NEW LONDON, Conn. — James O’Connor stood on the Red Top dock Sunday morning with a cup of champagne in one hand and a symbolic broom in the other, the Harvard heavyweight crew captain’s customary accoutrements after another sweep of archrival Yale in their annual 4-mile race on the Thames River. Same as it ever was. “Coming into the dock,” he mused. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
After the freshmen and junior varsity had set the tone with upstream triumphs, the Crimson varsity followed with a relentless 6-length whipping of a young Bulldog entry that capped the program’s sixth consecutive sweep of the nation’s oldest intercollegiate athletic contest and marked the big boat’s 13th victory in 14 years.
It was a delightful golden anniversary present for coach Harry Parker, whose first triumph over Yale here came in 1963 and laid the cornerstone for an enduring dynasty.
“It was a present,” declared Parker, whose record in the regatta is 44-7. “These guys are a gift. They are a great crew.”
Harvard’s 24-second margin was its biggest since 2005 and it completed an unbeaten regular season that included the Eastern Sprints crown and a second-place finish behind defending champion Washington in the IRA national championships. It also made for an exuberant exit for the Class of 2013, whose flag was flapping atop the pole at the boathouse.
“This group has had an incredible run,” observed senior coxswain David Fuller. “A couple of Henley victories, three Sprints victories. And no Yalies got a Harvard shirt. That feels pretty good.”
As it turned out Sunday also was their graduation day since the seniors’ IRA duties in Sacramento ruled out their attending the commencement exercises in Cambridge. So Parker, who already was the dean of American coaches, stepped up as presiding academic dean and handed them their diplomas after they’d showered and changed into blazers.
Though Parker said that graduation was not conditional upon their beating Yale, his oarsmen weren’t taking any chances. “We made it conditional for ourselves,” said O’Connor. “We would not have felt fulfilled if we had lost that race.”
The day already was going the Crimson’s way by the time the varsity paddled down to the starting line at the railroad bridge. Their Henley-bound freshman boat had swamped Yale’s third varsity by nearly 8 lengths (10 minutes 29.5 seconds-11:00.8) in an unprecedented matchup made necessary when the Bulldogs opted not to boat an all-frosh lineup for the first time since the event was staged in 1893.
With freshmen now eligible to compete in varsity and JV races, Yale put six of them in those events and sent out a 3V that included a half-dozen upperclassmen, a couple of them seniors, to take on Harvard’s first-year men. What resulted was the Crimson’s biggest margin since 1940 and while they were happy to collect their blue shirts they would have preferred picking on someone their own age.
The JV, stroked by Lincoln senior Justin Mundt, had a decidedly tougher challenge, holding off the Bulldogs by six seconds (16:24.9-16:30.9) after holding that margin for most of the race.
While the Crimson varsity had dunked fifth-place Yale by more than a dozen seconds at the Sprints, it came prepared for a grinder as well.
“They were ready to do battle all the way up the course, no question about it,” said Parker. “It’s nice not to have to, but they were ready.”
For the first mile the Bulldogs hung in gamely, just under a length astern. But when Harvard mashed the accelerator, the issue was settled in a splash.
“We expected them to get out quickly, but we stayed with them at the beginning,” said Yale cox Oliver Fletcher. “A mile in, they had another gear to go to and we couldn’t follow.”
Midway along Harvard was up by 3 lengths and still pushing and crossed the finish line in 21:17.6 to Yale’s 21:41.3. In 2007, the last time the Bulldogs won, they’d stayed on the Crimson’s tail and finally broke them, winning by a half-second. “It’s a terrible race to lose,” remarked Parker, whose crews have suffered that fate only three times since 1984. “That’s why we work so hard not to.”
Harvard wanted to make sure that there was no chance of it this time. With Parker fighting off cancer with his understated stoicism, his oarsmen were determined to give him another day of brooms and bubbly.
“We always want to do it not only for Harvard but for ourselves,” said O’Connor, who’ll row a four at Henley next month with seatmates Andrew Holmes, Charles Risbey, and Josh Hicks “But today it was for 10 people — for us and for Harry.”
Nobody east of Seattle had beaten Parker’s guys all spring and Yale, with four freshmen in the boat including stroke Adam Smith, was outgunned.
“We gave full measure today but Harvard was clearly the better crew,” acknowledged coach Steve Gladstone. “We took a huge step forward this season, but the 4-miler today was a different story. Experience makes a huge difference in this race.”
Particularly, the experience of winning it. “It’s a question of confidence,” said Parker, “and not being intimidated by the distance.”
Harvard had five men who’d gone that distance. Now, all of Yale’s varsity has. Eli’s coming — but not this year.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.