On an overcast June morning the week of the national championship race in Cincinnati, Jon Bernstein looked out onto the Charles River at the JV and Freshmen boats in the water behind him. The team captain, Bernstein was in the Varsity boat up ahead.
He was rowing just under the Anderson Bridge, heading downstream, he remembers. And he was smiling contently. Sitting in his seat, he was thinking to himself how happy--and how pleasantly surprised--he was that all three of the Crimson boats were still in the water so late in the year.
Although 1990 was supposed to have been a rebuilding year--the team graduated six of their eight varsity rowers, and half of their JV boat the year before--the team, at all three levels, had a tremendously successful season.
The Freshmen were undefeated. The JV won the Eastern Sprints in May. And the Varsity, especially proud, won both the Eastern Sprints and the big Yale Race. The last of the "Big Three" races for the Crimson would be at the end of that week--the Men's Collegiate Nationals, known more commonly as the Cincinnati Regatta.
But on Saturday, June 16, Bernstein's smile of contentment faded. It was not the Crimson but the Wisconsin Badgers who pulled ahead to win the national title.
The defeat was a major upset for a team that had both Harvard's history and its own behind it.
Not only had the team, just a month before, walked away with the top honor at the prestigious Eastern Sprints in Worcester for the third straight year, but they had also capped off two straight weeks of grueling training in Connecticut with a sweet victory against Yale on June 9. The Crimson finished the 4-mile race to beat their historic foes by an amazing 30.6 seconds.
They seemed to be on a roll. And going by Harvard's general luck in the nationals in the past--the Crimson had won the heavyweight title at the prestigious Cincinnati Regatta for the past three years--most of the rowers believed they would leave Ohio with the national title.
So the eight rowers and one coxswain who descended into their boat last Saturday morning simply hoped that history would repeat itself. After all, they had worked hard--they had earned it.
But what eventually happened shocked all. Wisconsin's Badgers beat the Crimson by a whopping 4.34 seconds--almost the exact time by which the Harvard men had blown the same team away only a month ago at the Eastern Sprints.
The Wisconsin victory was a surprise. "They expected Wisco to be tough, but no one expected them to do what they did," assistant coach Charlie Butts said.
In fact, going into the race, Wisconsin had not really been the team the Crimson had set their eyes on. Harvard had beaten them twice in California and twice in Washington D.C. earlier in the season. All four victories, plus the one at the Sprints, had been "decisive," Bernstein said.
Instead, the Crimson mainly focused on Washington as the team to beat. It was the Washington team that had taken the top honor away from Harvard in the first regatta of the year in San Diego in April, by a very close margin. The Crimson went to Cincinnati determined not to let that happen again.
It didn't, But that was of no consequence, because Wisconsin was there to beat them anyway.
"Wisconsin rowed an excellent race, and we did not," said varsity rower Ted Marple.
"They rowed a national championship race," agreed Bernstein.
What was the most shocking about the loss was the almost nine-second difference between their losing margin in the Cincinnati race and their winning margin in the Sprints. "It was a pretty major change," said Marple. "I just don't think we were as aggressive as we were at the Eastern Sprints."
Looking back now, Wisconsin was not such a long shot after all. Not only had the Badgers beaten the Crimson in the heats at the Sprints (though they were creamed in the finals), but they had also beaten Harvard a couple of weeks later, at the IRA championship in Syracuse.
Not only that, but Wisconsin had a formidable history in the Men's Collegiate Nationals of their own. The Badgers' win marked the team's second national championship. And the Badgers had been the only team besides Harvard to win the prestigious national title since 1984.
But the team is not getting mad. It plans to get even.
"After a loss like that, it's very easy to get distracted," explained Bernstein. He says the team is not doing that. The rowers are out on the water twice a day again, more determined than ever to get that victory back from Wisconsin at the famous Henley Royal Regatta in England in the coming weeks.
"We could either harp on it, or see how much faster we can get," Bernstein explained. His team is choosing to do the latter, and plans to make the best of their reunion race with their new foes.
"We're looking forward to it," a determined Bernstein said, smiling. "Eagerly looking forward to it."