The Jefferson High boys' varsity eight crew already has beaten the fastest boats from its state, region and country. The Colonials' next goal is rowing past the world's best at this week's Henley Royal Regatta in England.
Local rowing coaches have hailed Jefferson's boat as the best the Washington area has seen in over 30 years, and Jefferson has the hardware to prove it. The Colonials won titles at the Virginia and National Capital Area championships, as well as the prestigious Stotesbury Regatta in Philadelphia and the Scholastic Rowing Association National Championships in Orlando.
Their win at Stotesbury was the first by an area crew since Washington-Lee's win in 1969. That crew went on to win the boys' high school eight trophy at the Henley Royal Regatta -- the same championship Jefferson will vie for starting today in Henley-on-Thames.
"The mark is Stotesbury. If you can handle Stotes, that's a clear sign," said Derrick Parsons, nine-year coach of Washington-Lee, the last area school to enter the Henley, in 1989. Jefferson "didn't even get pushed in this area. A crew like that, you mark your own speed by how little you lose to them by. It would be nice not to expect to lose, but you just tell your kids to get as close as possible."
Held annually since 1839, the Henley is regarded as one of the most prestigious regattas in the world, drawing crews from the United States, South Africa and all of Europe. Jefferson has faced only one of the other 39 entrants in this year's high school race -- known as the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup -- defeating St. Andrew's of Delaware in April.
At 2,112 meters, the Henley is longer than the 1,500-meter courses Jefferson rowed all season. Instead of racing heats, the Henley uses a dual meet format. Crews face off two at a time, with the winners advancing until only two crews remain in the final. Still, a victory is not out of the question for Jefferson.
The last American team to win the Princess Elizabeth Cup was St. Joseph's of Philadelphia, which won at Henley (after taking gold at Stotesbury) in 2000.
"We expect to see a lot of fast schools, it's just a matter of us establishing our race on the water," Jefferson Coach Jim Granger said. The goal "is to have great [races] day in and day out. Another school may beat us, but they will have earned it."
That's the attitude Jefferson has taken all season. The philosophy is enforced by a core of six seniors who rowed together on the freshman eight in 2001 and on the varsity last season at the Alexandria school.
"Four years ago, when we saw these guys together, we knew we had something special as a class," Granger said. "Returning those six juniors was a big part of our success this year. They realized what it took to compete at that level and had a year to train."
In addition to experience, the 2003 season left the varsity eight with unfinished business. They missed a gold at Stotesbury by 0.4 of a second to Holy Spirit of Philadelphia.
"I think everyone remembered [that loss] and it was our goal to win this year," said Alex Sieke, a senior tri-captain who will row for Princeton next year.
Granger said this crew is the largest and fastest of any boat he's seen in his seven years at Jefferson. The crew averages 6 feet 5 inches and 200 pounds per rower, and their average ergometer time is 6 minutes 23 seconds, rowing an equivalent of 2,000 meters.
But opposing coaches admit the boat's success comes from more than strength alone.
"It's the old adage, you win if you have the horses," Parsons said. "But you don't go that fast by accident. I've seen crews that have been that size but not that strong. You have to have the whole package. [The Jefferson rowers] are well coached and disciplined."
The rowers credit Granger, who took over the varsity program in November 2001. Seniors Sieke, Erik Anderson and Matt Lucas also picked up some tricks last summer at U.S. Rowing's national invitational camp.
"We learned we weren't the best thing out there and you have to raise your level of competition," said Lucas, who will row for Harvard next year. "We came back not accepting anything but perfection and worked hard for that every single day."
It helps that the boat's two juniors, Rhet Summers and Greg Howe, are national camp invitees.
"Every school has one or two stars, but our eighth and ninth guys are better than everyone else." Lucas said. "Our depth makes us special."
Recently, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner met the crew and gave each member a pin to wear on his blazer throughout the regatta, a reminder that a championship sweep and a trip to the Henley is an accomplishment in itself.
"We just want to go over there and race hard, and if that puts us on top, awesome. If not, we gave it our all," said Anderson, who will row for Princeton next year. "It would be amazing if we could come back with that title and end a storybook season."