Drive, confidence, balance led women's rowing to NCAA title

Above: a day after winning 2015 NCAA Division III Championship in Sacramento, the Bates women's rowing team took its new prize on a road trip to the Golden Gate Bridge on May 31, 2015. (Andriel Doolittle) Below: photos of May 30 races by Mason D. Cox.

GOLD RIVER, Calif. -- One of the first things the newly-crowned national champion Bates College women's rowing team did the day after winning the college's first-ever NCAA team championship was to return to the scene of the previous day's glory. 

As the new queens of Division III, it couldn't get much better than to watch the very best rowers in the country decide the Division I championship, and what better place to bask in their own championship vibes? 

Following that, a trip was made to the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo op with their beloved new trophy.

Head coach Peter Steenstra, for one, was eager to bring the big prize back to Lewiston.

"I'm just very happy for the women, for them knowing they have done all the work necessary to achieve this success," he said.

"I'm so happy for Bates, and I'm happy to be the one to be able to bring this achievement back to campus. Really, I'm also so glad to bring it back to Lewiston, Maine, and Maine in general."

On Sunday, the championship was clinched the instant that Bates' varsity eight crossed the finish line in second place, right behind Trinity. However, not everyone on site knew immediately that Bates had won the title because the point system that determines the team championship is somewhat new and isn't well known.

Steenstra himself was "very embarrassed to admit" that he initially thought Bates and Trinity had tied in points, and therefore the Bantams would claim the title due to their WV8 win.

But another coach came over and congratulated Steenstra, and an instant later Steenstra was seized in a bear hug so tight it could only have come from one person: Bates Director of Athletics and former collegiate wrestling champion Kevin McHugh. "Kevin almost broke my ribs," Steenstra laughed.

So the way in which Bates became Division III champion lends a distinct aspect of balance to the victory. The Bobcats couldn't have won the trophy if the second varsity eight hadn't held off Wellesley and won its grand final. In turn, the team also wouldn't be national champions if the varsity eight hadn't beaten each one of Hamilton, Tufts, Wellesley and -- for the first time ever -- Williams, in the WV8 grand final. 

"We were very confident in the 2V doing its job," said Steenstra, since the boat had beaten Wellesley the previous day in a significantly faster heat than the second one, won by Trinity.

In the WV8 grand final, Steenstra said, "we knew Trinity was going to be faster. They always are." Steenstra explained that this is the third year in a row the Bantams' WV8 has proven to be much faster come NCAA Championship time than it had been in the previous regatta three weeks earlier, the ECAC National Invitational Rowing Championships, which occurs at a particularly challenging date on Trinity's academic calendar. Yet Bates' WV8 stayed in contact with Trinity throughout the race, finishing only 3.21 seconds behind and 4.643 seconds ahead of third-place Hamilton. 

A scan of Bates' championship roster also underscores its depth: four seniors, six juniors, seven sophomores and four first-years. The program has already established a well-worn path to compete at the NCAA Championship level, with nine straight appearances and counting.

For Steenstra, what distinguished the group that finally pushed the program to the top of the mountain was "they weren't rattled by all the attention of being ranked No. 1. They wanted that. They liked being in the position of being expected to win, and they wanted that top spot."

For the many team members who will return to contend for future championships, there's still one unrealized goal: that of winning the WV8 grand final as well as the team title. That motivation, and the knowledge of the work required to win it all, should be two powerful guiding forces for the team beginning next fall. 

"You can see where this is going in the future," said Steenstra. "Some of these women have 2-3 more years to look forward to, with the desire to repeat this as many times as they can. They'll never lose sight of fact of how difficult it was to get there, and that they have to continue to work just as hard. The mountain isn't going to get any shorter."