Mary Whipple attends the 33rd Annual Salute To Women In Sports Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on Oct. 17, 2012 in New York City
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Even if Mary Whipple had not won the gold medal, the 48th annual Head of the Charles Regatta Sunday would have been the most colorful race she could have chosen to be her last for USRowing.
“Now I can say I’m truly retired,” said the three-time Olympian who coxed Team USA to a gold medal in the women’s eight in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Whipple, who also won gold in Beijing and silver in Athens, retired after the London Games, but said she couldn’t turn down an opportunity to compete at the Head of the Charles.
“The Charles is the Charles,” she said. “When my teammates asked me to do this, I was like ‘All right, absolutely.’”
Both the men’s and women’s championship eights races ended in protest that involved one crash and two USRowing boats -- an auspicious culmination to the world’s biggest two-day regatta.
With five rowers from the Olympic gold-medal-winning boat in London, USRowing won the women’s championship eights after the Cambridge Boat Club -- known as the Great Eight because it is comprised eight Olympic scullers rowing in a sweep boat -- was handed a penalty for rowing off the course while trying to avoid crashing into the Yale University boat.
The resulting 10-second penalty against the Great Eight meant that USRowing officially won the race in 16 minutes, 13.49 seconds. The Great Eight’s appeal of its penalty was denied, leaving it with an official time of 16:22.15, and the United States with its first championship eights gold on the Charles since 2007.
Whipple said the three-mile meandering course lined with an estimated crowd of 175,000 Sunday afternoon mostly makes for a fun race, given the fact that it isn’t run during the traditional rowing season. But once they started rowing into a wicked headwind, the 32-year-old from Orangevale, Calif., said everyone got competitive. The course, which twists and turns, makes it an unpredictable race and a hard course to navigate.
“You just have to make the best decisions,” Whipple said. “That’s why it makes it such a great spectator sport. It’s more fun than watching a six-boat-across race, especially when there are turns involved, bridges, people are overtaking other people, and that’s they why the Head of the Charles is so popular, you get so many people on shore watching.
“That’s why we love coming here, because we never get to row in front of the home crowd. We heard ‘USA’ chants and we were like, ‘Oh I hope they don’t see how bad we are rowing,’ but we gave it our all and we had smiles on our faces.”
Susan Francia, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who raced with Whipple at the London Games, likened the Head of the Charles to an auto race.
“This is head racing, and we didn’t have our best course, either,” she said. “Radcliffe actually pushed us out a little bit, too, but that’s what makes it exciting, it’s like NASCAR. I mean, it would’ve been nicer to win it on time, but whatever. And we said before the race, ‘Win or lose, we’re here to have fun and just put down our best race.’”
In the men’s championship eights, USRowing finished dead last after receiving an unprecedented four-minute penalty for not giving way to the University of Washington. When Huskies tried to pass Team USA, the U.S. boat wouldn’t give way and Washington crashed into them.
The USRowing boat, which was comprised of three members and the coxswain from the U.S. Olympic Team that finished fourth in London, finished the race with an official time of 18:07.51.
Washington also received a 10-second penalty for rowing outside of a buoy in the final half-mile of the three-mile racecourse. After Harvard (14:42.35) was initially awarded the gold, Washington (14:37.27) ended up winning the race after successfully appealing its penalty.
“In this regatta you’re supposed to yield to the faster crew, and that didn’t happen,” Washington coach Michael Callahan said.
Washington coxswain Seamus Labrum said he yelled yield about five times to the U.S. boat before he crashed into the U.S. boat’s stern.
In a telephone interview Monday morning, USRowing coxswain Zachary Vlahos said he takes “full responsibility” for the crash.
“They were moving up on us as we were approaching the [Eliot] bridge,” Vlahos said. “Looking back on it now, I thought we should have moved out of the way a little bit but at the same time the bridge was right there and they weren’t going to complete the pass before the bridge.
“Fortunately, nobody got hurt and it stinks that neither of us got a clean shot down the course. That’s unfortunate, but we got heavily penalized for it and Washington ended up winning so I’m happy for them.”
Earlier in the day on Sunday, Team USA’s Kristin Hedstrom won the lightweight women’s double sculls with a time of 20:55.90. Rowing in a University of Wisconsin Alumni boat, Hedstrom beat Vesper Boat Club’s Mary Jones by 1:41.
On Sunday morning, USRowing won the mixed adaptive fours with a course record time of 20:24.90, which was 80 seconds faster than the previous course record set by Capital Rowing in 2010, the adaptive event’s first year.
In the other adaptive event, U.S. Paralympian Rob Jones of the Louisville Rowing Club was one of two rowers in the boat that won the mixed/same gender adaptive doubles in a time of 24:38.15.
And on Saturday, U.S. Olympian Gevvie Stone also won gold in the women’s singles scull for the third straight year with a time of 19:06.88 — which was about 15 seconds faster than Australian Kim Crown, who earned the bronze in London. Stone finished seventh in London.
Stone, who grew up on the Charles River rowing out of the Cambridge Boat Club, has won the women’s singles at the Head of the Charles four times in five years and is the first person since Anne Marden in 1991-93 to win the race three consecutive years.
“She had a very good race, she hit all the turns right, she hit all the buoys right, and she was on her pace,” Greg Stone said of his daughter’s victory Saturday. “It went terrific. To get to race against Miroslava [Knapkova, the Olympic gold medalist from the Czech Republic] and Kim Crown was a huge honor. Those are the two best oarsmen in the world.”
Greg Stone also put together and coached the women’s Great Eight boat, which included his daughter.
He said the Great Eight boat was seven seconds behind USRowing halfway through the race before it made up the lost time; an amazing fact considering three of the rowers on the boat had never rowed a single oar before.
“I told them you really have to focus on the first half of the race,” he said, “because the second half of the race you will own because you are scullers you really are so much more fit.”
Whipple admitted that her team wasn’t in the best possible shape.
“This is a humbling sport and we knew it would be a painful race because we haven’t practiced since the Olympics,” she said. “We knew it was going to have to take guts and when it started to hurt and started to get sloppy we knew we had the next stroke to try to make it a little bit better.”