erg score of the entire rowing program, including lightweights and heavyweights.
“It just takes one guy to come in and set the benchmark like that, and everyone works a little harder,” Kerber said.