For most competitors in the Head of the Charles Regatta one 3-mile upstream pull on a twisty, windy course is quite enough. Doubling up on successive days borders on masochism. But for a few like Felice Mueller the choice isn’t either/or but both/and.
Last year, after finishing second in the women’s championship single to perennial victor Gevvie Stone, Mueller raced in the Great Eight, an all-star band of international scullers that won the championship eight crown. In this weekend’s 54th edition of the world’s largest two-day rowing event she again has signed on for double duty, racing in the single on Saturday afternoon and then joining her world-champion US teammates in the eight on Sunday.
“The toughest thing is getting psyched and ready to race two days in a row,” says the 29-year-old Mueller, who has been a national-team fixture for half a dozen years. “For me, that attention and awareness is what’s tough.”
The switchover from two hands to one has become second nature for the most versatile oarswoman in the country, who through skill and serendipity has collected four world medals in four different events and just missed the Olympic podium in Rio two years ago.
After a golden debut with the uncoxed four in 2013 Mueller switched to the quad the following year and won bronze. “I was really happy to be in an Olympic-class boat,” she says. “It was my first time sculling, so that was really exciting.”
With the Games approaching Mueller decided to return to the sweep (one-handed) side for the 2015 global regatta and won the bronze medal in the pair with Elle Logan. After placing fourth in Rio with Grace Luczak, Mueller decided to exhale and went back to Michigan where she signed on as an assistant coach while attending grad school.
“I was debating on whether I wanted to retire from rowing or not, but since I wasn’t sure I figured I should keep training,” she says. “And since I was by myself the only boat I could train in was the single. That’s how I jumped back into sculling.”
Mueller ended up winning the trials and qualified for the global championships, where she finished seventh after missing the final by a 10th of a second behind bronze medalist Magdalena Lobnig. “I was disappointed when I didn’t make the ‘A’ final,” she says, “but excited about how jumping into a new boat class I was able to do better than I expected.”
This year, after losing the single trials to Olympic quad medalist Kara Kohler, Mueller figured she’d try for a sweep boat for last month’s world regatta in Bulgaria. “I was already training at Princeton with the team so it just seemed natural to go into selection in whatever place they might need me,” she says. “It ended up being in the eight.”
After last year, when the Americans missed the global podium after winning a record 11 consecutive Olympic and world titles, expectations were relatively modest. “The team was very new and very young and you never knew where anyone could go,” says Mueller. “We were excited to just race as hard as we could. We felt if we did that we could get on the podium. [Coxswain] Katelin Guregian thought we could medal this year, we could get better next year and maybe we could win again in Tokyo. So to go over and race and win was beyond our expectations.”
The Americans finished more than two seconds ahead of Canada, establishing themselves as the favorites going into the Olympic qualifying year. This weekend they’re sending two blended entries to the Head, stocked with gold medalists from the eight and four. With no Great Eight to contend with the US, which hasn’t won the championship trophy since 2012, could go 1-2 in a field that includes a German boat and collegiate powers California (which won in 2015), Stanford, Yale, and Virginia.
“Without the Great Eight there — not to say that they’re always a shoo-in to win, although it seems that way — it does seem like there’s more opportunity for someone else to get the win,” reckons Mueller.
The odds of that happening are decidedly longer in the women’s single where Stone, who prevailed by 13 seconds last year, is favored to win her fifth straight title and record ninth in all. Mueller and Kohler will give chase.
While prospects are more open on the men’s side with the absence of titlist Michael Schmid, the field is stacked. Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale will be gunning for his fourth crown, pursued by Rio runner-up Damir Martin, former winner Andrew Campbell and John Graves, who was second the last two years and will be starting first.
In the championship eight, where college boats have won seven of the last 10 titles, the US males will be going after their first trophy since 2007. They’ll be up against a quartet of former winners in defender California, national champ Yale, Harvard and Washington plus entries from Germany and the Netherlands.
Head of the Charles at a glance
Dates: Oct. 20-21
Times: The Saturday races run from 7:45 a.m. to 4:32 p.m. The Sunday races run from 7:45 a.m. to 3:47 p.m. The full race schedule is below.
The course: The start line is at the Boston University Boathouse. The finish line is near Herter Park. The course is 3 miles and runs upstream. It takes about an hour to walk. Here is a course map for competitors and a course map for spectators.
Award ceremonies: All award ceremonies will be held at Attager Row, located just before the finish line. Ceremonies will be held following the races at 5 p.m.
Race results: The results board will be located outside Attager Row. Results can also be found here.
Where to watch: The six bridges along the course are great places to take in the action. The BU Bridge, the River Street Bridge, Western Avenue Bridge, Weeks Bridge, Anderson Bridge, and Eliot Bridge all have great views. Anywhere along the river bank also makes for good views.