Along the south bank of the Cooper River, across from the crowded grandstand and the mass of canopies boasting the colors and logos of universities from across the country, rowing coaches pedal bicycles or cruise in cars to follow their oarsmen as they compete.

Wisconsin coach Chris Clark would have none of it yesterday during the 106th Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.

He didn't want to drive. "Too dangerous," he said. "I didn't want to get into a wreck."

He didn't want to pedal. "Too lazy," he said with a shrug.

As a result, Clark, perched on a hill near a gazebo, didn't see the first 1,500 meters or so of the 2,000-meter Varsity Eight Grand Final the Badgers won to give them their first IRA national championship since 1990.

"I didn't really see how the race played out, and I really couldn't hear [the public-address announcer] very well," Clark said.

For Clark, he didn't have to see to believe. The Badgers' V-8 boat had dominated the Eastern Sprints and was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the USRowing Collegiate Poll behind defending national champion Washington. They had gotten through the spring unblemished without even popping into their fastest gear.

But after top-ranked and previously unbeaten Washington jumped out to a five-seat lead at about 400 meters, Wisconsin kicked into overdrive, took the lead, and fought off a brief challenge from California, the 2006 champion. The Badgers beat the Huskies by 1.721 seconds, while California finished a distant third.

"I did hear them say we were ahead with about 700 [meters] to go, and I thought, 'All right, that's it. We're done. We're going to win,' " Clark said. "That's the first sprint they had all year. We didn't sprint in the Sprints. We didn't sprint at any event. We did sprint in practice, but not in a race. I knew they'd have to, but I didn't think they'd have to do it from behind. They're good. They're just good."

Sitting in the Badgers' No. 2 seat was junior George Walters, a graduate of La Salle High School, where he was a scholastic all-American swimmer in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Walters helped La Salle win the V-8 championship in the Stotesbury Cup on the Schuylkill in 2003.

Walters is part of a rather unusual championship crew. All of them are American born in an era when most of the top boats have international rowers. Five of them are walk-ons. The average weight of the rowers is 187 pounds, light by today's standard. And, Clark said, it wasn't until he inserted twins Ross and Grant James into the boat that it became a championship-caliber one.

"Five walk-ons," Clark said. "At Wisconsin, it's not unusual, but compared to the rest of the teams, it just doesn't happen."

After the victory, the Badgers followed tradition by tossing their coxswain, Adam Barhamand, into the river. In addition to Walters and the James twins, rowers in the Wisconsin boat were Joe McMullin, Max Goff, Ed Newman, Zach Krupp and Derek Rasmussen.

It was a big day overall for Wisconsin, whose women won the lightweight eight for the fourth time in five years.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.