The spring collegiate season came to a close on Saturday afternoon with the 154th running of the Harvard-Yale Regatta - or the Yale-Harvard Regatta, depending on with whom you are speaking (or maybe we can all agree, depending on who won that year?)- and what in some years tips heavily blue or crimson featured comebacks, romps, collapse, and tighter racing at the top than might have been predicted, resulting in an undeniably "great Saturday of racing."
Whereas before 2003, when the squads first started racing at the IRA, the crews had a four-week sojourn along the Thames in Gales Ferry and Red Top ahead of the regatta, the turnaround from a Sunday IRA final in California to a four-mile race upstream away from the Long Island Sound was a tight one, and both crews were mostly in recovery mode in the short week leading up to the regatta.
In some respects, very little is on the line - the Sprints champion has been decided, the national champion decided, team points trophies all already gathering dust. But the race is tremendously important to everyone involved, not to mention the crowds gathered at the boathouses, on the shore, on the big painted rock, and in the flotilla of launches following the race. Gladstone admitted that when it was over, he was as much relieved as anything else.
"For a Yale or Harvard oarsman, this race is really important," he said. "I have said this before, but if you have an unbeaten season or a very strong season, and you don't win this race, it's not complete. It's great, it's wonderful that you won the Sprints or you won the IRA, but there's a sting that we didn't win the four miler. From an outsider's standpoint that might seem somewhat ridiculous, because in fact the race is such an anomaly, and the timing of the race is awkward.
"Any oarsman from any university wants to win the national championship; how could losing a four mile race that virtually nobody knows anything about make a difference? But if you were to ask one of those oarsmen, I'll bet you most of them say 'yeah, it would sting.' So to be honest, for me, at the end of that race there was much more relief than it was elation (laughs)."
The Yale 1V was a 'consistent' crew throughout the year
For the benefit of the coaching and training wonks among our readership, we talked first about the approach the crews take during that week, which significantly also includes a century and a half of traditional ceremonies and hijinks, as noted by Charley Butt.
"You can do it because you know the guys that are a half mile away are going to have to do it, first of all, and it's possible because you train for the four miler and three miler all year long " he noted. "And it is a favorite time of year to be with your friends in a camp that's rustic and that's been devoted to this purpose for the last 150 years."
"The time between the IRA and the Yale/Harvard race, that's just all recovery," Gladstone shared. "There's really no training going on during that period. Coming from a 3 day regatta, and particularly when it's on the west coast, it's recovery. You're able to do some basic steady state work and a few 20s, and that's about it. I'm sure it's the same thing for both teams, but when you get that race you've already done an awful lot of distance work during the fall, and of course in Florida and on the ergometer, because there really is no other time to do it."
The Harvard 1V scrapped and never quit, but could not catch Yale
Charley Butt shared a similar approach, including some day-to-day elements along with how it fits into the history of the regatta.
"When you get back on Monday, it's off, and Tuesday is getting to the boat for a paddle," he said. "If you're going to do any work, it's got to be Wednesday. And you have to do the right kind of work, depending on the crew. If you feel good about your speed, but you want to make sure they are confident they can work hard, then maybe you go 10 or 12 minutes at a lower cadence.
"And then the next two days might be two-thirds pressure, and taking some hard strokes. The training is all part of it, and the guys look forward to this all year. It's a match between the two schools that started 155 years ago, and the kids enjoy living that experience, to go out and do the work and come back and discuss a practice - on that level, the kids have a lot in common with pre-Civil War America."
row2k asked if Gladstone does more distance work than he might have at Cal or Brown in the absence of the long-distance final race.
"There might not be the same need to do the volume of distance work that we do when we were preparing for the fourth miler," he said. "There's a lot of distance work done anyway, but it's certainly more purposeful and structured than it would be if this race didn't exist."
'A great Saturday of Racing'
Beyond the history and the how-to's, the four races themselves provided plenty of intrigue this year, making for a compelling regatta overall.
A victory in the 'Combi boat' race meant Yale would paint the rock for Saturday
As it does each year, Friday afternoon saw the running of the traditional "combi" race, which was a 3V/4V race before freshman rowing was discontinued, and the traditional frosh 2-miler in the main event became the 3V event. Foreshadowing at least the tenor of Saturday's racing to some extent, the lead changed hands at least once as Harvard led for the first part of the race before Yale drew even and then ahead, eventually winning by 2.2 seconds. That earned them the right to paint the giant rock just before the finish line blue with a big Y on it.
In the varsity four-miler, Yale jumped out to an early lead of several seats, and Harvard locked onto them for the next 3.x miles, with neither crew relenting, resulting in a new upstream record of 18:30.9 for Yale, with Harvard tying the old (2015) record of 18:35.8.
In the 2V three-miler, Harvard took a similar approach early on, but ran up the margin to a full 12 seconds over the course. And in the 3V two-miler, the lead changed hands twice in the 2-miler before an oarsman in the middle of the Yale boat simply could not go on, as described on the Yale website: "Yale increased the margin to a full boat and looked like it would cruise to an easy victory until one of its rowers was unable to pull. While avoiding a collapse, he could barely move his oar, which threw off the timing of his boat."
Gladstone said that the defining characteristic of Yale's undefeated varsity was consistency.
"There was an absolute consistency day by day from the time the boat was formed in early March," he said. "The consistency in the execution of the strokes and their full engagement during practice. I can't think of a bad race that they had, and I might count on one hand the number of practices that were not representative of their skill. They're really, really consistent."
We asked if that makes the job easier, or harder in that it might be easy to assume everything is going well, and then get surprised on race day.
"It makes it easier; when people came out to the launch, especially in the latter stage of the season, I think they would say there's not much coming from the launch at all. It's pretty quiet. We have our basic formats and protocols, and we'll get together before practice - and they probably know ahead of time what we are doing, because with the guys I have coached for a while, things don't change much year to year in terms of the protocol. So there's not too much to say, except for a number of occasions during the course of practice, to acknowledge they were on the mark, of doing a great job."
Yale's Steve Gladstone
On race day, Gladstone outlined what it takes to race the way the Yale V8 did.
"In any race, you want to control it, and it is very difficult to control a race of that distance if the other crew is out of your sight line," he said. "Crews can certainly come back and win the race, but you're better off if you can control the race. To do that, of course, requires speed. You have to have the speed to be able to do that without exhausting yourself; for example, to maintain your speed by rating is a precarious position to be in.
"Harvard's got a fast crew, there's no question about it. They're powerful, and they're not going to quit. Yale controlled the race, but nonetheless, Harvard kept pressure on from the first stroke to the last strokes, so kudos to them."
For their part, the Harvard varsity dogged Yale all the way down the four-mile courses, finishing closer over four miles than the margin over 2k at the IRA.
"It is a young boat, and we do have a couple guys with a lot of horsepower, but boat-to-boat we are giving away a lot of horsepower," he said. "At the IRA, we were four and a half seconds back, and then over four miles, we were four and a half seconds back. So I think it means we were a better four-mile crew than a 2K, but the main takeaway is that the guys just didn't give up. When differences get large, that can get involved. So we could not be happier of the team's performance on Saturday. We celebrated great performances at the banquet, and in two cases wins."
The Harvard 2V dominated its race
In the 2V, Butt noted that the crew had faltered a bit during the year, and after considering more radical changes, simply needed a better race.
"There was an instance earlier in the year where they lost to another good JV, and we decided to keep them together to give them another chance," he said. "Did they need a different lineup? Did they need different tactics? Or did they just need a better race? It turned out just a better race, and they got there by just making up their minds to be tougher, to make it happen."
In the 3V, noting that Harvard took advantage of a rare opportunity late in the race, Butt said, "the experience level in those two boats (the Harvard and Yale third varsities) was not necessarily U-23 junior titles and that sort of thing, and somebody got into trouble," he said. "The fact is, if you're close you're never out of it, and that's more true in a less experienced field. There are a lot of young rowers out there who are tough and know how to put it on the line, and they just didn't have the experience not to get into trouble, and a boat that was behind never gave up. They could have decided, 'Well, that was a good race, now it's over,' but instead, someone broke and then they found they could move.
Harvard's 3V took the win after rowing from behind to catch Yale
"Harry Parker always emphasized that persistence and stubbornness and resolve were vital, a vital part of the experience. That was true 60 years ago when he started coaching, and it's true today."
'It's not just the winners who leave with something of value.'
Both squads came away with two wins on the weekend, and maybe a little bit more.
With four frosh in the V8 and 2V alike, Butt noted that the seniors on the squad include a prize-winning astrophysicist, computer scientists who will have a PhD in a year's time, and others of high academic abilities.
"We have a young team, and our senior class, in terms of academic credibility, capability and athletic ability was absolutely key for getting those boats to perform on the day like they do," he said. "These are people excelling on a national level in fields of study they do not typically pursue when you're at the top of national rowing, and I think what they brought to our team really made a difference. I believe they're related, in terms of the type of person who can bring people along with them, and handle the load, and attack it.
"There's only one boat that wins a regatta, but say at a race like the IRA, of the 24 boats, if any of them have a performance that is the best of the year, that they are thrilled with, it's not just the winning boat that has that," Butt said. "Your mindset has to be, I want my best as an athlete, and as a coach I want my rowers to have their best row, if that includes winning that's very sweet. Everybody has the chance to be at their best, and they know if they did that or not. If they have, then you have something to celebrate. You have something to remember. It's not just the winners who leave with something of value.
"It was amazing year, because of the dynamic between the leadership and the younger guys; juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. Everybody came together in particularly to produce a great Saturday of racing."
Gladstone expressed a similar sentiment after leaving Gales Ferry.
"When I was driving back from New London thinking back over the last nine years, each crew, each year, brings back memories, and that squad sort of holds your heart. You develop very, very, very strong affection and attachment to the people. Because you watch them, and you watch them when they put themselves on the line. There's always a sense of attachment and admiration that goes on, and that's for each year. The immediate thought is about the people, and being so happy that they succeeded, that they reached their goals. As a coach, it's a sense of relief that they have the sense of satisfaction for winning the race. You're happy for them, and that brings the sense of fulfillment."