NEW LONDON, Conn. — It was exactly half a century ago that Harvard coach Harry Parker brought his first varsity crew down for The Boat Race, as it has been known since 1852. “Same as ever,” he was saying last week, gazing out at the Thames River from Red Top, the well-worn but august headquarters that has changed little across the decades. “It’s all good.”
It has been beyond good for the Crimson oarsmen, who’ve won all but three of the annual 4-mile pulls since 1984, and are favored to sweep the regatta for the sixth straight time. “Last year we saw how meaningful it was to the [senior] class that they never saw a Harvard crew lose to a Yale crew,” says captain James O’Connor. “It would mean a lot to us if we could do the same.”
Sunday’s 148th edition of the nation’s oldest intercollegiate sporting event will be historic, as well. For the first time, freshmen are eligible to compete on the varsity, and Yale, eager to narrow the gap with its archrival, has four in its lineup, including stroke Adam Smith. “My objective was to field the fastest possible boat,” says Yale coach Steve Gladstone. “It’s that simple.”
So, for the first time since the event originally was contested in 1893 there won’t be a true freshman race between the schools. Harvard’s Henley-bound frosh instead will take on Yale’s third varsity, which includes six upperclassmen, one of whom (senior Grant Stegelmann) was in the big boat last year.
Parker, who tried to persuade Gladstone to field a first-year eight, has one freshman (6-man Vincent Breet) in his varsity, but would rather have stuck with tradition. “I still don’t like the idea, really,” Parker says, believing that freshman boats build a durable class identity that keeps oarsmen involved in the program. Ten Crimson seniors still were competing this year, four of them in the varsity.
“Class year remains the overwhelming affiliation here and I think that’s fantastic,” says Lincoln, Mass., native Justin Mundt, who strokes the JV and serves as Master of Protocol in charge of enforcing boathouse tradition and decorum. His roommate Alex Macintosh serves as the People’s Choice, whose role is to maintain democratic ideals. “I had the opportunity to check [the MP’s] power a bit,” reports Macintosh, “but he’s been a pretty fair leader.”
What everyone from the Class of 2013 has in common is that none has gone barechested at this regatta. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that no one in the Yale program has seen a Harvard shirt,” says David Fuller, the Chestnut Hill, Mass., native who coxes the varsity. “We judge ourselves on two races — the Eastern Sprints and Yale. We’re hopeful that this will be the summation of our Harvard careers.”
As has become customary, the Crimson will be favored in all three races. Yale’s last varsity victory came in 2007, when its underdog bunch kept nipping at Harvard’s stern until the Crimson cracked in the final half-mile and the Bulldogs won by half a second in the closest finish since 1914. The question now is whether a Blue varsity with half a dozen freshmen and sophomores who’ve never gone the distance can hang in long enough to put the squeeze on a Crimson boat that was beaten only by defending champion Washington at last weekend’s IRA national championships in Sacramento.
Yale has been a work in progress all spring. “Early in the season they were all over the place, which is typical of freshmen,” observes Gladstone. But after they finished fifth at the Sprints, the Bulldogs returned to their Gales Ferry compound ebullient. “Part of it is a bit of belief,” says Smith. “When we came back from the Sprints it wasn’t just a dream anymore.”
Their rivals, though, are determined to make them sweat blood for it. “If you beat us you really have to take it from us,” says O’Connor. “We’re not going to give it to you.”
Fifty years ago, Parker’s first varsity ripped the race away from the favored Bulldogs, winning by seven lengths, and didn’t lose another college race until 1969. This Yale crew will be happy to start with one victory. “That would be absolutely phenomenal,” says captain Jon Morgan.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.