GOLD RIVER, Calif. — University of California's women's rowing team has had a long history of international rowers, with the current contingent including athletes from Norway, Australia and Canada.
But this year's squad is likely the most diverse in the school's history with the varsity eights featuring freshman Paparangi Hipango out of New Zealand.
Hipango, 18, of Maori descent, rowed in the third seat of the Cal boat that finished second Friday and advanced to the semifinals on the opening day of NCAA Women's Rowing Championships.
Princeton, the only undefeated team among the 16 varsity eight boats, claimed the first of three heats on the 2,000-meter course on Lake Natoma in 6 minutes and 23.84 seconds. Brown was victorious in the second heat in the fastest qualifying time, 6:22.48, about 1.5 seconds faster than Cal.
Stanford claimed the third heat in 6:23.67 in the first session of the 15th annual championship being held at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center for the seventh time.
Hipango, known by teammates, friends and family as "Papa," came to Cal last August from her home in Whanganui, New Zealand. At age 15, one year earlier than most rowers, Hipango began to compile her impressive pedigree on the New Zealand national team in 2008 with a bronze medal in the fours at the World Rowing Junior Championships.
"It has diversity in culture and people," said Hipango of her Cal experience. "The athletic department and the teams are like nothing I've ever seen before. There has been a very high standard set by athletics in the past for those up-and-comers to keep working hard to beat. "
Dave O'Neill, the 13-year coach at Cal, has also coached teams in international regattas which is how he recruited Hipango.
"She's very strong technically," said O'Neill of his star freshman. "She just keeps improving, but it's her attitude that's impressive. She's so positive, it's alarming."
Cal, which has claimed two national team titles since the NCAA women's championships in 1997 and has been the runner-up the past two years, is among the favorites this year in the three-day regatta.
Hipango's reputation, which has been an integral component of the Golden Bears' wins this year over perennially top division schools Stanford and Washington, is gaining momentum.
Last weekend, Cal claimed its fourth straight Pac-10 title, with Hipango named the conference's newcomer of the year.
"A freshman typically has to have a lot of international experience just to have any impact on the varsity," said John Flynn, a contributor to rowing's premier website, row2k.com.
"Papa is a hard worker and she's just very strong," said Cal teammate Heather Hargreaves. "She's a power master, for sure."
The regatta's second day will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday with Division I semifinals. The condensed 10-event program is scheduled to conclude with the Division III finals at 11:20 a.m.
The varsity eights final, the regatta's most prestigious race, is scheduled as the final event Sunday, beginning at 12:05 p.m.