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UC Irvine Men’s Rowing Participate in Annual WIRA

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UCI’s Men’s Rowing team made their yearly pilgrimage to Sacramento, California to participate in the most prestigious regatta east of the Mississippi, the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships (WIRA), from April 30 to May 1. 

WIRA Championships are divided into two categories: novice and varsity. 

Varsity Preview:

Irvine’s varsity crew is a well-oiled machine. Led by graduate student stroke seat Alex Wearn and graduate student six seat Connor Basile, the crew pairs excellent length with ferocious power. 

While many crews around the country can match the varsity Anteaters’ size strength, few can boast their cohesion. All eight oarsmen apply collaborative pressure resulting in race times that have garnered national recognition.

As of April 13, the Irvine team was the highest-ranked crew in the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) polls. To maintain and boost this national prestige going into ACRA Championships in late May, the Anteaters looked for a resounding victory at WIRA.

Novice Preview:

While the Varsity eight is full of veteran rowers, the Novice team is incredibly green. Programs like Orange Coast College and UCLA boast novice boats full of former high school rowers, but Irvine has only one.

This deficiency in experience has resulted in a game of catch-up for most of the year. Still, some think the team is poised to show out at WIRA Championships led by the aforementioned high school rower: sophomore two seat Sahil Desai. 

“We dig deep, like, we’re f***ing animals out there,” Desai said. “When we’re in race mode all focus changes, we give no s***s about what’s going on around us, we just want to f***ing win.”

Desai then commented on his feelings concerning the five crews his boat would be racing, all ranked ahead of him in the ACRA coaches’ poll.

“Why does that matter?” Desai said. “I don’t think rankings really matter … it’s novices, everyone is learning and improving.”

While the first novice eight hopes to take everyone by surprise, the Anteaters novice lightweight four won’t have that luxury.

The tight unit consists of freshman stroke Edward Biddlecomb, sophomore three seat Ethan Nghiem, freshman two seat Garrett Jones, sophomore bow seat Micheal LaBarbera and led by sophomore coxswain Henry Olmstead. Jones imparted how important each one of them is.

“I have learned to love rowing with them,” Jones said “These are guys that are passionate, they want to go out and do good.”

That love shines through, as this line-up remains undefeated in regattas. While they will have to go up against stiffer competition like Cal Lightweights, Jones remains optimistic.

“I think we have a chance to do very well … but every day I get to go out and row with these guys, it’s a win,” Jones said.

Being competitive in all of these categories leaves Irvine with a distinct chance to win the WIRA Championships’ Team Point Trophy, a measure of the best all-around team at the event. 

Winning that trophy would be a physical testament to head coach AJ Brooks’ philosophy of teamwork and collective sacrifice, which has brought the team back from COVID-19 poised to take the rowing world by storm.

The competition took place at Lake Natoma in Sacramento over Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1.

Varsity Recap:

Irvine’s Varsity crew had a great showing on Saturday, April 30.

They managed to pull away from the competition early and beat the second place UCLA boat by 3 seconds. With their time of 5:58.421 they were the fastest boat all day — fastest by 0.023 seconds.

Santa Clara University had a fairly similar row to Irvine’s in the heat right before them, coming out to an early lead and maintaining it to a 5:58.443 time. The Men’s Varsity 8 would come down to these two crews.

Sunday came, and Santa Clara jumped out to a four seat lead in the first 200 meters. Irvine struggled furiously to regain position, but each move was countered. 

Irvine’s final sprint was desperate and heated, but the Broncos had their number. Irvine came one and a half second short, finishing with a 5:55.537 to Santa Clara’s 5:54.089. 

The crew wore their silver medals with pride, but the air hung thick with the thoughts of what could have been. 

Novice Recap:

The weekend proved to be a challenging one for the novice eight. Their budding chemistry and recent promising performances were stifled by an untimely illness.

Freshman five seat and heart of the crew Landon Rakhshani came down with a nasty fever on Friday, and he was unable to race. This necessitated a quick reshuffling of oarsmen, and the introduction of Micheal LaBabera into bow seat.

Due to pair partner considerations, three total starboards were moved in the boat and the novice eight had to figure out the new lineup fast.

After a brief practice row on Friday the green lineup was thrust into Saturday’s heat. 

The boat was in fierce competition with USC’s eight for the 3rd place position but ultimately fell short by 0.8 seconds. UCI’s 6:35.096 was a drop off from their previous performances, and it landed them in the petite final on Sunday.

Sunday’s battle was against Western Washington University, who had rowed a 6:30.544 the day before and looked poised to take the final by a healthy margin.

Irvine came out firing, even with WWU through 500 meters. Slowly Western Washington took seats and by the 1500 meter mark they had about six seats on the beleaguered Irvine crew.

The Anteaters didn’t go lying down. They sprinted and took four seats in just as many strokes, only for Western Washington to respond and gain back two. 

Irvine’s final was a 6:37.476 (all times in the heat were slower due to a strong head-wind). This ranked them 9th place of all 13 novice crews at the Regatta, but their time was 2.5 seconds faster than USC’s in the grand final. 

This gave them the eighth ranked time and some would say better than the Trojan crew.

The novice four did not fall like their brethren in the eight. Even with their bow seat Micheal LaBarbera doing a double job in the eight, the crew went out and performed.

Due to insufficient entries, the lightweight four did not have heats, only a single row on Sunday.

Arizona State University came out with a blazing start, but UCLA and Irvine tralied with power. It took everything from the Irvine crew to keep pace with the Bruins boat as they both jockeyed for second place.

The Anteater’s higher stroke rate was ultimately their downfall, as going into the final 200 meters, UCLA’s sprint was much more effective. Irvine simply had nowhere to sprint to and came to finish third with a time of 7:27.434

Their efforts still won them bronze and they left the only novices with hardwear to show for the trip.

Overall, WIRA proved a mixed bag for Irvine, showing both their strength under pressure and the potential holes in their team. With three weeks until ACRA, time will tell what kind of finish Irvine will be able to put onto the season.

Benjamin Hendricks is a 2021-2022 Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at