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Recruits Become Dream Team

Already champions in their own right, the members of the class of 2004 have come together to become one of the most powerful forces on the water

By Pablo S. Torre, Contributing Writer

Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal. Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, Antoine Walker, Steve Nash, Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

That 1996 NBA Draft class stands out as arguably the most talented group to emerge over the past twenty years. An incredible one-third of the first round draftees went on to become full-fledged All-Stars; several rose to be the best at their individual positions.

Collectively, they came in with the highest expectations and delivered.

The Harvard men’s crew witnessed something of its own version of the ’96 NBA Draft three years ago. With the requisite impressive statistics, awards, prospects and potential, the heavyweight recruits of the year 2000 entered Cambridge as one of the most highly-touted classes in the storied history of the Harvard program.

Now, those freshmen are seniors, members of the Class of 2004.

And for three years, they have done nothing but deliver.

Great Expectations

Before they had even stepped foot in Harvard Yard, the men’s heavies of the Class of 2004 were members of the United States junior national team, championship winners, and distinguished rowers on the international level.

If there was one common thread amongst the recruits, to be sure, it was winning.

“Coming in, [we felt] sort of an air that we were there to change the program, to take it to a new level,” Justin Webb said. “As freshmen, right from the beginning, we were really fired up to bring the Harvard program to the very forefront.”

Despite all the pre-college distinctions, the freshmen did not simply pick up where they left off. Immediately, they felt a need to improve and get better. The biggest motivating factor for them was competition, especially amongst themselves and in practice.

“If you have that many kids from the junior national team in one class, they’re all trying into get into [the first freshman] eight-seat boat, so there’s pressure, yeah,” said coxswain Jesse Oberst, the ninth member of that boat. “And all that gets pushed into racing, into readying yourself, into becoming better.”

In fact, like all incoming Harvard students, the recruits felt the need to move beyond high school and establish themselves in Cambridge.

“I think we were all a bit cautious about feeling a sense of entitlement,” Cameron Winklevoss said. “We all had yet to prove ourselves on the college level. We were just a class with a lot of potential [and] needed to focus ourselves on the pressure to win, not on the pressure from expectations.”

Fortunately for Harvard, it was a pressure the rowers relished without question. They may have been distinguished, but the freshmen handled practices with intensity and embarked on preparing themselves for the seasons ahead.

“I think that we all quickly learned that no matter what we had done before coming to Harvard, rowing—as well as other things—was going to be a totally different ball game,” Sam Bryson said.

Growing Pains

The depth of the group is something heavyweight coach Harry Parker is particularly quick to remember.

“The class was deep—we knew that before they had even arrived,” Parker said. “I thought it was going to be a good class, but what’s more impressive is that it has continued. It’s unusual to have quite so many members be so dominant in the first crew, and then the second, and even in the third. The depth is quite remarkable.”

Amazingly enough, that so-called dominant group began its first ever season together in the most uncharacteristic and unexpected of ways: with a loss.

“We lost our first race, ever,” Webb remembers. “It was our freshman year, racing against Brown.”

Virtually everyone in the class credits that defeat—an initial shock to team egos and hopes—as a defining moment in the evolution of the team.

“Our freshman year was definitely very special, and it was in large part because of that loss,” Oberst said. “It was the last time we really lost as a class. After that race, we worked extremely hard, and we just knew that we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

It was then that a sense of togetherness, as well as the crew’s true image and frame of mind, was born.

“We only amassed something like two losses after that in the next three years,” Webb said. “Some members of the team haven’t lost at all. It was definitely a turning point—we realized that losses are simply unacceptable, and so adopted that attitude from then on.”

Webb is quick, however, to clarify.

“It’s not arrogance, though. It’s confidence. Now, I just have so much confidence when racing with these guys, even when we’re down. We know we’re not going to lose.”

The outlook hasn’t failed the admittedly tight-knit group since.

“Getting to know one another in the context of an intensely competitive environment was sometimes a touchy process, especially since it was our first year at the college level,” Bryson said. “But we certainly came out of it as a group who felt like they shared a special bond with one another.”

Cool Runnings

After the April 16 loss to Brown in 2001, the freshmen heavies never looked back, going a flawless 8-0 in domestic competition the rest of the way.

But what separates their near-perfect season from any other successful one is the utterly dominating fashion in which they did it.

In May 2001, the first-seeded freshman boat—consisting of Webb, Kip McDaniel, Will Riffelmacher, Jonathan Lehe, Winklevoss, Jon Durham, Ray Hohenstein and Oberst—brought home Harvard’s 54th Eastern Sprints title with a convincing win over Princeton.

Their time of 5:35.98 broke the course record for freshman crews.

In addition, the second boat—Andrew Serke, John-Neil Thompson, Alex Chastain-Chapman, Jeremy King, Jordan Sagalowsky, Tyler Winklevoss, Justin Puleo, Bryson and coxswain Cristin Chinn—also took first-place in its event.

In June, the freshmen again flexed their rowing muscles with a victory over Yale in the annual Harvard-Yale regatta. In the two-mile race, the Crimson never gave the Elis a chance as Harvard outpaced the Yale boat by nearly 18 seconds.

But many point to the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta as the ultimate achievement of their then-short Harvard careers. In England, the crew defeated two international teams and the Yale junior varsity lightweight crew on its way to knocking off a fearsome Oxford Brookes University squad in finals. The win, a come-from-behind victory, “exemplified the strength and confidence we had built by year’s end,” said Webb.

“We thought we could do it, and did,” said Oberst.

But by no means were they done. The next season, the Class of 2004 rowers had a year of experience under their belts and several joined the junior varsity squad—six of the nine in the JV boat were the past year’s freshmen—while current stroke McDaniel stepped up to the varsity heavyweight level. The recruits became a full part of the Harvard program, and the influence was palpable.

“It’s been outstanding having them,” Parker said. “[With them,] we haven’t lost very many races at all.”

At Eastern Sprints 2002, McDaniel and the first varsity took second place, falling to Wisconsin in a heart-breaking Grand Final, and the junior varsity boat won its race. The next month, the varsity and junior varsity boats went on to beat Yale in the Harvard-Yale regatta, allowing the 2V to finish an undefeated season off with a win.

The mostly sophomore contingent hadn’t lost a race since that first loss to Brown—on April 14, 2001.

“No one has been able to touch them all year,” Hugo Mallinson ’02 said at the time. “We’ve got a bunch of sophomores who’ve never lost at Sprints.”

Mallinson couldn’t even begin to grasp how right he was.

At Henley that year, Harvard this time sent four boats—two eights, and two fours. Three of them won gold; the one that didn’t, a four, fell to the only logical opponent—Harvard. Two Crimson fours met up in finals, making for “an extremely satisfying final,” said Chastain-Chapman.

They had finally met a worthy opponent.

Perfection Personified

In 2003, one year later, more of the recruits moved into the first varsity boat, joining McDaniel once again. As juniors, they witnessed the men’s top-seeded varsity heavyweight crew at last win Eastern Sprints, exacting vengeance on that same Wisconsin squad that had knocked the previous year’s group to second place.

McDaniel got to make up for the previous year’s second-place finish—only the second blemish, or “bad side,” to his rowing career.

The varsity heavies remained undefeated, and went on to compete for the first time for the National Championship IRA Regatta, breaking a longtime tradition of abstaining due to scheduling conflicts with the annual Harvard-Yale regatta. But with those conflicts gone due to a Bulldog policy change, the opportunity arose.

And like the team had done the entire year, and the years before this, the Crimson simply won.

The varsity heavies secured the Varsity Challenge Cup by a margin of four seconds over Wisconsin, capturing the sixth national championship for men’s heavyweight crew in Harvard history. A strong third-place showing from a previously undefeated second varsity boat helped garner the Ten Eyck trophy, as well, presented to the overall points champion of the IRA races.

A victory at the Harvard-Yale regatta the next weekend capped off the Crimson’s magical season.

Doing It Again

This year, those recruits, now weathered seniors, face the lofty challenge of repeating perfection. They lose two seniors to graduation, but if you ask them, you’ll find that they relish the seemingly impossible pressure to improve—just like in their freshman year.

“We lost a few really good seniors, but we have some good sophomores and juniors behind us,” said Chastain-Chapman. “The expectation in the boathouse is to win everything, and people won’t be satisfied with anything but that.”

Least of all the rowers themselves.

“We expect nothing less than perfection, really,” McDaniel said. “We wouldn’t be happy with anything else other than the same. Except, maybe, victory by a larger margin—it would be a terrible misfortune to have junior year be our best.”

This past weekend in Rochester, the varsity crew defeated Dartmouth and Brown by a considerable margin, and the Crimson seems to be right on track.

Then again, with this recruiting class, the sky is the limit.

“As far as this year goes, anyone on the squad will tell you our goal, because it’s been the same for the last three years: to be the most dominant squad out there,” Bryson said.

And after?

Some will attempt to join the crews in Oxford or Cambridge, they say, with hopes on serving on a national team sometime in the future. But now, they’re firmly focused on one thing.

“We expect nothing less than being national champions,” said Riffelmacher.

With all these recruits have shown us, there’s no reason to suppose anything else. Just go back and check the record books—they’re there. Oftentimes, more than once.

Or maybe you’d be better suited to simply look back and see the faces of the frustrated masses they’ve left behind.

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