Commencement, then another championship: How the Northeastern women’s rowing team captured its eighth straight CAA title

After years of early morning wakeups, two-practice days, and racing to and from class, it all paid off for Northeastern’s women’s rowing team with an eighth straight CAA title. Photo by Jeffrey S Fannon

For over four thousand Northeastern undergraduates, Friday was their last day as Huskies.

At this Friday’s Commencement at Fenway Park, bachelor’s recipients threw their caps in the air, hugged their families and friends, and went to parties before paying a bittersweet farewell to campus.

That wasn’t true for fifth-year student Helaina Howe. 

After Commencement, Howe had a brief post-graduation dinner with her family before falling asleep in preparation for a 6 a.m. alarm and six-hour ride to Pennsauken, New Jersey, on the Northeastern women’s rowing team bus.

There, Howe, the team captain, led the Huskies to their eighth straight Colonial Athletic Association championship on Sunday.

In a culmination of years of early morning wakeups, two-a-day practices, and racing to and from class, Howe’s clutch performance with the first varsity eight boat clinched the university’s 11th CAA title and a spot in the NCAA Championships.

Northeastern's women's rowing team celebrates after winning their eighth straight CAA Championship title. Photo by Jeffrey S Fannon

The women’s rowing schedule is a long and backbreaking one, but it prepared Howe for what ended up being one of the most exciting weekends of her life. The team’s training schedule is possibly the longest in NCAA sports, said coach Joe Wilhelm, whose team started training on the Charles River on the first day of classes in September.

In the fall, Howe said, she woke up at 5 a.m. for the first of two daily practices, a co-op, three meals, and, somehow, a full night’s sleep.

“It’s definitely a lot to do every single day,” she said. 

On top of that, the team competes so often that, after five years of racing, Howe said she doesn’t even get nervous anymore. At Sunday’s CAA Championships, though, she did. 

“I knew this could possibly be my last race with Northeastern,” she said. 

If the team hadn’t won the league title, it would not have advanced to the NCAA Championships, and her college career would have ended there.

At first, it seemed her fears might come to fruition. Northeastern won the first of three events, but finished third in the second varsity eight race after two crew members missed the trip due to illness and their replacements had only practiced in the new lineup once. 

“We went into the final race of the regatta three points behind Drexel,” Wilhelm said. “It set up a scenario where we had to win the varsity eight to win the championship.”

Mission accomplished.

After a near-disastrous pre-race collision with Villanova and a tension-filled six-minute wait, Northeastern overcame a strong Drexel start, took the lead halfway through the 2,000-meter event and won by seven seconds.

The victory added 21 points to the Huskies’ total, bringing them even with Drexel’s 38. But the best finish in that final varsity eight race was the tie-breaker, giving Northeastern the title.

Before the finale, Howe admits she and her teammates had no idea how many points they needed to win the competition. That made the result even more satisfying. And surprising.

“An awesome, awesome feeling,” she said. “Everyone was screaming at the top of their lungs.”

The championship trophy, Howe said, was then securely belted into a seat on the team bus for the long, and joyous, six-hour ride back to Boston.

Next up for the Huskies is the NCAA Championships, which begin May 27 in Sarasota, Florida. There, they hope to improve on their 20th place performance in 2021.

In addition to Howe, other fifth-year athletes on the team include Abbie Keane, Catie Eiref and Olivia Ozkurt. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to those who missed a year of sports because of  the pandemic.

“Having those fifth-year seniors and the leadership that they can provide for the team is really important,” Wilhelm said. “They’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where they are.”

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