The Wesleyan men’s crew team, after a remarkably successful season, took second place at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Division III Championship Regatta on June 3, flying through the water of Mercer Lake in Princeton, New Jersey. The finish was their best since 1987 and came after the spring 2023 regular season ended on a high note, with the Cards taking first in five of their last six races.
This victory was the culmination of months of tireless work on the part of the team. They entered the New England Championship on Saturday, May 6, with a No. 2 rank nationally and high expectations going into the race. Eli Smirin ’26 emphasized that the team improved considerably throughout the season, fueling their ambitions for the postseason.
“As we started to win races, we realized we were becoming one of the top teams,” Smirin said. “Our goal was just to get some medals and be aware that the other teams were looking at us how we had been looking at them previously.”
And medal did the Cardinals, with all three boats advancing to the grand final in their respective races at the New England Championships, highlighted by the Cardinals’ varsity eight squad—comprised of Asher Israel ’26 (coxswain), Joe Kagan ’23, Paul Kiyonaga ’25, Oliver Diamond ’23, Emmett Nunes ’23, Nelson Bellows ’26, Eli Smirin ’26, Brett Beaman ’26, and Pierce Buckner-Wolfson ’26—taking third out of 16 teams. The Cardinals’ second varsity eight boat and third varsity eight boat also delivered commendable performances, securing fourth-place finishes in their respective races.
“[We wanted to] really show that we are capable of doing that, coming off last year, where we didn’t even qualify for the National Rowing Invitational Championship (NIRC), so it was kind of like Wesleyan’s back on the scene,” Bellows said.
The Cardinals returned to Lake Quinsigamond next weekend for the NIRC. The varsity eight boat finished second among DIII boats and third overall with a time of 5:51.09, which tied their season-best time. This finish secured a qualifying spot for the Cardinals in the IRA National DIII Championship in June. The second varsity eight boat also qualified for the IRA Championship, finishing fourth with a time of 6:02.41. Bellows noted how rewarding this finish and qualifying for the IRA was.
“It just felt like such a culmination of all the work we’ve put in through the winter and everything,” Bellows said. “And the entire team is just so supportive of each other, we were so cohesive at that point, it felt so good to see it pay off.”
Because the IRA Championship was scheduled for Friday, June 2, and the Spring 2023 semester finished on Friday, May 19, the team had a three-week period during which they were solely focused on training.
“It was like a really fun time because we were all together just with one single focus in mind and working towards that just for those weeks,” Smirin said. “And so we trained twice a day, and it was exhausting but really rewarding.”
But the team did more than just training. Bellows revealed one of the major activities the team did during their downtime.
“In the evenings, we’d play croquet, we really tried to do low-intensity activities just hanging out as a team,” Bellows said. “But croquet was the main one, we spent a lot of time playing Andrus Field. We’d set up a big croquet game, and then everybody would partner up and go after it, which was tons of fun.”
Heading into the Championship race, the Cardinals knew Williams would be the toughest test. Smirin revealed a conversation they had before the race.
“I remember thinking that it’s really scary to try,” Smirin said. “Because if you really think you can do it and you lose, it hurts a lot. But I remember talking with [Bellows], and just basically agreeing with each other that we believe in this boat. But I think they were just so good that we didn’t really, I don’t want to say we didn’t have a chance, but it wasn’t much of a competition.”
The Cardinals varsity eight ended up losing to Williams, but were able to best Bates in an intense photo finish that saw the Cardinals finish 0.072 seconds ahead of the Bobcats. As the Red and Black crossed the finish line and rowed beyond, they were initially uncertain if they had edged Bates out.
“[Bates] just came storming back,” Bellows said. “And honestly, once we crossed the finish line, it’s just like the last 300 meters, you have really no idea what’s going on. You’re just sitting down, just rowing and blacked out. And we got to the finish line, we had no idea if we got second and third, because there’s literally about an inch.”
Smirin described the excitement of learning that the team had come second.
“As we paddled from the finish line back to the dock…all of our parents who had come to see us were cheering for us and holding up a number two, which is really sweet,” Smirin said.
The second varsity eight boat also finished runner-up, crossing the finish line a second before third-place Trinity. Two runner-up finishes capped one of the best single seasons in program history. According to Smirin, this season was incredibly meaningful to him and his teammates.
“It was just so fun and rewarding to be able to compete and train alongside such a special group,” Smirin said. “I think it’s a really unique culture and community and the team will have just massive support and love for each other. So to be able to have some great finishes to close out the season and send our seniors off like that was incredible.”
The team now transitions into the fall season attempting to adjust to the absence of last year’s seniors and the addition of a new crop of first-years.
“I think everybody on the team had so much respect for Oliver and Joe,” Smirin said. “And everybody wants to carry on the legacy and the values they instilled in all of us. So I think our new captains, Paul and Max, are and will continue to really carry that spirit forward. And I think the whole team is focused on bringing that forward and also introducing it to all the new freshmen. It’s just really exciting, because it was a great group of guys last year, and it’s shaping up to be a really awesome team so far.”
The Cardinals kick off their 2023 fall campaign on Wednesday, Oct. 1, when they will travel to Hartford, Connecticut to compete in the Riverfront Regatta. Two weeks of rest will ensue before the team ventures to Cambridge, MA where they will take part in the Head of the Charles. The following weekend sees the Cardinals competing in the Head of the Fish up in Saratoga Springs.
“The expectations are higher than last year, obviously, after finishing second at the IRA, so we really are going to every race to beat last year’s time, and last year’s finish,” Bellows said. “And so I think we’re really measuring it off of ourselves right now. Because you can’t really think about other teams at all until you’ve raced them. So just bettering ourselves and doing better than we did last year and hopefully bring home some medals.”
Sam Weitzman-Kurker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.