California Challenge Cup 2020 to be Biggest Yet, Cal Men's Rowing Headlining Again

The 2020 California Challenge Cup will continue a growing tradition, but with modifications to the format that the hosts hope will increase its impact, now and into the future. While the origins of the race (formerly known as the UC Challenge Cup) can be traced back to UC Irvine Men's Rowing founder, Duvall Hecht, the modern incarnation of the regatta has aspirations of scaling to involve every California rowing program.

Here, we catch up with UCI Men's Rowing head coach, and California Challenge Cup organizer, Austin Brooks, on the new format and outlook for the future.

When you first started this tradition, was it always the goal for it to grow to this level? What was the inspiration behind the California Challenge Cup?

Austin Brooks:
The UC Challenge Cup was actually started by Duvall Hecht, founder of the UCI Rowing program, Olympian, legend in the rowing community. Everyone knows him. It was started as a coaches-run regatta in the early season, to kind of kick off the racing season after the fall of the Long Beach Opening Day Regatta. Originally, it was only the five UCs involved—and we didn't actually get Cal involved until I took UC Irvine to Henley, and ran into [Cal Men's Rowing head coach] Scott Frandsen in the boat tent. He said he would send some crews down, so then we started the tradition of having all the UCs, which was a huge achievement in itself.

In the past, you have had traditional 2,000 meter racing, but this year will be different—can you explain the new racing format a little bit and some of the reasons for the shift?

With our largest donor, Dr. Henry T. Nicholas III of Broadcom, spearheading the event in some ways, we are trying to put together a more spectator-friendly regatta. So, that's where the transition from 2,000-meter racing to 1,250-meter racing began, as well as from my own input and experience from racing at Henley, and dual-style formatting. We have been trying to find a way to find more racing opportunities early in the season.

My team is made up of nearly all walk-on athletes, and that's traditionally the way club programs work (without the benefits that go along with support from the athletic department, etc.). So, this new format creates 4 x 1,250-meter timed match-races for each crew, with a points system [based on time/speed] that helps determine which in a series of challenge cups you'll get to compete for—it's kind of similar to a Henley model, where there's a Temple Challenge Cup (for university crews), a Ladies Challenge Plate (for intermediates), and the Grand Challenge Cup (for internationals). Breaking it down the same way in that there are three tiers of challenge cups—crews with the most amount of points will be able to compete for the Henry T. Nicholas Challenge Cup, which is the highest level.

We have the ability to grow this to include up to 12 cup races with this current format, and we're hoping to get involvement across all of California. We are just shy this year—we're only missing UCSD, USD, and Stanford. Next year at this time we'd love to be hosting them as well, in what would likely be the first regatta ever to have an entire state competing in a single regatta.

It also gives the athletes the ability to get some high-quality racing in early in the season. My first race at the University of Washington was always the Class Day Regatta, but with walk-ons, you're telling guys to come down here 6 days a week, often at 5:30am, to do what? To race for what? They don't really understand racing yet—you can't really understand it until you do it. And of course, your first races are always going to be full of jitters, anxiety, and nerves—and then you have to wait a couple more weeks before you can try again.

This format allows the athletes to get out there and compete, make a mistake, suffer a loss, but then just get right back out there and try again just 55 minutes later. It gives us an ability as coaches to help the athletes find a path to success, and define successes and failures in a single-day format.

How do you plan to continue this momentum into the future? As someone who has raced at some of the most prestigious and established events in the rowing world, what are some of the keys to establishing a legacy and tradition that lasts?

I think it's all about the people, and the leadership involved. My hope is to have a solid regatta this year, without any complaints, any hiccups, and really draw the Newport Beach community (which is a sailing and yachting community) into rowing fans. I'm hoping to create a community event—Henley is a community festival as much as it is a rowing regatta—people come from all over the UK and Ireland to celebrate rowing, but also celebrate the summertime. My hope is that this event really gets racing season started with a bang, and gets people excited about the rowing season ahead, and although it has a championship style format, I'm hoping that it teaches the athletes just about competing. There are multiple chances to make the final races, and move up to the higher tier of competition. Every race matters.

Since every race is based on time, your competitor is almost irrelevant, but it gives the athletes the ability to see and compete with people they wouldn't normally get the chance to race. This is the only where we'll see UC Berkeley. So, it's our only chance of the season to try to get out there and beat those guys. It's an exciting opportunity.

Cheers to Austin Brooks for the interview! You can learn more about the California Challenge Cup via their official website.

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