Some athletes are bred from childhood by parents or coaches to be great and are pushed into the spotlight at an early age. Take Tiger Woods, for example, or the Williams sisters. But other athletes stumble upon greatness, one day making a conscious choice to pursue excellence in a sport they love.
Given his innate athletic ability and the rowing legacy in his family, Will Newell certainly could have been the first of these two types of athletes. Even his surname is synonymous with rowing greatness—the Harvard men’s boathouse is of course Newell Boathouse, although Will notes there’s no relation.
But Newell, now the captain of the Harvard men’s lightweight team, truly belongs in the second category, having made a series of decisions later than most elite athletes do that propelled him onto the Harvard and world rowing scene.
Despite having a mother who rowed for Radcliffe while herself attending Harvard, Newell made it all the way through sophomore year of high school without developing a callous or racing in a shell. Even when his younger brother, Alex, picked up crew as an eighth grader, Newell wasn’t tempted to jump in a boat right away. Instead, the standout athlete was hitting his stride and making a name for himself running cross-country and track.
“I ran three seasons freshman and sophomore year and was doing well, but I didn’t really like outdoor track,” Will says. “So, after that, I ran the fall and winter of junior year but decided I wanted to try something else in the spring.”
At that time, rowing and coaching great Tom Bohrer had recently started coaching Alex at Wayland-Weston Crew. The plan was to put together a lightweight four to race that spring, but the group was short two rowers. The timing and opportunity were perfect for Will to make the jump from track to crew.
“I said to myself, if there’s ever a time to start rowing, it’s now, because there’s a really good coach, and I am running out of time,” Newell recalls.
That spring, the Wayland-Weston youth men’s lightweight four made it all the way to the USRowing Youth National Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. The crew finished second overall, and after that exposure to high-level racing, Newell had caught the rowing bug.
“Will had been considering running in college and had been contacted by several running coaches,” explaines Will’s mother, Nelia Newell ’79. “But, after that summer experience, he came back and said, ‘I want to row in college.’”
In a single season, Newell transitioned sports and caught up to or surpassed most rowers his age that had been racing for years, enough so to catch the eye of collegiate coaches.
“Yeah, he was mostly a runner,” recalls Harvard lightweight men’s coach Charley Butt. “But he rowed enough for us to know that he had a lot of potential, and a long-time friend and trusted coach said, ‘This guy could do it.’ Will’s enthusiastic about the racing, and he’s not one to back down. I’d say he has a good competitive spirit, just the sort of thing that you look for.”
In the fall of his senior year, Newell started looking at schools. Dartmouth, Princeton, and Harvard all had boathouses within walking distance of the main campus and consequently became his top choices.
“I had a great time on the recruiting trip [to Princeton], was all set to go to there, and then at the last second I came here,” Newell says. “I think what it finally came down to is that they were basically even academically, but that it would be a better experience coming to Harvard.”
Again, Newell made a decision all his own. And looking back on his career at Harvard, the results have been unprecedented.
After excelling as a freshman, stroking the first freshman eight, Newell advanced to six-seat of the first varsity boat as a sophomore. In the 2008-09 season, he helped the first eight to an 8-1 finish in the regular season, a silver medal at EARC Sprints, and a bronze medal at the IRA National Championships.