The Yale women’s crew varsity eight boat took first place in the NCAA Championship Grand Final in Gold River, Calif., on May 30 with a time of six minutes and 24.75 seconds.

Yale rowed a quick first 500 meters in Lake Natoma to grab the lead, holding on to beat the University of Virginia by two seats. It was the third time in four years that the Yale first varsity boat triumphed at the NCAAs.

“To win three out of the last four NCAA national championships in the varsity eight event is an amazing accomplishment, and every member of our team should be proud to be part of that — I know I am,” said Will Porter, head coach since 1999.

“We hadn’t realized we won the race until a couple minutes after finishing, which is testament to both the speed of the field and the sheer exhaustion of such a tight race,” Caroline Nash ’11 added. “Even if that first buzzer hadn’t been for us, it would have been hard to be unhappy with the piece we laid down.”

Virginia finished second in the race this year, followed by Princeton, California, Stanford and USC. Yale grabbed the lead from the start, rowing the first 500 meters in 1:31.46. The Bulldogs held on to that lead for the rest of the race, despite Virginia’s attempt to catch up.

Though Yale was 3.39 seconds ahead of Virginia after the first half of the race, in the second half, Virginia gained 2.38 seconds, bringing the two boats almost even. But the Yale rowers held on to win the championship.

“We knew we had one of the fastest starts out there and needed to drive it from there to take an early advantage,” Maren McCrea ’10 said. “I knew, rather than just believing that we were ready and prepared and were going to win the race, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to bear the look on Will’s face if we didn’t win.”

Joining McCrea and Nash in the varsity eight were Dara Dickson ’12, Catherine Hart ’10, Alice Henly ’10, Tess Gerrand ’10, Stephanie Madner ’11, Maren McCrea ’10, captain Taylor Ritzel ’10 and coxswain Mia Kanak ’10.

Injuries kept several Bulldogs — Katherine Adams ’10, Alex Thompson ’11 and Roxanne Carini ’11 — from the NCAAs. But the fact that it was the final college race for six of the nine members of the varsity eight helped to motivate the senior rowers, Kanak said.

“I kept reminding them, ‘This is your last 500 meters at Yale, this is your last 100 strokes,’” she said.

Five of the graduating seniors and one junior in the varsity eight — Kanak, McCrea, Henly, Gerrand, Ritzel and Nash — rowed on Yale’s championship boat in 2008. Henly, Gerrand and Ritzel also rowed on the championship-winning boat in 2007. But Ritzel said this year’s win was especially satisfying.

“We led the field from start to finish and remained calm and focused throughout the entirety of the piece,” she said.

Yale’s second varsity, or junior varsity, boat, meanwhile, came in 12th with a time of 6:49. The four boat, or third varsity, got ninth place with a time of 7:24. Overall, Yale finished sixth in the competition, while Virginia, California and Princeton took first, second and third, respectively.

Since the Bulldogs’ NCAA victory, the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association announced its All-American awards for 2010. Four Yalies, Kanak, Henly, Gerrand and Ritzel, were named First Team All-American on June 7 — more than were honored from any other school. It was Gerrand’s fourth time winning the award and Ritzel’s third. Nash, who will serve as Yale’s captain next year, was named Second Team All-American.

Even though two-thirds of the varsity eight graduated in May, members past and present said they think next year’s crew can rise to the occasion again.

“We’ve got nine awesome incoming freshman who, with the rest of the 2010-’11 squad, will get a shot at adding to an incredible legacy of rowing,” Nash said.

Sarah Brownlee ’11, who rowed on the second varsity eight boat this year, added that the freshmen and sophomores in her boat gained valuable experience from the high-intensity racing at the national championships.

“I can’t wait to see how they put that experience to use in their preparation for next year,” she said.

As for the seniors, while Ritzel will to train for the Olympics with the U.S. National Team, the other graduating rowers said they are not sure yet what role rowing will play in their lives. More important to McCrea, for one, is the way rowing shaped her Yale experience.

“I am eternally grateful to have had the experiences I’ve had at Yale and with my team, and to have been a part of this family, each and every one of them who I love unconditionally, and I know that they feel the same way toward me.”

The family is going to miss her too.

“Our team, in spite of its size, is very tight-knit. To have one person missing, even just for a practice, is strange enough. Graduating an entire class at the end of the year feels like losing a limb,” Nash said. “The beauty of college sports, though, is that each fall you get that fresh start.”