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Top college rowing teams come to Lake Lanier for national championships
Kansas State rowers make prepare to launch at the Lake Lanier Olympic venue boathouses for a Wednesday practice session on the Lake Lanier course for this weekend’s American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championship Regatta. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships

When: 8 a.m. today

Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Venue

Tickets: Free admission, $10 parking

Gregg Hartsuff has a dynasty to defend on Lake Lanier.

When his University of Michigan men’s crew takes to the water this weekend for the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championship, they’ll be looking for their seventh consecutive title, a streak that dates back to the organization’s inception in 2008.

“This is one of the deeper teams I’ve coached here,” said the Wolverines’ coach, who was ACRA’s first president. “Competition for fourth varsity making third varsity, and third varsity for second varsity, and second varsity for first varsity has driven the guys to work harder and reach a little bit deeper.”

Standing in top-ranked Michigan’s way is the University of Virginia, who sits at No. 2 in the national poll.

The Cavaliers haven’t been able to catch the Wolverines in the men’s varsity eight race this year, losing in a pair of meetings.

But beating a team three times in a single season — in any sport, let alone rowing — is a tall task.

“Virginia is certainly the crew we’re most aware of,” Hartsuff said. “We’re certainly not overlooking them, just because we’ve beaten them twice.”

The men’s varsity eight showdown between the two ACRA powerhouses is sure to take centerstage during Sunday’s event final, but the heralded regatta hosted annually by the Lake Lanier Rowing Club at the Olympic Venue has more competition than ever in 2014.

Now in its fifth year on Lake Lanier, 274 men’s and women’s entries among 65 clubs across the United States will compete this weekend. It’s the largest turnout in event history.

“We actually had pretty good participation the inaugural season,” Hartsuff said. “This year, it’s just been fantastic.”

ACRA was founded to provide an elite level of men’s collegiate rowing not available under the NCAA, which only sanctions women’s rowing. The organization still offers women’s competition for schools without an NCAA program.

It continues to grow each year, to the point that schools are now subdivided into six conferences.

This weekend’s regatta is the season finale, featuring 23 events in a variety of disciplines from single sculls to eight-man sweep boats.

“There are still teams that are not here that could be here,” Hartsuff said. “Teams are realizing that if you want to program to be good, you need to have lofty goals. The teams that have embraced have gotten bigger, deeper and more competitive as a result.”

Lake Lanier has remained a popular location for the ACRA National Championship thanks to a unique feature, at least at the collegiate level: eight-lane racing.

Most venues feature only six lanes, and athletes often arrive in Gainesville having never competed against seven other crews in an event before this weekend’s regatta.

“When you’re racing seven other crews instead of five other crews, there’s just more activity,” Hartsuff said. “So that energy helps lure the kids back here. By and large, the student-athletes love it.”

But where there are more crews, there are more coaches, volunteers and spectators.

LLRC President John Ferriss ensures of a safe and organized regatta for the Memorial Day weekend, typically a popular time of year for boaters on Lake Lanier.

That includes strict surveillance of boat traffic around the racecourse, which will be monitored by Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The corps of engineers has permitted us to require no-wake traffic through the regatta area,” Ferriss said. “Boats that are moving through there have to slow down to no-wake speed.

“There’s plenty of water for people to fish and boat on. They don’t have to use that stretch of water. If they do, they can use that racecourse area at no-wake speed, and then cruise on north.”

LLRC was also attentive to the progression of Clarks Bridge, which passes over Lake Lanier between the boat facility and the racecourse. The bridge is currently undergoing renovations, including the addition of a pedestrian tunnel at the Olympic Venue.

Ferriss said rowers should have no problem getting through the bridge and over to the racecourse.

“There are the arches of the old bridge, and the caissons in the water to support the new bridge,” he said. “There’s plenty of space for crews to go through the old bridge, between the caissons for the new bridge and on up to the racecourse.”

Stakes are high on the other side of the bridge, where Michigan and Virginia will go head-to-head for a chance at national rowing supremacy.

“I anticipate closed water (bow of one boat is within the stern of another),” Hartsuff said. “There will be a tight race down the course, I definitely anticipate that.”