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For a long time, it’s been surmised that without its traditions, Harvard heavyweight crew would be as unsteady as a fiddler on the roof. This year, the Crimson will have to face the music.
Harvard has long skipped the National Championships in order to train for the Harvard-Yale regatta. This year, the No. 2 Harvard heavyweight rowers will follow No. 10 Yale’s lead and compete at the Intercollegiate Rowing Championships (IRAs) in Camden, N.J., just one week before the 151st annual Harvard-Yale Regatta.
The two heavyweight crews have not competed at IRAs since the Championships were held in Cincinnati after the H-Y regatta. However, with the Bulldogs in control of scheduling this year, Yale’s new coach John Pescatore has decided to place H-Y after IRAs so that the Bulldogs can compete for a National Championship.
The Crimson has somewhat begrudgingly followed suit, raising concerns about the diminishing prestige of H-Y, one of the most famous regattas in the world.
According to Pescatore, he made the decision to go to IRAs on September 1, 2002, the day that he accepted the head coaching job.
“It was entirely my decision,” Pescatore wrote in an e-mail. “It’s very important to race the best competition possible; it’s how one can find the will to improve.”
Yale’s decision drew mixed responses from the Harvard heavyweights, who were forced to decide whether or not to follow the Bulldogs to Camden.
“I’m not quite sure what their motive was,” said Harvard coach Harry Parker. “If they’re going and there are no scheduling conflicts, there is no reason for us not to go.”
Captain Mike Skey is a bit more cynical about the ordeal. He said that Yale knew the Crimson would inevitably fall in line if it decided to attend IRAs, because if Harvard trained through National Championships the Bulldogs would have an excuse at H-Y.
“They’re trying to run away from the race,” Skey said.
Meanwhile, junior Kip McDaniel is optimistic about this decision, but only in light of the relative weakness of Yale’s recent heavyweight squads.
“They [the Bulldogs] are, in effect, doing us a favor: we now get to attend Nationals, whereas before we did not,” McDaniel wrote in an e-mail. “The race in the past few years has not been as competitive as it could be, so going to nationals offers us an opportunity to get some fast racing late in the season.”
For those outside of the Crimson crew community, the decision to compete in the nationals might seem like a no-brainer. After all, what collegiate athletic program wouldn’t want to compete for a National Championship? For the Harvard rowers, however, it is deadly serious.
Harvard University is obsessed with tradition—the H-Y Regatta is practically a sacred rite.
The tradition of the H-Y Regatta dates back to August 3, 1852, when a group of Yale rowers challenged their Crimson counterparts to a two-mile race on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Harvard won the contest, which became an annual event held on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. The varsity race now covers four miles—the longest crew race in the country.
Some accuse Pescatore, a graduate of Penn, of underestimating the importance of preserving the H-Y Regatta. According to one rower, Yale’s Athletic Director has been pulling for the heavyweights to attend IRAs for many years, but the old coach was unwilling to diminish the H-Y tradition. Now that a new guard is in, the times they are a’changin.
“I don’t see how any race can outweigh a National Championship,” Pescatore wrote. “The Yale-Harvard race holds the top position in a separate category—it’s a tremendous and historic rivalry for those who compete in it.”
Parker and his disciples follow a different doctrine.
“It’s obviously good to be a part of Championships, but I don’t think it’s worth compromising Harvard-Yale,” Parker said.
The rowers themselves are even more adamant about the importance of H-Y.
“Harvard-Yale started the whole rowing scene in the U.S.,” Skey said. “It’s a shame it’s downplayed.”
“If I was forced to choose between Harvard-Yale and the IRA, I would pick the former,” McDaniel said. “It is something larger then the individuals [who participate in it].”
Since the H-Y varsity course is four miles long—many rowers call it “the marathon” of crew—it requires a very different type of training. Every year, the Harvard heavyweights spend about three weeks preparing for H-Y at a special training facility in Connecticut called Red Top. For many rowers, the Red Top experience is one of the most alluring aspects of Harvard crew.
“Red Top is just an absolutely amazing experience,” said senior Mike Blomquist. “You can really feel the history when you’re there bonding with the other heavyweights. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m sad that the experience won’t be the same this year.”
“[The experience] is impossible to explain to someone who has never been to Red Top,” McDaniel said.
The team will still visit Red Top between IRAs and H-Y, but Parker said that before that time “training will be more geared towards IRAs.”
Because Harvard and Yale have chosen to honor tradition and not compete at IRAs for so many years, some cynics might accuse them of hiding behind the H-Y Regatta. In general, however, few believe that the two programs need to win a National Championship to prove their dominance.
“I don’t believe anyone needs a National Championship to prove themselves,” Pescatore wrote. “You only need to attend a National Championship if you want to win one!” Coaches outside the Ivy League, like No. 3 Wisconsin’s Chris Clark, agree.
”Harvard and Harry Parker are the gold standard of American rowing,” wrote Clark in an email.
The Crimson heavyweights faced the Badgers last year at Eastern Sprints, falling in the varsity race but winning the Rowe Cup for overall team performance. While Harvard trained for H-Y, Wisconsin went on to win the equivalent trophy at Nationals.
“After winning the Rowe Cup last year at, as well as dominating Henley, I believe we have shown ourselves to be a top-notch program,” McDaniel wrote.
“If you win Eastern Sprints, you’ll pretty much get on the podium at IRAs,” Blomquist said.
However, through the Crimson does compete at the highest level throughout the year, it rarely meets the dominant West Coast teams such as No 1 UC-Berkeley and No. 4 Washington. Harvard used to attend the San Diego Crew Classic, but for the last four years the team taken a spring training trip to Florida instead.
“There is a degree of asymmetry in U.S. collegiate rowing that will be corrected by a full field IRA,” Clark said. “It is a shame that every top team does not meet at least once a year.”
Thus, while many of the Harvard rowers harbor concerns about downplaying the H-Y tradition, they are also enthusiastic about competing against the best boats in the country at IRAs.
“I feel like it is about time we raced them [UC-Berkeley and Washington] and see where we stand,” McDaniel wrote. “UC-Berkeley has been the standard by which all crews set themselves for the past four years. I feel other Harvard crews in that time have compared well to them, and I relish the opportunity to put our crew in that same light.”
This year, IRAs promise to be as competitive as ever and the winners will be able to call themselves “National Champs” in good conscience.
“Making any final at Cherry Hill has just been made a heck of a lot harder,” Clark said. “I think it is race between Harvard, Cal, and Washington.”
IRAs will take place from May 28-30, and Harvard and Yale will meet again on the Thames for the 151st H-Y Regatta on June 7.
The H-Y series currently weighs comfortably in Harvard’s favor at 83-53, and the Crimson has won 16 of the last 18 H-Y Regatta, including the past three.
“Maybe it means a little less to them [the Bulldogs] now because they keep losing,” Skey said.
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