In the middle of the river, in the middle of the race, T.C. Williams junior Maggie West resigned herself to the thought that her crew might take second place at the national rowing competition in New Jersey.

As she and seven other girls in her shell cut the strength of the Cooper River with their oars, she thought, "Well, third place isn't bad either. At least we get a medal," she recalled.

The coxswain sitting in the stern snapped her to attention. There was no time in the six-minute race for thoughts like that. The T.C. Williams girls varsity rowing crew, a powerhouse from Alexandria, had a mission. They were not accustomed to coming from behind, but if it took all their strength to do it, they would.

After all, it was to be the last race of the season and, for many, the last race of their high school careers.

"She turned our thoughts," said West, recalling the crew's bad start that left it as much as a boat length behind. "Roxanna kept saying, 'You don't want third. You don't want second.' "

With 400 meters to go, Roxanna Drake, the coxswain, called a sprint. The crew dug deep and began the grueling tactic that eats up all the body's energy and more.

The crew moved up and held on to Holy Spirit, the team in the lead. In a photo finish win, the crew brought the national Scholastic Rowing Association Championship home to Alexandria that day two weeks ago.

If that was amazing, the day held more.

Not only did T.C. Williams' senior eight win (the varsity crew), but the girls junior eight and the girls lightweight (a crew whose weight must average 115 pounds per rower) also did, making it the first year that all three girls teams from T.C. Williams swept the national championships in the same year.

"We had the potential," said Steve Weir, coach of the girls lightweight crew, "but everything has to fall your way. It just happened they all fell on the right side."

Last weekend, the T.C. Williams crews traveled to St. Catharines, Ontario, where they took part in the Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association Championship. The girls' varsity eight finished fourth, the junior eight placed third, and the lightweight eight placed second in the international races. The varsity eight and the junior eight were the only two American crews in the final race.

Last Thursday, before the teams left for Canada, they perched on a picnic table outside the school's boathouse on the Potomac River and talked about their race, their win and what they had to give up to get there.

"It takes all your time," said Linda Miller, 17, a senior. "Missing prom is a good example of how much dedication it takes. We had to make our dates get other dates."

It just so happened that prom night fell on the weekend of the international race in Canada. And as sweet as victory is, there is nothing like missing senior prom.

Still the girls, glowing in their victory and the camaraderie that has grown among them, knew that a chance to race in Canada was something they couldn't miss. So they returned their prom dresses and turned their thoughts to another week of rowing.

Sophomore Erin Fitch told the story of what strengthened their determination to win the national championship. Just one week before at the East Coast regionals in the Stotesbury regatta in Philadelphia, T.C. Williams's senior eight lost to Holy Spirit, a private school in New Jersey and a hated rival.

"We came in fourth next to Spirit," Fitch explained. "So I looked in the program and found their names." She bought eight T-shirts and wrote the Spirit team members' names on the back with words "that shouldn't be printed in a newspaper." She gave the shirts to her teammates. And for the next week's practice, Holy Spirit ate their sweat. The night of the boat dinner -- traditionally spaghetti for carbohydrates -- the girls burned their shirts.

"It kind of psyched us," Fitch said.

Weir said head coach Dee Campbell tried a different training schedule this season. They worked the three teams together during the six-day-a-week practices, some starting at 5:30 a.m.

"It's terribly hard," Weir said. "There isn't any other women's sport that is more grueling than this. They average about seven miles a day in practice on the river and run from two to three miles. The kids have to set their priorities. You go home, do your homework and go to bed."

Inside the boathouse off the Potomac in Alexandria, where the team practices, hangs a quote from Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."

"The correspondent wondered ingenuously how in the name of all that was sane could there be people who thought it amusing to row a boat. It was not an amusement. It was a diabolical punishment and even a genius of mental aberrations could never conclude that it was anything but a horror to the muscles and a crime against the back."

Weir looked at the quote and dismissed its implications. "The reason the kids row is there is nothing like it. There is nothing to describe how good it feels when eight people are rowing together and the boat is moving right. When that happens, it's magical."

The students who won the national championships are:

Senior Eight: Maggie West, Natalie Dean, Jennifer Vanduren, Anne Ferrand, Erin Fitch, Cara Christman, Linda Miller, Mari Sunderland, Roxanna Drake (coxswain).

Junior Eight: Sara Uberman, Verna Lomax, Katie Dixon, Karen Taylor, Erika Radewagen, Joanne Rubini, Nicole Geraci, Alice Halsall, Cathryn Burton (coxswain).

Lightweight Eight: Megan Tiedt, Sarah Parker, Dionne Thorne, Susan Adams, Calista Bailey, Michele Hiltbrunner, Sarah Jordan, Rachel Debiase, Pia Singer (coxswain).

Campbell, who coached the senior eight and junior eight, has been coaching at Williams for 31 years.