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Rowing finishes ahead of pack in final regatta

She might have been disappointed, but considering the circumstances, there's no way she could have asked for anything more. Chris Hillson, a recent graduate, started out on the varsity eight boat in her first year rowing for Virginia - quite a feat for a freshman - and was part of a team that finished fourth in the NCAA championships. The next year, Hillson and the team finished third. The year after that, second. A trend was starting to develop.

But this year, with Hillson co-captaining the championship-hungry Cavs, they settled for a close third at the NCAAs May 28. Hillson's varsity eight and the other two Virginia boats all finished third in their race, all within two seconds of the runner-up.

Don't start thinking Hillson and the other 22 Virginia rowers were heartbroken after failing to bring home a team championship for the fourth straight year, though. Not even close.

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    "I didn't expect [to do so well]," Hillson said. "At the beginning of the year, we didn't have much confidence. We don't have the strongest team or the biggest team, and we had no idea how we were going to do."

    The boat finished at 6:42.79, less than two seconds behind University of Washington, and less than five seconds behind Brown, which ended up winning the team championship.

    "It was significant that we ended that well after the year we had," Virginia coach Kevin Sauer said. "We lost to some of the teams [in the NCAA final] in the Eastern Championship, but we really turned it around for the NCAAs."

    They picked a perfect time to peak. By taking the bronze in each NCAA race, Virginia became one of only three programs that has finished in the top four nationally in each of the four NCAA Championships (the other two are Brown and Washington). Now, the team is set to celebrate two other distinctions reserved only for the sport's best.

    Rising junior Barb Sheehan's selection to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association's All-American team tops that list. In only her second year at Virginia, Sheehan, who hails from St. Catherines, Ontario, wowed her coaches and teammates with her athletic prowess and attention to perfection.

    How good is she? Hillson tells a story of Sheehan's recovery from back problems last winter to demonstrate. Sheehan was crippled, rowing-wise. She couldn't even work out on the ergometer, the rowing machine.

    But, in her first winter erg test, Sheehan, still affected by her bad back, recorded a time of 6 minutes 50 seconds over 2,000 meters, a world-class score. Soon after, she was named stroke for the varsity eight boat and had a good enough year to be named All-American.

    Her teammates are overjoyed that Sheehan received the honor, but right now, they have their minds set on their upcoming trip to England. On the weekend of July 1-2, Virginia competes in the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames River. The Cavs join seven other teams that will race in the first women's event held on the regatta's main weekend in its 162-year history.

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