For the Harvard and Radcliffe crew teams, the biggest test of this year’s fall season will be the first test of the season — and it will take place in front of several thousand spectators on the Crimson’s home river.
The Head of the Charles, the world’s largest two-day rowing event, will be held this weekend for the 55th time. Thousands are expected to attend as some of the top rowers from around the country flock to the Charles River for a regatta that is defined as much by its pomp as it is its show of athletic prowess.
For Harvard, which will race all four of its crew teams, the weekend is a chance to start the fall season on a high note.
“I think it is a tone-setting regatta, and I think we’re set up well to have a really strong performance this weekend,” said junior Brigid Kennedy, who races for the Radcliffe lightweight team. “We’ve all been working really hard and we have a wonderful group of freshmen this year that just came in. I think we have a lot of power and we’re ready to see how it stacks up against everyone else.”
Harvard’s Head of the Charles performance last year was highlighted by a first-place finish by the Radcliffe lightweight fours boat. This fall, they are hoping to pick up where they left off.
“Coming off of last year, we’re very excited to see how this year goes,” Kennedy said. “I think we’ve made a lot of strides as a team this fall and I think everyone’s really excited to see how we stack up against the other lightweight crews.”
Kennedy, who is racing in her sixth Head of the Charles, was in the winning lightweight fours boat last year. She describes the victory as “truly a magical experience.”
“It was one of the most fun races I have ever competed in,” she said. “A number of us in the boat cried a little bit. To win the Head of the Charles is one of the most rewarding achievements in this sport and we were just so proud.”
The men’s heavyweight team finished fifth overall in the championship eights race last fall. According to junior Ethan Seder, the Harvard-Yale rivalry is a fixation for the men’s heavyweights at the Head of the Charles.
“It’s a good season if we beat Yale, and it’s a bad season if we lose to Yale,” Seder said. “We’re always excited about the opportunity to go up against them and show who’s the faster team.”
Harvard finished three spots behind the second-place Bulldogs last fall.
“Last year was pretty interesting racing conditions,” Seder said. “It was very windy and pretty difficult to get down the course. … We were pretty even with [Yale] for most of the race, except for one portion where they managed to take a significant margin out of us. This year we’re looking to press closer and hopefully to beat Yale.”
The men’s lightweight team is hoping to bounce back after finishing sixth in the both the eights and fours races last fall. Junior Drake Deuel says that the men’s lightweight team has “worked harder than ever this semester in training leading up to Head of the Charles.”
“We’ve done a lot of things differently this year,” Deuel said. “Our head coach, Billy Boyce, took note of some things that we maybe didn’t do as well last year and I think we’ve been training a lot more. We’ve done an extra probably three sessions on the water a week compared to what we did last year. So we’ve changed things up a lot. We’ve changed the selection process for our top boat so that hopefully we can have a better result that we did last year. We’re pretty confident that we can.”
Deuel says that a strong performance in the Head of the Charles would be crucial in kicking off what the Crimson hope will be a bounce-back season.
“Rowing is almost entirely mental,” Deuel said. “It’s physical in what you do on the water, but the results come from mentality and team culture. ... I think that for us, our first race coming back this year, we really want to put down a good performance so that we can look back on that over the long winter leading into our spring season and be confident in what we’re doing and know that it’s going to work.”
For the Radcliffe heavyweight team, the Head of the Charles is a chance to get out on the water and race hard, but “it’s not necessarily indicative of what’s going to happen in the spring,” according to 34-year head coach Liz O’Leary.
“Training has been terrific,” O’Leary, a former Olympian, said. “Our racing season is in the spring, so we look long-range to that as our target. The Head of the Charles is a really fun fall festival and a really great weekend of racing for everybody. It really is just that; it doesn’t necessarily indicate how anyone — us or anyone else — will be in the spring. For the fall, it’s a great opportunity to get out and do what we love to do, which is race.”
The Radcliffe heavyweight team finished 12th in the championship eights and 11th in the championship fours in last year’s Head of the Charles.
The crowd that turns out to watch the regatta is by far the biggest that college crew teams encounter. Rowers say that the spectators serve as extra motivation, not added pressure.
“We love the fans,” Seder said. “It’s great to feel support, especially in rowing — a sport that doesn’t necessarily have the most school support and community support. It’s great to have everyone come around us. Sometimes it can be stressful because when you know people are watching you it always puts stress on your performance. But at the end of the day it will fuel you to go faster and the excitement you hear on the banks — people cheering for you — just drives everyone to work harder and push faster.”
Kennedy says that the Radcliffe lightweight team concurs.
“We all adore the Head of the Charles,” Kennedy said. “In the Head of the Charles, for almost the entirety of the race, you can hear people shouting and yelling, which is so much fun. It’s a huge honor to be able to race on our home river — somewhere that we know as well as we do. We know every turn on this river, so that’s always very fun.”
Asked if the extra attention can add pressure, Kennedy was quick to swat down the notion that the spectators create a mental burden.
“I don’t personally think of it that way,” she said. “I think it’s fun to have the energy to work off of. This is usually a quiet sport, so to have all of these people here is just a very exciting time for us. I think it can be a little overwhelming at first, but this will be my sixth Head of the Charles, so at this point, I’m fairly used to the crowds here. The chaos is a fun chaos, it’s not an overwhelming chaos.”