Eight official heavyweight national championships. Eight more unofficial crowns from back before people wrote these things down. Twenty-three Eastern Sprints titles.
The most important statistic? Forty-two years. That’s how long rowing legend Harry Parker has been at the helm for the Harvard heavyweights, and that’s how long the Crimson has dominated across the country—since two years before the Head of the Charles Regatta was first held.
Given his record, it’s hard to label any of them the most dominant crew he’s ever coached, but last year’s eight would certainly be near the top. After an undefeated run in dual races, Harvard decimated the field at Eastern Sprints, winning by over five seconds.
“There’s not too much to add. It clearly was an exceptional crew and it was fun to see them have such a successful collegiate season,” Parker said of last year’s eight.
The national title race was no different: there was Harvard, and there was everyone else. A four-second victory at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championships gave the Crimson its second consecutive national crown and an undefeated spring season. The second varsity would take home a silver medal at the IRAs, and the two crews would spend the rest of June preparing for a trip to the Henley Royal Regatta.
A month later, the first varsity had defeated national teams from Great Britain and France at the Bearing Point World Rowing Cup Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.
“We might have been the best university crew in the world,” said senior five-seat Malcolm Howard, who has rowed in the varsity eight since his sophomore year. They certainly dominated interscholastic competition, winning every race but one by open water during the regular season. In the semifinals at Henley, the Crimson handily beat a talented Cambridge crew before falling in the finals of the Grand Challenge Cup to the Dutch national team—by just two-thirds of a boat length.
But that was July, and October has a decidedly different flavor. Graduation took six rowers from the first varsity and six from the second. The first varsity coxswain graduated as well, and Harvard’s invincible heavyweights began to look increasingly more mortal without competing in a single race.
Only captain Aaron Holzapfel and Howard remain from last year’s eight, the rest anonymous underclassmen fighting for a chance. But anonymity is encouraged in this sport, and you’ll hear the same tune from the team’s leaders.
“Right now, everybody is going into winter training gunning for a seat on the varsity without any preconceptions about who’s going to be in the boat,” Howard said.
Everybody else, however, is gunning for the eight men pulling Harvard oars. And the group has gone from favorite to forgotten, nationally renowned to nothing special.
Where six seniors reigned supreme last year, empty seats await their christening by the replacements. Nobody expects anything from this boat, and that leaves the Harvard heavies exactly where they want to be.
“We’ve taken on the role of the underdog,” said Holzapfel. “We’re not the most experienced, we’re not the strongest, but if we can be the most determined, the most passionate, and the hardest working crew in the country, then experience and strength won’t matter much in the end.”
The opportunity for hard work starts this weekend, when the possible replacements get their first competition on the Charles River. The Harvard varsity heavyweights enter three boats in this weekend’s events—two fours in the championship four event and one boat in the championship eight event. Last year’s first freshman boat—a Henley favorite whose run ended in the quarterfinals because of severe breakage in the boat—will row in the eight, and the current varsity eight will split into two fours for the weekend.
Recent history bodes well for the Crimson, with last year’s crew being the first interscholastic boat to finish in the championship eight event. They finished fourth amongst all competitors, crossing the line less than a second after the USRowing crew.
And though the vendors still sell their storied fried dough, the course remains identical, and the coach on the launch carries the same legendary status, this boat is far from what it was. The senior-laden crew of 2004 remained largely intact after the 2003 national championship season, making this seemingly new beginning all the more difficult.
But if you’ve got to start over, you might as well bring some hardware with you.
“I think [being the underdog] is somewhat more normal and refreshing. And despite losing a very strong class, we still have a good squad with a lot of potential,” said Parker.
Indeed. The returning oarsmen from last year’s second varsity and first freshman boats are hardly forgettable. All 16 come into October after second-place finishes at the national championships last spring. In addition to returning lettermen, Washington transfer and sophomore Brodie Buckland will certainly help carry the load for the Crimson. Though this is his first season in Crimson, Buckland is all too familiar with Harvard’s recent success. The Olympia, Wash. native stroked the UW boat that took second to Harvard at last year’s IRAs.
Still, talk of championships and boat pairings will wait until the spring, long after the last tent is collapsed on the riverside this weekend. The Head of the Charles might be the talk of the fall rowing season, but words like Eastern Sprints and IRAs are the true gauge of rowing excellence.
“The Charles is a great opportunity to get the adrenaline pumping again, and remember what it feels like to race,” said Holzapfel. “It’s really just a time to have fun and stretch our legs a little.”
That said, the Head of the Charles carries with it a certain preeminence—one which this Harvard crew will have a hard time forgetting about on the starting line this Saturday.
“The Head of the Charles is our race on our river and everybody else is just guests that weekend,” said three-seat William Ulrich, who moves up after a year on the second varsity.
The guests will number around 500,000, some of whom are new to rowing and will scan the riverside for the nearest vendor.
Other, however, know the story of the Harvard heavyweights and the legendary Harry Parker, and they’ll rely on their binoculars to see if this group can walk the walk again.
And that walk, as it always has and almost surely always will, begins in the hallowed hall of Newell boathouse as early as October.