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When asked about their shared duty in the No. 1 Harvard heavyweight varsity, Crimson seniors Aaron Holzapfel and Malcolm Howard adopt what seems to be practiced sarcasm.
“Basically,” says captain Holzapfel, “since freshman year, Malcolm and I have been the same person.”
Howard, the team’s master protocol, answers with the perfect synchronization required in the timing-obsessed sport of rowing.
“Yeah,” he nods with no trace of a smile, “exactly the same person.”
They jest, but few fans of collegiate rowing could blame anyone for being unable to distinguish one’s accomplishments from the other’s. They have done everything together—at least on the Charles River.
Everything but lose.
Together they have won four Eastern Sprints titles, three national titles, and were part of a 2004 crew that defeated the British and French national teams at the Bearing Point World Rowing Cup Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Since dropping two dual races their freshman year, Holzapfel and Howard are a perfect 18-0 in varsity dual races over the past three years. All of those wins have come in radically different boats.
“We can never compare the eight of this year to last year.” Howard says. “They’re very different. The same is true for comparing [the 2004] crew to the one from our sophomore year.”
Comparisons may be moot, especially among three boats that have had thoroughly dominant seasons. One thread, however, weaves these champion crews together: Holzapfel and Howard have rowed in each one, and they’ve never crossed the line in second place.
“If you have a couple guys who are experienced, are willing to push the entire program and have a nose for the line,” Holzapfel says, “you can do amazing things.”
The duo has made a career of such things. In 2003, Holzapfel and Howard were the lone sophomores in a boat rumored to be one of Harvard’s fastest ever.
“We were young,” Howard says. “We were hiding in that boat.”
They looked to two senior leaders—Mike Blomquist and Justin Bosley—throughout that season, one of the most dominant in Harvard history.
“We were spanking everyone,” Holzapfel says. “And after every race, [coach Harry Parker] said, ‘You guys aren’t fast. Don’t look into it—it doesn’t mean anything.’”
It did mean something. The Crimson scorched every dual opponent and went on to open-water victories at Sprints and IRAs.
When Howard and Holzapfel returned for their junior season—accompanied by five others from the 2003 boat—they immediately felt the burden of doing it all again. Sophomore year, they were naïve, they were young, and they won convincingly. Anything less in 2004 would be a devastating failure.
“I don’t remember coming off the water after a race and being genuinely happy,” Holzapfel says of his junior season. “Unless we horizoned someone, it wasn’t good enough.”
But the 2004 Harvard crew delivered despite immense internal and external pressure.
They even exceeded expectations, winning both Sprints and IRAs, defeating the French and British national teams, and then falling by only six seats to a Dutch national crew that went on to win a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics.
“We might have been the best university crew in the world,” Howard said earlier this year.
His use of the past tense is critical. With the graduation of seven of nine members of that boat—Howard and Holzapfel were all that remained—nobody expected Harvard to repeat in 2005.
The varsity eight entered the season at No. 4. Howard and Holzapfel were used to No. 1, and they made sure the young boat grew accustomed to that number as well.
“We went from being the young guys in the boat without a clue to the seniors who share their knowledge with the younger guys,” Holzapfel says. “And I think we showed them that if you make up your mind to go fast, and you’re motivated to go as fast as you possibly can at all times, then you can succeed.”
When the No. 1 Harvard varsity capped off a 6-0 dual season with a Sprints win on May 15, it was only fitting that Howard and Holzapfel grasped the trophy together.
One hand each laid claim to the No. 1 ranking they have held for four years—to the unblemished record they share as three-year members of the Harvard varsity.
“I never thought all this would happen,” Howard says, reflecting on the undefeated run. “I came here just wanting to make the freshman boat.”
In four different boats, with different personnel and varying expectations, Holzapfel and Howard have stood victorious on the Lake Quinsigamond winner’s dock—never as the same person, but always together, as two indispensable parts in one of the best runs in collegiate rowing history.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at email@example.com.
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