For high school crew teams, this was the Super Bowl, the 52nd annual Scholastic Rowing Association national championships at Sandy Run Park on the Occoquan Reservoir.
The nation's best high school rowers had traveled from as far away as Florida and as near as Arlington to attend the two-day event Friday and Saturday.
Eight Northern Virginia high schools have established crew programs, although only T.C. Williams in Alexandria recognizes crew as a varsity sport. At Washington-Lee, Yorktown, Stuart, West Potomac, Woodbridge, Potomac and Gar-Field, crew programs are run as clubs and depend on funds raised by student rowers and parent booster clubs. Rowers from McLean and Langley also participated in last weekend's championship regatta, and formal crew programs are being considered there and at several other Northern Virginia high schools.
At first glance the regatta appeared more like a carnival than an athletic event. At the south end of the lake were the docks and a parade of young men and women carrying racing shells above their heads, trading armfuls of brightly colored racing shirts with one another and eating from outdoor grills operated by parents from their respective schools.
The dockmaster, bullhorn in hand, struggled to keep the small launching area cleared so that boats could get into the water and move up to the starting point for the races at the north end of the lake. Overlooking the finish line midway down the lake were the concrete grandstands where most of the 2,000 spectators sat to watch the days' events.
In years past, Northern Virginia crews have dominated these national championships, but last weekend only two local schools won first-place plaques -- Washington-Lee's women's varsity lightweight eights and McLean's boys varsity doubles (Stephen Gentz and Hector Aldana).
This was the third straight title for the Washington-Lee women, who finished the season unbeaten.
The Washington-Lee Generals edged T.C. Williams by three-quarters of a boat length in 5:55.9.
"We used a fast start, but still one of the T.C. boats was ahead early," said Washington-Lee coxswain Christi Kalmin, who directed her crew into the lead by the race's midpoint. "The other T.C. boat started its final sprint early and almost pulled even with us with 300 yards to go. Then we started to sprint, too, and pulled away again."
"We owe it all to our coach, Tom Chisnell," said Ginny Crouch, third-seat on Washington-Lee's varsity lightweight eight crew. "He knows so much about rowing and he takes the time to explain why we have to do something a certain way. Winning this title for him meant a lot to us."
This third national title had a downside for Washington-Lee, however. Graduation in several weeks will break up the crew. Meg Proctor, Kate Martin and Pam Barsby rowed on all three championship crews, but last Saturday was their last race together.
"I can't believe how excited we are to win this title again," said Proctor. "But soon I'm going to start thinking about not rowing for W-L anymore and that's not going to be easy. We've been together so long that it's hard to think about it without being a little sad, even with our accomplishments."
Woodbridge senior Andy Watt wondered what it would be like when his last high school regatta was over.
"This was my last race," said Watt, who rows in the fourth seat of Woodbridge's boys varsity eight crew. "I'm not going to be rowing in college. I'm going to attend Virginia Tech in the fall, and there's no rowing program there.
"But I don't know if I'll miss crew too much. If I do, I'll be transferring to another school where I can row," said Watt, whose boat finished second in the petit (consolation) finals. "I've made so many close friendships because of crew and we've been working together so closely for so long, I know that I'm really going to miss it. You can't spend four years in a shell with the same guys and not feel it."
Teammate Andy Smith has solved the problem of rowing withdrawal by going to the Florida Institute of Technology next fall. FIT is one of the nation's traditional collegiate rowing powers. "I couldn't imagine going to a school where there wasn't crew," Smith said.