Following a year in which the race failed to produce a winner, the Varsity race at the 2017 Harvard-Yale regatta almost did not deserve a loser. For three and a half miles of the four mile contest, Harvard overstroked, harried, harassed and otherwise threw all their chips down before finally succumbing to a decisive surge from a powerful Yale Varsity eight in the last half mile or so.
The Yale Varsity finishes a historic season with the first "triple" of Sprints win, IRA win and victory over Harvard in program history. While not truly undefeated (Yale lost to Cal at San Diego, and UW in the semis at IRA), there's no doubt that Yale is the fastest collegiate crew in the US this season. Yale also captured the 2V and 3V races for their first complete varsity sweep at Harvard-Yale since 1996.
In the highly-anticipated Varsity race, which pitted the first- and third-place IRA finishers against each other, both crews started the four-mile race strongly. While Harvard kept their rate slightly higher, Yale shifted into a somewhat lower, but very powerful cadence. And while Yale had, at one point, worked the lead out to a length, Harvard came back to virtually even just before the three-mile mark.
"At that time, the race could have gone either way," said Yale coach Steve Gladstone. "In rowing, it's really rare to get a double pass. If you're passed at that stage of the race, the likelihood of you coming back is pretty slim."
The Yale crew showed no signs of panic, and when the crew finally shifted up from its base cadence with three-quarters of a mile left to go, Harvard did not have an answer, with much of Yale's 5 second margin of victory coming in the last half mile. "A clever horse only jumps as high as it needs to," explained Yale stroke Stefan Riemekasten on the water after the racing.
"It was a little too exciting, but to be honest, that is the way I'd prefer it, a good close race," said Yale coxswain Grant Louis. "Harvard raced really well and I was incredibly impressed with the way they stuck with us. I looked over and saw them looking at us, and I said to the guys, 'that's our shift, be the breaker not the broken.' We just put the hammer down and knew if we could take those 15 strokes and get out hard we could put them away. They'd stuck with us so much and it seemed like their last push. I had a feeling that we put them away a half mile to go, just going for it, that we could put them away there and that would be the end of the race."
For many of the older athletes in the Yale crew, the season was a vindication of a years-long process of changing the culture of Yale crew.
"I remember the bad old days," said Yale four-seat Nate Goodman. "My freshman year I was in the JV, and we lost to Harvard by 29 seconds. It's been a huge turnaround for the program. It's really been driven by each class that comes in. Each class remembers less of the bad old days, and they come in assuming they're going to win, and train like they're winners. That's been really incredible to see, because my freshman year we didn't train like that; we didn't feel like winners."
Yale's 5.3 second margin over 4 miles was the tightest margin of victory in the 1V race since Yale's half-second win in 2007, and for many observers, both athletes and spectators, the result was worthy of the contest.
"We're proud of that," said Harvard coach Charley Butt after the racing. "Yale has been able to pull off close wins, and in four mile context that was a close win. I have nothing but satisfaction and pride on my part. Maybe Yale overpowered us some, but I can't fault our guys for not showing up. We were down, we were able to work back. They rowed 36 for the last three miles. With any sort of measure, they couldn't have given more. Yale of course, you'd be a damn fool not to give them credit for the season they've had."
With only 2/10s of a second separating the Harvard and Yale 2Vs at IRA, most expected the 2V contest to be tighter, but an inspired Yale 2V turned the burners on early, taking an open water lead in the first mile and not looking back, finishing with the day's biggest margin of almost 10 seconds over the three mile course.
The Yale 2V celebrated the win ebulliently, and in the context of the Harvard-Yale regatta, a Yale win is a pretty big deal; counting 2017, Yale has won the 2V at Harvard-Yale only 7 times in the last 30 years.
The 3V race was run first, in the best water of the day, with the Thames River doing its best impression of a millpond. The two crews traded moves early, before Yale pulled away after the mile mark to take the win by a length of open water.
Yale's Senior captain Rob Hurn, who missed the IRA with mono, raced in the Yale 3V, for all intents and purposes checking himself out of the hospital and into a boat for the regatta.
"There was no way I wasn't going to row in a boat today," said Hurn. "Even if I wasn't rowing, strap me to the bow. I had to cross that line one more time, especially against Harvard. I went to the doctor and they said that most of my functions - liver and spleen - were back to normal, so I could probably start easing into it. Easing into it, that was a few days ago. They probably weren't thinking two miles all out, but for me that's half the distance I rowed for the last three years, so that's easy to do."
Hurn acknowledged not being fully at 100% for the race, but that did not seem to matter. "I'm still feeling a little under the weather. It was a very tough race out there, and I can definitely feel the effects of not really rowing for the last few weeks, but it was great to share them with those guys, because no one in the boat, except for one of them, had beaten Harvard before."
Yale, the new Beasts of the East?
Amidst lower attendance and declining coverage of the Harvard-Yale regatta, what gets somewhat lost in the shuffle is that, for the first time in quite a while, the final collegiate rowing event on the calendar has once again become a matchup between two of the top crews in the nation, right down the varsity ranks. And the Yale heavyweights are at the top of that stack for now.
"It's hard work," Hurn said. "It's been a long road, always two steps forward one step back it seems. But every year the attitude from top to bottom has been so much better. This year, to have three boats with such high quality, it makes me proud just to go watch them do what they're doing, and see how much they're learning and enjoy doing it. Because I think that passion they have for the sport is something that's just developed over the last few years and has been really key."
Goodman echoed the sentiment. "I think it's a byproduct of how we work. We were excited, we race how we train. The whole year, I think towards the four miler, but really, I have to do all I can to make sure I can stay in varsity, because the four starboards in the JV would love to have my seat and they're ready to run. The day to day competition in the squad is what really draws us forward, and that's reflected in the results."
"When I came here from Cal, my first couple of years were hardly distinguished," said Yale's head coach Steve Gladstone. "You have to have people of the right mindset that are willing to suspend disbelief and move forward, and have a passion for the sport. One always articulates the virtues that are necessary to succeed. That being said you have to have susceptible people that will buy into that way of thinking.
"There's a saying, in no way are races won on race day, it's preparation," Gladstone continued. "So the key is the preparation that they've made over time, and if you want to call it the stubbornness makes for great results. And I don't mean it simplistically...some of them are very, very, very stubborn."