Friday, October 17, 2014

2014 Head Of The Charles: Picks and Predictions, and What's Hott in Boston This Weekend

Eliot Bridge, Charles River (Photo: B. Kitch)

The 50th Head Of The Charles is, well, a big deal. That much is obvious from looking at the entries in the Championship events—rowing stars and Olympic medalists abound, not to mention a host of the top collegiate programs from across the country, and across the pond. So, naturally, we feel obligated to shoot our mouths off about what's going to happen over the weekend—here's hoping we're better at predicting the outcome in rowing than ESPN is at picking winners in baseball. Here we go.

Championship Singles
While he and double partner Nils Jakob Hoff had a bit of an off year, falling from the top of he podium in 2013 to 10th in Amsterdam, it's pretty hard to bet against a guy in Kjetil Borch who demolished the course record on the Charles last season, even if he is matched up against the likes of Mahé Drysdale (himself with multiple victories in this event). After getting back into full-time training this year, it's clear that Drysdale is on his game, having been narrowly edged into silver by the top sculler in the world right now, Ondrej Synek (racing in the Champ Double). Our top crews to watch are Borch, Hoff, Drysdale, John Graves, Hans Struzyna, and Andrew Campbell. The latter three are all built for success on the long course, and have raced it very, very well in the past (for Campbell, on home turf, that advantage is still more magnified, not to mention that the longer distance favors lighter athletes). Also not to be ignored are Graves' teammate Ben Dann, Jozef Klaassen—Klaassen had an excellent regatta last year, representing ASR Nereus and finishing in fourth place just one second back of Drysdale—and French-Canadian Olympian Julien Bahain.

On the women's side, again there will be a hometown hero from Cambridge Boat Club looking to defend familiar waters, with Gevvie Stone taking on last year's champion Kate Bertko (another dangerous lightweight) from California Rowing Club—the race came down to two seconds over 18+ minutes in 2013. This year, however, they'll have to contend with Kim Crow—the only rowing athlete to win multiple medals at the 2012 Olympic Games, and one of the best overall athletes in our sport. Our other crews to watch are Kristin Hedstrom, Michelle Sechser, and Lindsay Meyer—all with national team track records, so no surprises there. We're taking Kim Crow to win it this year, having won in dominant fashion in 2012 with Bertko and Stone rounding out the top three.

*Correction: Gevvie Stone won the event in 2012 in a time of 19:06, with Kim Crow coming in second at 19:20. We apologize for the error.

Championship Doubles
The Men's Champ Double is stacked. And yet, the winner seems like a fairly obvious pick—the Sinkovic brothers have been nails all season, and are coming off a world title and new World Best Time in Amsterdam. However, it will depend, of course, on where the Croatian duo are in their training cycle, and how seriously they are approaching this event. While the combination of Synek and Olaf Tufte is sexy, it's always tough to try to find lightning in a bottle and race it against a battle-tested (and flat-out awesome) crew. Also very dangerous will be the Graves brothers (other than John)—Pete and Tom have won this event multiple times with a great race plan and high cadence—and some very quick lightweights: Olympic champion Mads Rasmussen and Steffen Bonde Jensen will be in action representing Danske Studenters Roklub; the dutch combination of Vincent and Tycho Muda; USA's LM2x of Austin Meyer and Joshua Konieczny; and the Austrian lightweight double, another set of brothers, the Sieber twins Bernhard and Paul.

The women's event has a host of elite athletes, but seems a little more wide open. On paper, the strongest crew looks like the combination of Olympic champion Mirka Knapkova and Lithuanian phenom Donata Vistartaite, but again, it's always tough to put things together last-minute. The same goes for the other Great Eight combos of Sanita Puspure and Carling Zeeman, and Magdalena Lobnig and Chantal Achterberg. Still, given that Knapkova and Vistartaite have experience on the course, and that both are physically very well suited to the longer distance, we're taking them to win. Further crews to watch are U.S. Olympians Taylor Ritzel and Sara Hendershot, and don't sleep on the Danish Olympic lightweight double of Juliane Elander Rasmussen and Anne Lolk Thomsen—the duo finished fourth in London, and has been rowing together for years.

Championship Eights
We've already done a good deal of talking about these events, with our Great Eights preview, but suffice it to say, it's going to be interesting. On the men's side, you've got a very, very densely packed top end of the field—given that the Great Eight of sweepers will be fresh (while their opponents in the scullers Great Eight are racing on Saturday), we're going to give them the edge to win the event (it would be nice to see them correct the slight disconnect between Bond in the six seat and Aussie stroke man Dunkley-Smith in terms of blade-exit timing, though—one of the toughest challenges facing these Great Eight crews is matching it all up in a very short period of time).

Screenshot from Nick Trojan's "The Sweet Eight" video

But we wouldn't necessarily be surprised if it were very close, or even if the top U.S. national team entry, or the French national team (both of whom have been rowing together for longer) managed to get out on top of the field. After that, there's the CBC lightweight Great Eight (again, long course, points for efficiency!); the and the collegiate eights from Harvard, California, and Washington (surprise, surprise) will no doubt be very efficient units.

On the women's side, it looks to be a straight up battle between the Great Eight of scullers, and the USRowing entry. While it would be difficult to predict anything other than a very close race here, the USRowing crew, much like every eight that Tom Terhaar assembles, very strong, and features a mix of world and Olympic champions in this event, as well as athletes who set the most recent World Best Time in this event (2013). However, Heidi Robbins has been replaced by Molly Bruggeman (Notre Dame 2014, was in the U23 four and eight that won gold over the summer). Given the last-minute sub, and the relative experience levels, we're taking the Great Eight, just barely, again. Also of interest will be to see the programs from Oxford and Cambridge mixing it up with their peers in the U.S.—while not yet at full strength, it could help provide a measuring stick for those programs going forward.

Lightweight Eights
Lightweight events are notoriously difficult to predict, but we think this one will come down to the Ivy League program will all the momentum from last year, Cornell (a lineup that includes 2014 Crash-B U23 men's lightweight winner Will Oprea), and the ASR Nereus entry, which features some international-level Dutch athletes. Harvard on their home course is typically strong, but we'll be interested to see how they compete in the post-Andrew Campbell era. Also of interest will be Columbia—can they keep the positive energy building from last season and take it to the next level in 2015?

The women's lightweight eight, like the men's, looks like it will be a battle between a foreign crew (Minerva, in this case, again boasting some international-level talent from the Netherlands) and Radcliffe—last year's IRA champions. Stanford should be competitive, but only recently hired a new head coach, Derek Byrnes (formerly of Oakland Strokes), and may have some building yet to do for the 2014-2015 campaign.

Collegiate Eights
Some of the most closely fought racing will likely come in these boat categories. The Men's Collegiate Eight front runners, as has been the case over the last few years, look to be Michigan, Virginia, Grand Valley, Williams, and Hobart. (The Drexel entry is the JV, with the varsity having won last year and moving up to race the Champ Eight event.) Michigan is coming off a very strong 2014 spring season, and given the depth of their squad over the past two years, we are taking the Wolverines to come out on top in Boston (last year, Michigan finished second, two seconds behind the Drexel Dragons, backing up Michigan's second-place finish in 2012 as well—this year, we're looking for them to climb that mountain). On the women's side, it will be a match-up of the top collegiate club program by far, Grand Valley State, and some top DIII NCAA programs in Trinity, Bates, Ithaca (who had a strong finishes at the Charles last year, along with William Smith) and Williams. While Grand Valley State took the title last year, we're taking Trinity to win at the 50th Head Of The Charles.

Youth Eights
Another very difficult event to pick, because of the great variation in performance that you get from year to year, but then again, there are some familiar names in these hugely subscribed events. Anytime you see Eton College coming over, you know they're going to be bringing a very strong unit—the program is coming off another win in the PE at Henley Royal Regatta, so even though they're starting 58th, you just can't count them out (after all, Marin did it from 69th in 2010). Long Beach Juniors (starting 77th) were the 2014 national champions in the youth eight, and Oakland is coming off a second place finish at the 2014 USRowing youth nat champs, and Marin was the 2013 Head Of The Charles champion, so we are looking at those as our top three, with St. Paul's School (last year's runner-up behind Marin) in the mix as well. The women's youth eights should see Oakland (fresh off a sweep of both the heavy and lightweight eights at 2014 youth nationals) come out on top once again, if they can repeat their excellent performance from last year despite having lost their head coach to Stanford. Marin will have a strong, but relatively inexperienced lineup in Boston, while OKC Riversport will return with much of the same lineup as their second-place crew last year. Still, holding off Sarasota, Saugatuck, and Connecticut will be a tall task.

Extras
Harvard alum and U23 world champion Andrew Campbell will be racing in the Champ Single as well as the lightweight Great Eight, as we mentioned, but he also did an interview in anticipation of the 50th Head Of The Charles with a start-up called Hottspot (an events discovery platform), in the video below:



The interview details some basic background on the Charles, as well as insight into Campbell's rowing history and beginnings in the sport, and his recent sponsorship deal with Red Bull.

You can keep tabs on everything going on at the Head Of The Charles via our dedicated Twitter feed, as well as using the hashtags #HOCR and #HOCR50 (for the latter, see below):



All right—now you're all set for the weekend. You can take a look at all the entries via RegattaCentral. Sorry for the spoilers—just do us a favor and try to act surprised. Attention. Go!

-RR

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