1978 will be remembered as the year that "The Race" finally lived up to its billing.
Coach Harry Parker's heavyweight crew made a mockery of the 100th running of the Sexton Cup on the Thames River with a crushing 3 1/2-length victory over Yale in New London on June 10th. The victory salvaged a rocky campaign for the Harvard heavies and revenged the Crimson's Eastern Sprint loss to the Bulldogs last May.
The Race recaptured the epic proportions of yesterday, with renewed spectator interest fueled by the revitalization of the Yale rowing program. Prior to the Sprints, Parker & Company had not lost to the Elis in 15 years. There had even been talk of cancelling the annual four-mile endurance test due to lack of interest and the academic exam timetable.
But not so this time around. Even in the wake of his exhilarating victory at the Sprints, Yale coach Tony Johnson had his sights set on the Thames debacle. "By comparison, this was just another race," Johnson said after the Sprints. "Our goal is the four-mile." Ditto Parker, who now sports an incredible 70-6 lifetime coaching mark.
The Race preparation affected both squads. Previously unscathed Yale threw the crew rankings askew by suffering its first loss of the season to an unheralded Dartmouth squad: Johnson promptly held his crew out of the IRA championships at Syracuse in order to devote full time to preparations for the Harvard race.
Meanwhile, injuries continued to riddle the Crimson eight on the eve of a two-and-a-half-mile encounter with Navy (June 3) at Annapolis. A physically exhausted (from the arduous Yale race practices) Harvard boat, which had best Navy by 12 seconds earlier in the campaign over a 2000-meter (1.3 mile) layout, lost by six ticks to the Middies.
So it was with an air of anticipatory uncertainty that the squads prepared to meet on the historic Connecticut waters. They were greeted by the largest gathering since The Race was televised live in 1963 with a Harvard fan squarely rooted in the White House.
Harvard won the opening combination race (leftover freshmen and junior varsity rowers thrown together in a shell) by four lengths before controversy erupted in the freshman race.
With Yale in the lead by a length down the final stretch, Eli cox Guy Gregoire failed to see a navigational buoy, which quickly chewed up the oar of number seven man Al Lawn. While Lawn was jumping overboard with the useless oar, Yale quickly lost its comfortable margin (and would have been disqualified by Lawn's swim anyway) to the surging Crimson.
A disconsolate Gregoire and angry coach Johnson claimed that the referee should have warned the boat about the buoy and wanted the race re-run. But the ref, Robert Morey (a former Yale Olympian rower) ruled that both squads were instructed about the buoy in advance, and vetoed the proposal.
The Harvard junior varisty kept the Crimson's perfect afternoon intact with a 28-second annihilation of their Yale counterparts, setting the stage for the varsity marathon that everyone had come for in the first place.
It took 23 minutes and 26 seconds of sustained agony in a moderate headwind to cover the unusually slow course, but Harvard was not to be denied its revenge. Parker would say afterwards that his outsized team (Yale averaged 10 pounds more per man) won on courage and raw determination, giving him "by far the finest effort any boat ever made for me. They guys rowed a gutsy race all the way," Paker said.
Indeed, Harvard went at it like a 2000-meter race throughout, settling at a torrid cadence of 34 strokes per minute for the duration. Yale, sporting a fancy new carbon shell made in England (that weighs 50-60 pounds less than conventional fiberglass boats), never could get above 32 strokes at any one stage of the encounter.
Even in victory the strain and drain exhibited itself. Harvard's answer to Goliath, 6-ft., 6-in., 212-pounder George Aitken of England, (who had missed the Navy race and several practices due to nagging injuries) collapsed at the finish line and had to receive emergency medical treatment. Number two man Gordy Gardiner and captain Tom Howes clutched weary and injury-riddled shoulders.
The rowing wounded had survived Harry Parker's training and the Yale race for another season.
CREW CHAT: Lightweight coach John Higginson has announced his retirement after six seasons at the helm, four Eastern Sprint crowns, and an outstanding 24-3 record...Jeff Cooley has been elected to the lightweight captain's post for the '79 campaign...Harvard lightweight four and junior varsity eight invade Henley Regatta in England this week.... Radcliffe lights competing in Nationals at Seattle.