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Lightweight crew bows out with solid win

Rowing is the oldest collegiate sport in the United States and the newest varsity sport at the University, as well as the Athletic Department's best kept secret. But the women's rowing squad's performance at the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston last weekend should help draw some attention.

In its final competitive race, the Virginia lightweight four finished as the top collegiate boat at the Head of the Charles, the world's largest rowing competition. They came in second only to Argonaut Rowing Club of Ontario, Canada, by about nine seconds with a time of 19:02.45 for the approximate 3.1-mile course. The third-place boat came in a staggering 37 seconds behind the Cavalier boat.

"U.Va. just had, hands down, the strongest performance of any university at the Charles," Virginia Asst. Coach Ashlee Patton said. "The lightweights put in a dominant performance at the largest, deepest regatta in the world."

Over 5,400 athletes compete in 19 events at the Head of the Charles, which is attended by over 300,000 spectators each year.

Virginia rowers Jen Blomberg, Helen Hill, Kristin Keller and Rebecca Van Dyke were coxed by Elizabeth Arnebeck down the Charles River. The victory is all the more impressive, considering three of the four rowers and Arnebeck had never traversed the difficult course.

Despite their performance at the Head of the Charles, the race this weekend was the lightweight four's last. As of October 1998, the Athletic Department and Cavalier Coach Kevin Sauer decided to phase out the lightweight program.

Part of last spring's process included making the Charles the lightweights' last race. Only one squad - those four that were to compete in Boston - trained this fall.

"We need to devote all our coaching and athletic energy and resources to trying to win the [NCAA] championship," Patton said. "Lightweight rowing is not an NCAA event, so in an effort to streamline our resources the program was disbanded."

The lightweight program made its last full year count, taking second at Eastern Sprints and third at the Lightweight National Championship.

"I just hope that ... we don't blame Kevin and Ashlee for their decision," team captain Chris Hillson said. "I can't think of any advantages that losing the lightweight team will bring to the team except that more attention can be spent on developing the athletes for the boats that will be contending for the NCAA title."

"It seems really unfair and like it's a step backwards for women's rowing," she said. "But I understand that it has to be done in order to make our team faster."