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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

That Ol' Thames River Magic--Again

Inner Toobin

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

Harvard's luck had run out. The Thames River whammy would disintegrate--plowed under by eight behemoths wearing the blue of New Haven. For 16 straight years Harry Parker had led his heavyweight oarsmen to victory in the annual confrontation in New London, Conn., but 1979 was going to be different.

Almost. The four-mile ceremony of pain ended with the Crimson ahead again, the Sexton Cup secure in Newell Boat House again, and the rivalry in the nation's oldest intercollegiate sporting event again in Harvard dominion. It took a new upstream record to do it, but the Crimson won its 17th straight and its 67th out of 114 Sexton Cups.

The omens were grim, to say the least. Less than a month earlier, undefeated Yale thrashed previously undefeated Harvard on Lake Quinsigamond in the Eastern Sprints, with the Crimson barely holding on to second place.

Even before Yale won the Sprints, the Elis seemed the crew to beat. They were simply too big. At an average of 6 ft., 4 in., they were, in that repellant crew expression, "Gawds." When assembled in the tiny strip of fiberglass that oarsmen call boats, churning their oars with savage efficiency...well, they couldn't lose.

Certainly not Harvard. At an average of 6 ft., 1 in. and 175 lbs., they were too small. And they had lost the Sprints last year and finished fourth at the San Diego Crew Classic.

The early season races went as they usually do for both squads--easily--the only real surprise coming when the Crimson stomped everyone in the San Diego Crew Classic. They went on to dispatch other opponents with surprising ease. Brown went first, then Princeton and MIT, where Harvard set a record for its 2000-meter Charles River course.

But Yale was doing the same thing every week and had won the Sprints the year before, so it remained the boat to beat. The confrontation would come in two parts, with the Eastern Sprints opening the battle in mid-May, and the Sexton Cup settling matters in early June.

Yale owned the Sprints. Under a cloudy, sullen sky, the Crimson eight never countered an explosive Yale start and couldn't sustain any threat in the 2000-meter contest. Senior Charlie Altekruse, the Harvard captain this year, says, "We knew even before the Sprints that they were a big, strong crew and they could take it out early. That's what they did. They were able to hold on in the middle of the race, and in such a short race, they could push it at the end and win."

But Altekruse notes that such a strategy would not work as well in the four-mile Sexton Cup encounter. "We knew that in a four-mile race, if we could hold them in the middle two miles, they couldn't be so psyched to pull away at the end," he says.

Thus, Parker's plan for the four-miler. Let Yale pull out ahead, keep them within range, grind back into the lead in the last mile. Parker, as always, had it figured.

Then, disaster. Harry You, the senior cox, received word that academic problems would beach him. The only available replacement was Peter Kao, who hadn't been in an intercollegiate race in three years. The substitution brought additional pressure on Gordie Gardiner, the Crimson stroke and captain, who would now have to guide the boat without You's aid. He did.

Though motivation never appears to be in short supply in Harvard rowing, the varsity heavies gained an extra incentive when coach Ted Washburn's freshman boat stunned an Eli crew that had romped at the Sprints. Parker's crew then had to prove that the Thames magic remained intact.

Gardiner followed the race plan to the letter. Yale did vault to a big lead--as much as three-quarters of a boat--but the Crimson hung on, never letting its opponents pull away. Soon, the Yale boat began to look heavy instead of explosive. Its lead was gone with a mile left.

Strategy disappears in the last mile of a four-mile race. A strange brand of disciplined hysteria surges over a crew at this point, as the oarsmen churn wildly while trying to escape a fatal loss of synchronization. Yale threw everything into the charge, but Harvard held on by 2.5 seconds, winning in 19:22.9, the fastest upstream time ever.

Parker now returns to Newell Boat House and, as he does every year, begins to build his boat from scratch. New oarsmen somehow appear every year. In the spring they will travel to Connecticut's Thames. And--place your bets now--they will win.

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