Upstream Warrior

A profile of Harry Parker, the most successful college rowing coach of the latter half of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time

May-June 1996 cover

In retrospect, it seems like a moment of epiphany, but on that Saturday in June 1963, it was simply a day of rough, stormy weather on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. No one could remember the Harvard- Yale crew race ever having been postponed. Late that afternoon, race officials sent the freshman crews out, using them as guinea pigs to see if the course was rowable. It wasn't. Both freshman boats nearly sank, and at times there was air visible beneath the hulls as they cut across the huge waves.

To the Harvard varsity, the day's delay might have seemed a reprieve. That morning, a headline on the Boston Globe's sports page declared Yale the favorite by a huge margin, and their crew was openly talking about going to the 1964 Olympics. At the Eastern Sprints, the spring regatta that brings together the major college crews in the East, Yale came second to Cornell. In contrast, Harvard had finished next to last in its heat, failing even to make the final. Harvard coxswain Ted Washburn '64, A.M. '66, recalls, "They were just a superior crew, period. Rowing the way we had at the Sprints, I never imagined we'd beat Yale."

It had been an unsettling year in Harvard's Newell Boathouse. In January, head coach Harvey Love had died suddenly of a heart attack; the freshman coach, 27-year-old Harry Parker, took charge of the program in an acting capacity. Under Parker, the crew recorded a respectable 3-1 record that spring, but after their disastrous elimination at the Sprints, Parker decided to take the varsity back to fundamentals. He made them row at rates as low as 22 or 24 strokes per minute (racing cadences are generally in the 30s or 40s), and concentrate on solid technique-long strokes through the water, optimal blade coverage. Parker starved his crew of race-tempo work. "We begged him," Washburn says. "When are we ever going to row at racing cadence?" The Harvard eight didn't realize that they were getting faster. They knew only that the boat felt good.

The Connecticut weather cleared. Early Sunday morning, the varsity race went off under a blue, cloudless sky. The throng of pleasure boats that had crowded the course the day before had gone home; there were almost no spectators. The river was dead calm-ideal for rowing.

At the start, Yale shot emphatically away from Harvard. "There they go," thought Washburn. "But we're going to row our race." Yale developed their lead for the first mile, Washburn recalls, until open water separated the crews. But then they stopped moving away. Harvard began grinding down the gap. A little before the two-mile mark, Harvard passed Yale and continued rowing away from them, finishing over eight boat lengths in front after four miles. It was not only an upset, but a rout.

Harvard continued rowing away from Yale for another 18 years. The Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations would pass, and Ronald Reagan would become president, before Yale won again at New London, in 1981. From that moment in 1963, Harvard would not lose a single intercollegiate race until 1969. By then, Harry Parker was a demiurge in the world of rowing. He is the most successful college rowing coach of the latter half of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time. After 33 years, Parker is the dean of all Harvard coaches. He has compiled an astounding regular-season record of 125-25 (.833 winning percentage), with 14 undefeated seasons. His crews have won the Eastern Sprints 17 times; the next best record over the same span is Brown's, with five wins. Since the institution of the national cham-pionship regatta at Cincinnati in 1982, Harvard has prevailed there six times. (Brown again is second, with three championships.)

Parker's record dazzles not only with its excellence but with its consistency. He has had only one losing season, in 1984, when the crew won two races and lost three. "Over the past 33 years, how many years has Harvard not been one of the three fastest crews in the country?" asks Travis Metz '91, varsity coxswain from 1989 to 1991. "My guess would be: less than five times. Look at all other programs-how many times were they among the top three? Nobody else could claim more than 10 years, at best."

Georgetown coach Tony Johnson, who as Yale's head coach from 1970 to 1989 opposed Parker for two decades, observes, "Forty years ago, one school would win for three or four years-like the Navy Admirals in the early '50s-then someone else would come along. But Harry would dominate with one group of guys, they'd graduate, and another group would come in and he'd still win." Al Shealy '75, who stroked the 1973-75 varsity boats, puts it simply: "Harry is in a league by himself."

"Who is this man they call King of the Crews?" asks Eric Sigward '68, an oarsman on the undefeated 1966 varsity. Parker is both brutally simple and exceedingly complex, utterly straightforward and maddeningly elusive. "When people approach Harry, they have certain expectations of the reaction they are going to get, and they are often surprised," says Peter Raymond, Ed.M. '83, who coached Harvard and Radcliffe crews from 1974 to 1981. "They are not talking to someone who thinks about things the way they do. Harry represents a categorically different way of living in the world. So they call him `weird.'" Indeed, generations of Harvard oarsmen have nicknamed Parker "The Weird One." The moniker has never been one of the coach's favorites, but the athletes' use is not pejorative. Washburn, Harvard's freshman coach from 1964 to 1987, notes that one etymology of "weird" derives it from "wayward" (way'rd), meaning "off the beaten path," or "different." Yes. He is different.



Parker has "a consuming desire to win," says Metz; Geoffrey Knauth '83, another Harvard coxswain, adds, "I put Harry's desire to win as being above all other coaches'." Washburn says, "The difference between Harry and other coaches is that those guys can live with losing. He is the most competitive human being I've ever met, period." Parker, characteristically, smiles and underplays it, simply noting that "I vastly prefer winning to losing."

Vastly prefer. At a pick-up soccer game one fall, Parker went up for a head ball and chipped his tooth as he collided with another player, then kept on playing as if nothing had happened. After tripping and landing on the concrete while running up the steps of Harvard Stadium to train with his crew, Parker, blood streaming from his leg, not only sustained his pace but elbowed a slower oarsman impeding his progress. During a 50-kilometer cross-country ski race in 20-below Vermont weather, Parker once concealed his frozen ears as he skied through a medical checkpoint; he completed the race with ears that were severely frostbitten, and tender for years afterward.

In another recreational soccer game, at an Olympic training facility in Gunnison, Colorado, in 1968, Parker and Peter Raymond, then a rower on the U.S. team, both charged a loose ball. "He was going full tilt," Raymond recalls. "I realized that if I continued after the ball he was probably going to break my leg. Here I was, an Olympic oarsman, about to have my leg broken by the coach of the team!

"When Harry was personally engaged, the limit to competition was entirely set by the other person," Raymond continues. "There was never a point where he would say, `This isn't worth it.'" At an early age, Parker himself seemed to recognize the ferocity of his competitive instincts. Although he played high school baseball and basketball, Parker didn't go out for ice hockey because, as he once explained to varsity oarsman John Brock '77, "I didn't think I should play anything where they would give me a stick."

He could, however, hold his own with a croquet mallet. At Red Top, the camp on the Thames River where Harvard crews train for the Harvard-Yale race, croquet games involving outrageous rule-bending and overt cheating are a tradition. "One year it was decided that the old croquet set had bitten the dust-half the wickets were made of bent coat hangers," recalls Tiff Wood '75, who rowed with the undefeated Harvard crews of the early 1970s. "We went out and bought a brand new croquet set. Harry read the rules and then threw them away. So he was the only one who could play with complete authority!"

Be it horseshoes or checkers, no contest is so casual that Parker won't try his utmost to mow the opponent down. Another Red Top tradition is the board game Risk, whose goal is world domination. "It's well known that Harry loved to cheat at Risk," says Knauth. "Somebody would get a phone call and leave the room, and Harry would rearrange the board." Parker and his wife, Kathy Keeler, have a summer place in New Hampshire where one can drive golf balls into a lake. Since the lake is shallow, it's also possible to retrieve the balls by diving. "Of course, even there," grins oarsman Jake Fiechter '67, "it's, how many golf balls can you get?"

Raymond once asked Parker what he might choose if he could be anyone at any time in history. Skipper of a pirate ship, Parker said. One boat dominating another. Raymond smiles, and muses on piracy: "No rules."



"Competitiveness reeked through the boathouse," says Gregg Stone '75, J.D. '79, another undefeated oarsman of the early 1970s. "Harry knew how to play on that and how to get the most out of it." Ian Gardiner '68, M.B.A. '74, who stroked the undefeated 1967 varsity, says, "He'd let us joust with each other-running stadiums, lifting weights. He created a very competitive environment and turned us loose in it." Stone adds, "It almost got out of control at times. Some couldn't take the intensity-the occasional fistfight at a soccer game."

Steve Gladstone, who coached at Harvard from 1969 to 1972 and was Brown's head coach from 1982 to 1994, says, "There are loads of competitive coaches, but they don't bring that out in others. The issue is how the coach translates that competitive urge to the athletes." Coxswain Ted Tsomides '82 says of Parker, "He let us know in no uncertain terms that when it came to races, what it was about was winning. It wasn't about `doing your best,' it was about winning." At the Cincinnati regatta in 1989, when Harvard beat Washington for the national championship, the Washington oarsmen raised their arms and cheered after finishing second. "You'd never see us do that," says Metz. "We'd feel devastated to have lost."

During the fall, Friday is traditionally intrasquad race day at Harvard: four boats, evenly matched, starting 10 seconds apart and racing up the Charles for three or four miles at controlled stroke rates. "It's incredibly ferocious racing," says Metz. "We took more pleasure in winning those Friday race days than actual races. There was always aggressive steering, cutting corners. Harry would penalize people 30 seconds if they took it too far. Yet at the same time he loved it; there's always this tension with him. He relied on intrasquad competitiveness to drive the whole team higher." When it came time to race another college, a Harvard crew wasn't doing anything new: they arrived at the starting line ready to compete, full out.



Parker's burning focus is palpable on or off the water. Some call it charisma, some would say the man is just enormously present. A third group calls him omnipresent. "He's very very intense," says Washburn. "He is unstintingly invested in the rowers' success at all times, all year long. Since this level of commitment is so rare, so unusual, you are moved by it." Clint Allen '67, who stroked the undefeated 1966 varsity, says that in the 1960s, "He could have lived in Newell. As far as I could tell he did nothing else in his life but crew."

During the '60s, the University of Pennsylvania was an arch-rival. Penn's freshman coach, Ted Nash, was, in Jake Fiechter's words, "the archenemy, a satanic figure in the Harvard view of the world." In 1970, Nash became head coach at Penn, which beat Harvard by open water that year in the Adams Cup regatta. "I can remember feeling devastated," says Steve Gladstone, who coached Harvard's lightweight varsity at the time. "Then, in the launch, I heard Harry talking to [freshman coach] Ted [Washburn], calmly figuring out ways to beat them next time around -analyzing the weak and strong points of the race. Most coaches would take at least a day to recover from a loss like that." (A week later, Harvard won the Eastern Sprints, beating Penn by half a length.)



As an athlete, Parker was a smallish (6 feet, 172 pounds) sculler who nonetheless won the Pan Am Games in 1959 and the U.S. national championship in 1959 and 1960, and who reached the finals of the 1960 Olympics at Rome, where he finished fifth. Fred Borchelt, who coached the Harvard freshmen heavyweights from 1987 to 1990, explains that "Harry used everything he had to its maximum advantage." Parker summarizes his philosophy as "applying yourself as completely as you can to making the boat go as fast as possible."

He is a true student of the sport, seeking out any advantage that will increase boat speed. According to Borchelt, "He knows every single thing that could possibly make a boat go faster." Omniscient. In the 1960s, Karl Adam's world-champion crews from Ratzeburg in West Germany pioneered advances such as interval training, shovel-shaped oars, and "bucket" rigging, which put the #4 and #5 oars on the starboard side of the boat. (Traditional rigging alternates port and starboard oars.) Parker imported these innovations, along with Stämpfli shells from Switzerland.

He also raised the bar on physical conditioning, making college rowing into a year-round sport. Parker was the first to use the ergometer (a rowing machine that measures work output) for training as well as testing. "In the '60s and '70s, Harry was ahead of everybody in training," says Charlie Altekruse '80, of the 1978-80 varsity. "As others began to learn those techniques, the competition got a lot closer." (A measure of his early dominance: during Parker's first 20 years, Harvard lost only seven regular-season races.)

Parker teaches the very es-sence of the sport: making boats go fast. That is Job #1, and there is no Job #2. "Harry has an uncanny ability to re-cognize boat speed," says Tiff Wood. "He could look at a boat and make some subtle change- alter the rigging, move someone from port to starboard-and it always worked," says Ted Tsomides. "There was nothing arbitrary about Harry's moves, they were always the right thing to do. So we developed an absolute trust in his judgment."

Workouts at Harvard are extremely efficient, tightly organized affairs. While Brown trains three or more hours daily, a typical Harvard practice lasts 90 minutes. Says Tom Tiffany '71, coxswain and cocaptain of the 1971 varsity, "The idea is: `We're doing this just a little bit better than anyone else because there are other things we have to do.' You won't have to give up your academic aspirations because you row."

Another limiting factor: 16 oarsmen and two coxswains waiting on the Newell dock for the two shells returning from the preceding practice. At some schools, fast varsities come from small programs, but rowing is Harvard's biggest intercollegiate sport; considering the freshman, lightweight, and heavyweight squads, about 125 athletes train at Newell in any given year.

The depth of the Harvard program means that no oarsman can take anything for granted. Parker selects his varsity eight later in the season than most coaches-and even then, nothing is final. At Red Top, he sometimes takes an undefeated crew and tears it to pieces, seeking a faster combination. "Harry knows how to pick boats and find combinations that go fast," says Clint Allen. "They're not necessarily the strongest guys or the best technical rowers. He's like a chemist; he can mix that potion so that it works."

One centrifuge is the seat race, which Parker may have invented, or at least refined. In a seat race, two four-oared boats race each other; then two rowers occupying the same position (the #3 seat, for example) in each boat trade places and another race is run. By comparing the outcomes of the two races, a coach can judge which rower contributed more to boat speed. "He [Parker] never lets you sit," says Fritz Hobbs '69, M.B.A. '72. "I'd been to the [1968] Olympics, and had been on two undefeated varsities-and he still seat-raced me. He wasn't going to let us walk onto that boat."

Years ago, Parker led a Cub Scout pack in Winchester, Massachusetts, where he is a longtime resident. His sons, George Parker '83 and David Parker '85, M.B.A. '91, were scouts. The pack ran a "pinewood derby"-a race of homemade toy cars down an inclined plane. "Some people were carving their blocks of wood for aerodynamics. We just had a boxy car," laughs David. "But Dad wanted it to go fast. He put lead weights in front and used graphite on the axles to reduce friction. Nobody else understood the importance of graphite." The Parkermobile went undefeated.



The river warrior was born in 1935 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth Parker and builder/contractor Lambert Achilles Parker. He attended high school in East Hartford, Connecticut, where he played baseball and basketball. "I had the distinction of being the lowest-scoring center in the history of the school," he laughs. But Parker did well academically and won a Naval ROTC scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he began rowing to fulfill a physical education requirement. He immediately loved the sport.

"Rowing seemed to be an activity that was going to reward effort and hard work and was not as dependent on highly cultivated skills as some other sports," Parker says. After a year on the freshman lightweights, he spent three years rowing #2 for the Penn varsity. In 1955 his crew won the Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. "He was very, very good and one of the smartest, hardest-working fellows we ever had," says Joe Burk, Parker's coach at Penn. "Harry and the bow man would sometimes walk from the campus out to our house in Bala Cynwyd-about 10 miles-just to talk about rowing."

"Harry was very quiet, almost monastic," recalls Gene Bay, a Penn oarsman of Parker's era. "His idol was Joe Burk, who was one of those very dedicated athletes. Rather ascetic. To Joe, drinking Coca-Cola was practically like having a scotch. We didn't even have coffee ice cream on the training table!" Sometimes after a practice, Burk would dive off the dock for a dip in the Schuylkill River-in February. "He was goading us to do the same," Bay recalls. "Harry was always the first one in."

For intrasquad races, Burk let different oarsmen stroke the boats and choose their own crews. "I paid a lot of attention to who I wanted to pick, and what the order of picking would be," Parker recalls. "It was not unlike what they do in the pro football draft." Says Burk, "I found out that Harry knew almost as much about the personnel of the crews as I did."

Parker graduated with honors in philosophy in 1957. He also met his first wife, Elinor, at Penn. After college, Parker spent three years in the navy, the last half of it in Philadelphia, where he trained as a sculler for national and international competition. Burk coached Parker and raced against him in single sculls. Twenty years earlier Burk had been a world-class sculler, and was still so fit and fast that Parker cannot recall ever beating his mentor in a practice.

The generation non-gap. If Parker had trouble keeping up with Burk, then Harvard oarsmen ever since have been hard-pressed to match Parker, who has always been in superb physical condition. He runs with his athletes on flat land and up and down the steps of Harvard Stadium-and he competes. "The lack of that generational distinction is in some respects what fuels Harry's competitive fire and makes him such a fabulously successful coach," says Peter Raymond.

Even in his 40s, Parker was able to beat many of the varsity athletes. Today, giving away about four decades to them, he devises an age handicap that still gives him a chance to win an event like the Newell triathlon-ergometer rowing, running, and stadiums-by beating the team average. (Thus far, Par-ker is undefeated in the New-ell triathlon.) On a cold winter day in the early 1980s, Altekruse and Parker initiated the "Century Club" by running up and down 100 sections of Harvard Stadium, essentially making three tours around the horseshoe. Altekruse, one of the all-time great stadium runners, finished in under an hour. So did Parker who, pushing hard on the last 10 sections, came in at 59:50. Another time, in Switzerland, Parker invited Altekruse to go on a five-mile run with him; he didn't mention that they were five uphill miles in the Alps.

Each Christmas vacation, the Harvard oarsmen compete to see who logged the most athletic training over the holiday, with points awarded for various activities. "Every year my Dad would sneak in a different activity that he could get points for," says David Parker-citing paternal passions like golf and cross-country skiing. One Christmastime, Parker got interested in windsurfing and went to the Virgin Islands to visit the family of Paul Hoffman '68, J.D. '74, who coxed the 1966-68 Harvard varsities. "Lo and behold, that year, the scoring system gave significant points for windsurfing!" exclaims Hoffman. Farther north, a couple of years ago, Parker, son David, and friends climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington in frigid January weather. Fritz Hobbs reflects on Parker's unending appetite for challenges: "He gets younger, I get older."



The Tao Te Ching opens with a famous line: Those who say do not know; those who know do not say. "I used to go for weeks and Harry would never say anything to me," Hobbs recalls. The coach is indeed a man of few words; Parker's senior thesis at Penn, on moral reasoning, was four pages long. At a typical crew practice, Parker says little or nothing. "He's very reticent," says Al Shealy. "In the launch, he would sit up there like a hood ornament." In the 1960s, Hobbs recalls, Parker "had this big, white, twin-screwed launch. Standing up in front, he looked like Washington crossing the Delaware."

After the long stretches of silence, when Parker actually speaks, the rowers hang on his every word. "He has a very compelling voice," says Tom Tiffany. "Think about the great orators or singers-you catch a lot of meaning in the nuances, the inflection in their voices. Harry doesn't say much, but when he does speak, you strain to catch the meaning." Most crew coaches now use battery-powered electronic megaphones. Not Parker. While useful for saving vocal cords, these devices turn all voices into a generic, amplified drone. Parker's old-fashioned cardboard megaphone preserves shades of individual expression. "You'd hear that low, deep voice coming at you across the water," Ian Gardiner recalls. "And it would send a shiver down your spine."

It is not Parker's way to yell at athletes or tear them down; he is equally parsimonious with his praise. "You never were told that you were good enough," Fiechter muses. "Many oarsmen valued Harry's approval more than that of their parents. Nothing mattered as much as Harry's special blessing-the most immediate form of which was putting you in the varsity boat." The coach's silence might induce athletes to work harder to resolve an uncertainty. "He put goals there without ever stating them," says Jim Crick '88, who coxed the 1987-88 varsities and now coaches at Union College. "We were always trying to figure out what he wanted. If he never told us we were doing it right, we were going to keep it up until he told us."

Parker allows his rowers latitude for experiment, room to figure out for themselves how to move a boat effectively. "I felt a lot more motivated by the coach not giving me too many instructions," says Didzis Voldins '94, of the 1992-94 varsities. "It gives the rower a lot of confidence for the coach to hand that responsibility over to him."

Scores of oarsmen will testify that Parker was the most important teacher they had at Harvard. Crick states flatly that "Harry has been the most influential person in my life." Paul Hoffman calls him "the single best teacher I had at Harvard College or Harvard Law School. I personally still approach all major challenges using the metaphor of rowing." And Travis Metz goes so far as to state that "anybody who comes out of the Harvard crew program will tell you that it was the most important thing in their college experience." Parker's first wife, Elinor, thought she was marrying a college teacher, a professor of philosophy. And she was. His field, though, is applied philosophy.



Parker applied his philosophy with startling success when he coached the national women's team in 1975 and 1976. The United States had sent women's crews to the European Championships in 1973 and 1974 but they had finished far back. In 1975 Parker took over and ran a selection camp out of Newell Boathouse. "He just doesn't get in the way of what you want to do. He doesn't try to manipulate you," says Northeastern women's coach and former Radcliffe coach Carie Graves, a rower on those 1975 and 1976 eights. The women won silver medals at the 1975 World Championships and bronze medals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. "That's when women's rowing in this country changed," Graves says. "Ever since then we have been taken seriously." Hoffman adds that "Harry compressed 15 to 20 years of development for women's rowing into one Olympic cycle. He approached it with the idea that `there's no reason these people won't go as fast as anybody else I've ever coached.' And they did, by God!"

Parker worked with every U.S. Olympic team from 1964 to 1984 (including 1968, when the Harvard varsity eight represented the United States at Mexico City). One tally in 1992 counted 55 of his college and national-team athletes who had taken part in the Olympic Games and had won, individually, 5 gold, 11 silver, and 13 bronze medals; he had also coached 57 rowers who competed in the World Championships, resulting in 25 silver and 6 bronze medals. Over the last decade Parker has done much less international coaching. "It takes an incredible amount of work to do both," he explains. "And I get much more satisfaction and enjoyment from coaching at Harvard." He also has more autonomy in Newell. "In international coaching," says Raymond, "he doesn't have control over his domain."

Though Parker likes being in charge, he is no tyrant. "One of Harry's real assets is what he doesn't do: he doesn't impose his values on the crew," says Will Scoggins '70 ('71), who rowed for the 1971 varsity. "In college I was a hippie with hair down to the middle of my back. Harry could care less what you looked like, or what your political beliefs were, as long as you pulled hard. That kind of freedom really allows things to go." Coxswain Tom Tiffany sported an Afro hair style that Scoggins remembers as "two feet wide"; Parker noted it only once, in a tongue-in-cheek remark after winning a race: "There's a lot of wind resistance from that hair, Tom."



In 1968, Fiechter went to the Olympic trials in a coxed pair; his coach was none other than former rival Ted Nash of the University of Pennsylvania. As Fiechter got into the shell for his trial race, he saw a wide piece of tape that Nash had placed across his foot stretchers. On the tape was lettered one word: pride.

That is not Harry Parker's approach to coaching. Those who say do not know; those who know do not say. Parker believes that the will to excel exists within each athlete, and is not something that a coach can, or should, attempt to instill. "In life as in sport, you don't do it for the Gipper, or for Seiji Ozawa, or for Harry," says Washburn. "Harry opens a space into which an athlete can pour his passion. There's no room for it when the coach is in the spotlight." Scoggins says, "While hard work was going on, it was not onerous. People chose to work hard, not because it was mandated from above."

Crick asserts that "Several times, guys who were on the junior varsity squad could have made it to the varsity if they'd been kicked in the pants. Harry never bothered to. He is singularly great at getting people to find the motivation within themselves. It's a case of the cream rising to the top." Parker's laissez-faire attitude has extended to his own sons. George, who says his father "neither encouraged nor discouraged" rowing by his offspring, eventually rowed and coached for the Mather House crew. David began his rowing career as a college junior and rowed two years with the Harvard lightweights. "Dad rarely tells people what to do, or how to do it," David says. "He leads by example; I caught his enthusiasm and wanted to share it." (They continue to share it: for the past decade, David and his father have rowed a double scull in the annual Head of the Charles Regatta.)

"Individuals developed a much greater degree of self-confidence rowing for Harry," says Tiff Wood. "You knew that you were doing it-it was your desire to win, not his desire." Hoffman adds that "You had to be doing this for yourself, and once you reached that conclusion, you had no limits because you were always working against the horizon."



Geoffrey Knauth, who flew airplanes, one day learned from an aviation weather report that a cold front was rapidly approaching Boston from the south and that rain would fall that afternoon. But as the crews launched from Newell for practice, the sky was clear. Knauth bet Parker that it would rain during practice; Harry insisted it would not. "We got to Magazine Beach [near the B.U. Bridge] and you could see this line of thunderclouds and intense lightning coming at us," Knauth recalls. "Harry told us to take 30 strokes toward the B.U. Bridge and wait for him there. Then he did a strange thing, something he never does. Harry stopped his launch well upstream from us and stood staring at the sky, arms akimbo. Soon a downpour began soaking Boston, almost onto Storrow Drive. It didn't rain on the river." Omnipotent.

"Everyone who ever met Harry Parker said there was some sort of aura about him," says Eric Sigward. "He was looked upon as having a Midas touch." Charley Hamlin '70, a 1969-1970 varsity oarsman and the chair of Friends of Harvard Rowing, says, "We revered him. There was not a person on the crew who didn't look on him as the ultimate coach." Al Shealy adds, "People view him as surrounded by a nimbus. He's godlike, but he's a mere mortal."

For many years, oarsmen in Newell have had another nickname for Parker: among themselves, they refer to him as "God." The sobriquet is both reverential and jocular. It does reflect awe. Parker is "distant. He is far enough away that you could worship him," says Ted Tsomides. "If he were more of a friend, he'd be less of a deity." Gordie Gardiner '79, who rowed on the 1977-79 varsities, reflects that Parker is "mercurial. He doesn't always explain what he's doing, he just does it. You don't completely understand what's going on in his head, but you trust what comes out of it."

David Weinberg '74, varsity coxswain from 1972 to 1974, recalls how, late during one practice, stroke Al Shealy's oarlock broke and could not be repaired. "Harry came over with his launch and Shealy got out of the boat. We had to row the last mile of the workout with only seven guys. With no stroke, I was facing the #7 man, who of course sat a couple of feet farther away. Harry leaned over to me with his megaphone and said, `Dave, you should do well-you know, the key to authority is distance.'" Weinberg believes that by remaining somehat aloof, Parker made his selection of oarsmen as fair as possible: "He could never be accused of favoritism, or subjectivity." Shealy adds that "the hallmark of any great coach or leader is keeping a distance. It's necessary to develop a mystique, whether consciously or unconsciously. Harry has done that to a T. There is a certain inscrutability about him. I don't know Harry all that well. With him, you open the door only part way."



Few athletes or coaches recognize certain subtle aspects of coaching. Fewer still cultivate them. Take, for example, the art of calling a day off. Peter Raymond recalls that when he was training under Parker for the 1972 Olympic Games, "Some days, I would get up and know that I was gearing myself up for a workout that would be very hard to get through-a session where I'd be losing more than I gained. Inevitably, we would have the day off. Harry understood things in a way I didn't."

In the days just before a race, athletes generally reduce their workouts to build energy for competition: this process is called "tapering." Carie Graves describes Parker as "a master of the taper. I've never had anyone get me ready for a race the way he did. When you got to the starting line you were God-you were omnipotent. I felt that way in '76: like the perfect human being. It's the best. Many coaches can't taper. They get nervous before a race and wear the crew out practicing racing starts. It's a rare talent."

Knauth recalls the energy that would intensify before the Yale race: "Because of the taper, you just want to grab an oar….People get so aggressive, they want to smash chairs, they start wrestling with each other. Then Harry says, `No, no, no-save it.' When you get to the starting line you just want to explode at the start to get it out of your system. The maniacal desire to break something really helps when you're trying to win a close race."



Look at the Harvard crew's record over the last few decades: the thing you'll find missing is the big loss-the crucial race where Harvard came up a bit short. It doesn't happen that way; it's the other crew that falls short. The examples are the stuff of rowing lore. In 1968, at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, California, Harvard had a showdown with Penn, after having beaten the Quakers twice that spring. Parker was facing his mentor Burk, who was one year away from retirement. The two boats stayed close all the way down the 2,000-meter course, the lead seesawing back and forth with each stroke over the last 200 meters. With a thunderous sprint-and stroke Art Evans '69 "going crazy at the end," in Hobbs's words-Harvard won by .05 seconds in a photo finish-and so went on to the Olympic Games.

Then there was the 1979 Yale race, when Harvard, stroked by Gordie Gardiner, was outweighed by at least 12 pounds per man and trailed by open water after one mile; the Harvard eight slowly reeled in the Yale boat and won by half a length. "I've never seen a braver effort by a crew," says Graves, who witnessed the race. "I was in tears, it was such a moving experience." The following year against Yale, Harvard was behind by one and a half lengths with a mile and half to go; they again came back to win. "It was a matter of not collapsing," recalls Charlie Altekruse, who rowed at #6 in the race. Then there was the national championship at Cincinnati in 1983, when Washington had a boat-length lead and Harvard, behind stroke Andy Sudduth '83, won by a couple of feet.

A 2,000-meter rowing race generally lasts between five and six minutes. When margins of victory are under one second, probability suggests that a given crew should win about half these races and lose the other half. That is emphatically not the case when Harvard is one of the two crews. Harvard seems to win almost all its close races-which are big races by definition, since they reflect the fastest competition. Over the years, Harry Parker's crews have won 20 races by what seems like a total of 100 feet. Random chance cannot explain this.

"The boat that wins close races often is the boat that is coming from behind, not the boat that is being closed upon," says Campbell Rogers '83, M.D. '88, a 1982-83 varsity rower. "We did a lot of work on finishing very fast, which got more emphasis than starting. The Harvard race plan has always been: Don't worry about getting ahead early, keep a steady pace, then finish extremely hard. Most crews are not coached that way. Facing Harvard, they are usually the underdogs; they'd start extremely hard, get a lead and then get overexcited, and expend themselves in the middle 1,000 meters trying to stay ahead."


There is another factor involved in Harvard's blistering finishes. Tiff Wood suggests that "every individual has a way of rowing that will be most effective for that person. You can try and make them all row the same, but perhaps the real trick is to find people who row effectively in their own way." While certain technical elements-like having all the oar blades catch the water at once-are universal requirements, Parker may insist less on technical uniformity than other coaches do.

Recall Fritz Hobbs's description of stroke Art Evans "going crazy" in the 1968 Olympic trial. "There are certain coaches who, if you start to go nuts-to do things that are stylistically odd, trying to make the boat go fast-they'll stop you from doing it. Their emphasis is on `not having technique deteriorate,'" says Wood. "With Harry, you can throw all caution to the winds as long as you are able to make the boat go while doing it-it's OK to go nuts. Consider what in weightlifting they call `recruitment.' It means learning to use other muscles that are nearby, or are related to, the muscle you are working on a certain lift. You may do something like recruitment at the end of a race: however inefficient it may be, you just want to get a little more horsepower on that oar. Harry's oarsmen have done more experimenting with those inefficient but short-term-effective strategies. When the whole crew does it, things aren't falling apart-we're going nuts! And that's OK!"

Thus, in the heat of the race, the Harvard oarsmen may not be enacting any ideal of form or technique. Rather, they are in a state of abandon; they are most vehemently expressing themselves. And it is the disciplined expression of self-not of technique-that wins races.


Parker shows no sign of slowing down, and in fact he has reached a state of mastery that can handle virtually any challenge the sport has to offer. His intensity has not dimmed, though his personal style seems to have mellowed in recent years. Many attribute this to his happy second marriage-to Kathy Keeler, a rower and gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics-and to the birth of their daughter, Abagail, in 1994. The toddler has been a frequent presence in Newell, and she is a true source of delight to her 60-year-old father. Parker remains fit and energetic, but says he has no illusions about coaching forever: "I'll retire if it's not fun, or if I feel I'm not being as effective as I ought to be."

That day seems a long way off. Harold Lambert Parker appears to be having more fun than ever. Since 1990, Harvard's record is 23-7, including an undefeated season and national championship in 1992. After a four-year skein of Yale wins, Harvard has won the annual Harvard-Yale race every year since 1985, bringing Parker's record in that regatta to 29-4. It all began on that Sunday in 1963, when Yale, and the rest of the world, simply didn't know what they were up against.

Craig A. Lambert '69, Ph.D. '78, is an associate editor of this magazine. He is a member of Cambridge Boat Club and is a single sculler with a greater reputation for wit than speed.

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

An Authentic Act

Basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith navigates players’ gender and sexual identity, mental health, and other challenging social issues.

Mass Audubon Ushers in the Spring

Exploring nature through Mass Audubon

Blindspot: A Novel

History professor Jill Lepore is the coauthor, with Jane Kamensky, of the historical novel Blindspot, set in colonial Boston.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults