We may be celebrating #HOCR50, but for female rowers the 2014 regatta commemorates the 46th Head of the Charles in which women have raced. In the very early years of the regatta, it was all men – mostly local men - who raced in the small October head race. That is, until one woman arrived in Cambridge, the woman who would get in a boat, fall in love with rowing and simply asked if she could join the racing: Gail Pierson Cromwell.
At the time, this young woman was simply Gail Pierson. A brand new Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, she got her first job in 1968 as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and ended up on the Cambridge shore of the Charles River. Pierson-Cromwell had swam and sailed at Michigan and planned to do the same at Harvard, until the college refused to let her in their pool. Upon hearing this, one of her male colleagues at Harvard offered to bring her down to Cambridge Boat Club (CBC), to a much larger body of water.
Pierson-Cromwell, who had never rowed but grew up around water, took immediately to rowing.
"I began to train with a group of young men at CBC who were training very seriously for National Championships and the Olympics. I was very fortunate that they knew how to train and welcomed me into their group," said Pierson-Cromwell. "I'm almost afraid to name them now because I'll forget a name, but the leaders were Paul Wilson, Bob Arlett, Mike Frederick, and Ben Jones."
When autumn arrived, Head Of The Charles season, everyone at Cambridge Boat Club was eagerly anticipating this young, but growing race. Pierson-Cromwell asked to join in.
That first year she raced - October 26, 1969 - Cromwell became the first woman to compete in HOCR.
"The answer was sure, why not? Great idea. Why not indeed?" said Pierson-Cromwell. "There weren't events for women, but I could enter the Novice Singles. So I did. Bud Collins, the famous Boston sports writer, did a humorous piece, which appeared the weekend of the race and my club loved it. My students loved it. The Harvard Economics Department loved it."
Even better? Pierson-Cromwell was so determined to not finish last, that years later some of her male competitors would tell her it was the hardest they had ever rowed. She did not come in last.
The following year the Regatta offered a special medal for women within a men's race, and finally in 1971, a group of women competed for the first women's title of the Head of the Charles in the single. There are no results records for that historic event in 1971, but Cromwell won by 10 seconds in 1972.
It must be noted that Pierson-Cromwell did not only charter new waters for women in the Head Of The Charles, but would continue her rowing career and go on to become a member of the Red Rose Crew in 1975.
If you head down to the #HOCR50 exhibit this weekend, you can see a chart that outlines the percentage of men and women who competed in each year's regatta, and watch how the number of women jumps in the mid-70's and continues to grow.
Cromwell pioneered the waters of the Charles River for countless women who would come after her. The Gail Pierson Trophy is now awarded to the Collegiate Women's Eight who is the first collegiate finisher in the Women's Championship Eight- homage to a woman who first asked the question, "Can I row too?"