Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Henley: Grand Run

September-October 2004

Cream-covered strawberries, taken with tea on the banks of the Thames. A flute of champagne as crisp as the English afternoon. A tableau fit for an aristocrat. But appearances are deceiving at Henley Royal Regatta. Notwithstanding the glut of epicurean delights, the essence of the event is glimpsed only at 10-minute intervals as crack crews of enormous men surge past, their faces wrenched with pain.

The distance between the berry-eaters on the banks and the rowers on the river is a matter of feet, but at this year's regatta, the watery margin seemed wider. At least that was the impression from inside the carbon-fiber shell of Harvard's varsity eight, where all minds were focused on the race ahead. "We were completely zoned," said coxswain Jesse Oberst '04. "The crowd is right on top of you at Henley, but we were in our own world."

Having the day before beaten Cambridge University's first eight (three of whom were Harvard alumni), Harvard faced its first shot in almost 20 years at winning Henley's biggest prize, the Grand Challenge Cup. It was also the last race in a crimson unisuit for a remarkable group of just-graduated seniors, national champions who went undefeated in their final two years of collegiate competition. Harry Parker, Harvard's notoriously tight-lipped coach, went so far as to call this one of Harvard's best rowing classes ever. It's hard to overstate the point—the junior varsity, led by six seniors of its own, that same day came within two-thirds of a length of beating England's best rowing club, Leander, in the championship race for Henley's highly competitive Ladies' Challenge Cup.

In the final of the Grand, Harvard was not aligned opposite a college boat, but an Olympic one. "Hollandia Roeiclub will represent the Netherlands in the Olympic Games," intoned the English announcer, over a loudspeaker. "Harvard University is the winner of this year's Harvard-Yale race." The buttoned-up crowd failed to suppress sniggers at the seeming absurdity of the pairing. Yet the oarsmen remained in their psychological bubble.

Rowing is a famously lonely pastime. Unlike glamour sports, where high-level success brings television exposure and fame, the worlds of world-class rowers focus narrowly around fundamental units of self, teammates, training, sleeping, and eating. Races are minutes-long blips in plodding continua of grueling ergometer marathons and frigid February sculling sessions. "When it's still dark out and you're on the water alone, you're the only one who knows if you've pulled your hardest or held something back," said Harvard's stroke, Kristopher "Kip" McDaniel '04. "It all comes down to you."

But races, however brief, are also judgment days that reveal who gave his all when nobody was watching, and who held back. And for seven seniors (including the coxswain), the Harvard-Hollandia race was the final judgment after four years of individual and collaborative toil.

Thames Baptism

The Harvard freshman eight won two Henley races, but succumbed to equipment failure in the quarterfinals. Within the first 20 strokes, bowman Mike Harrington realized that his seat was either dislodged or broken; he undid and tossed his oar, then dove overboard, dodging the oncoming boat. The intrepid frosh finished the race with seven oars, and even so, lost by only two lengths to eventual Temple Cup champion Nereus of Holland.

Things got off to a discouraging start. "They had a 20- or 30-stroke burst where they just moved," said McDaniel. "They're much stronger and they do a ton of weight training, so for short bursts they can move on us." But Harvard's strength had never been speedy starts. It was a crew known for cool endurance. "We stick to a very low stroke [per minute] count," said Oberst. "We pull very long and we close strong." (True to form, Harvard had fallen behind against Cambridge, only to come back and win handily.)

A shiver of excitement ran through the crowd with the announcement that Harvard had closed the gap, coming from one boat-length back to two-thirds of a length by the mile mark. More shocking, perhaps, was the stroke count. Oberst had barked the boat's rate up to 39, as high as he had called it all season. Harvard was sprinting. Hollandia tried to match.

Half a mile later, the boats crossed the finish line, still sprinting, Harvard still two-thirds of a length behind. Both crews collapsed in their boats, spent. The crowd, momentarily aroused by the near-upset, turned back to its tea. Those who left the comfort of their lawn chairs to meet the crews in the boat tent consisted almost exclusively of the rowers' parents. And even they had to wait. The crew huddled together on the dock—national champions, now shivering.

What was said in that huddle stayed there. The rowers simply emerged and matter-of-factly greeted their modest fan club. But there was no time to dilly-dally. "We have to do our warm-down and take the boat a little bit upriver," McDaniel said. As their parents headed back to hotels and lawn chairs, the Harvard heavies rowed their final 500 meters together, against the current.

~Lee Hudson Teslik