Local rower caps off banner year
Jamestown’s Carol Browning likes to be the favorite in a race, even if that means she presents a bit of a target for the competition.
That’s what happened to Browning when the Boston Globe effectively named the boat she competes on as the one to beat in the over-50 senior fours race at last month’s Head of the Charles.
Browning, who won a gold medal in the 2011 regatta with Robin Gross, Anne Fleet and Joan Brush, didn’t mind the notoriety. She’d rather be a contender than the underdog, she said. When the Globe advanced the event, the reporter wrote that Orleans Sweeps & Sculls, the organization that Browning rows for, was going for a third gold medal, but the race wasn’t going to be uncontested. Two other boats thought they had a chance to stop Browning’s team, the Globe said.
The other teams definitely had a chance, said Browning, if only because of their size. Her club has only about 140 members and faces a disadvantage against the bigger clubs, which have more members and a lot more depth.
“We knew the competition was going to be difficult,” she said. But Orleans Sweeps managed to secure a favorite coxswain, Andrea Rickey, the same one who steered last year’s race. And another plus, according to Browning, was that the team was coming off a “good practice season.”
They had reason to hope, but the Head of the Charles attracts talented rowers.
“We just didn’t know,” she said. “Can we do this again?”
The crew trained hard for the event, even spurning news interviews, due to a racers’ superstition against talking about the race in advance. They raced in the same boat with the same rowers that won last year. It’s a lightweight craft and easy to handle, Browning said.
“We were hoping we would do well,” she said, but with 28 boats in the event, winning was going to be a matter of turning in a top performance on race day.
And because the Orleans Sweep won the 2011 gold medal, Browning’s boat started the race first.
Browning said she likes the lead-off position because the other boats can’t block the way or slow the crew down, especially at the start of the race. But there’s a trap in that, too.
“When you don’t have a boat to chase, you don’t have anybody pushing you,” she said.
Another potential pitfall was the weather. Race day afforded the crews near perfect racing conditions, she said, and it was possible rowers would go faster than their usual times and it was even possible the course record could fall.
Browning said the second boat never overtook them, but the crew still didn’t know if they were leading the race.
The Head of the Charles is a timed race, and boats go off seconds apart. It was possible, she said, there was a boat at the back of the course that was passing everybody.
In fact, that’s how Browning’s crew won its first Head of the Charles regatta in 2009, she said. “We started last, and we really were the underdog.”
Browning said the crew came out of the chute fast. Looking at the time in the first quarter split, Browning said, she could see how hard her crew tried.
“Our first quarter split was so good,” she said. “We came out wanting to do well.”
But could they keep up the pace and the energy for the 3.2-mile race from the Charles River Basin in Boston to the Henderson Bridge in Cambridge?
“It’s a trick with a 3-mile race,” she said. She has seen crews go out too fast and be unable to finish.
The coxswain made all the calls correctly, she said, cutting the corners perfectly and watching out for the buoys.
You can’t miss a buoy, Browning said, but otherwise, the strategy is all about pacing. The crew has to “go with never letting up,” and to do that means they must master mental focus. According to Browning, in the heat of a race, the rowers have to stay introspective.
Meanwhile, the second boat kept challenging. It was about 250 meters behind – or approximately 10 seconds.
Browning said that her boat would start to gain on them and lengthen the lead, but then the other boat “picked it up again.” Browning said the crew then would battle to increase the distance between them.
Orleans Sweeps led the second boat for the entire race but never got comfortable.
“We saw the boat following us,” she said. Browning said if a boat starts gaining, the rowers are supposed to shout and let the coxswain know.
She estimated she had to do so only once.
“It was sheer drive in our part,” she said. “We really wanted it, and we didn’t realize we were so damn competitive.”
But the last 500 meters was almost the crew’s downfall.
“We all know the landmarks,” Browning said, and the crew recognized the turn into the race’s fi- nal stretch.
Everybody had the same thought, she said. “Just dig deep. Stay long with the strokes. Dig deep. We’ve got to get to the end.”
It was tough, but they stayed together and rowed “like clockwork. We didn’t get frantic,” said Browning.
Ultimately, the crew won the race by 33 seconds over 27 other teams and came 11 seconds from setting a course record. The regatta capped a banner year for Browning who captured six medals at the U.S. Rowing Masters National Championships in Worcester, Mass.
Setting a new course record is the goal for next year’s regatta, Browning said.