Yale crew stays in the race for dominance

A single sculler, midstroke, perches atop the copper weather vane above Ray Tompkins House, the Athletic Department’s administrative building. Rowers’ profiles hunch in the entrances of several residential colleges. And each year, Yale boats take to the water towing the legacy of the country’s oldest collegiate athletic team.

The University may revere its oarsmen, but the growth of rowing programs at larger and more athletically aggressive schools presents a new challenge to Yale and the other coastal powerhouses that have dominated the sport for over a century and a half. Several decades in the wake of other sports, the arc of collegiate crew appears to be following a familiar trajectory: As large state schools become increasingly competitive in what were once Yale-dominated sports, the University’s historic programs struggle to hang on and keep pace.

Members of Yale’s lightweight crew team practice on the river. As larger state schools become more competitive in the sport, the University teams must fight to hold onto their historic dominance in both the mens’ and womens’ rowing programs.
Ani Katz
Members of Yale’s lightweight crew team practice on the river. As larger state schools become more competitive in the sport, the University teams must fight to hold onto their historic dominance in both the mens’ and womens’ rowing programs.

It is a race many sports in the Ivy League, football especially, have already lost. But thus far the crew teams have been able to stay astride of new teams on the coasts and in the Midwest, where universities have become increasingly interested in women’s crew in part because of its Title IX ramifications.

“I think it’s definitely a time when the landscape of rowing is changing, due to things like Title IX and international athletes who are coming here to get an education, and I don’t think Yale can fund those things like state schools can,” said rower Lilah Hume ’09.

Yale’s ability to remain among the nation’s rowing elite in recent years can be attributed to a variety of factors, coaches and athletes said. Certainly such a long winning tradition tempts top recruits. But the sport is also expensive and constrained by geography, meaning almost all rowers go to private high schools, live in wealthy areas that can finance teams at the public schools or belong to private rowing clubs. As a result, many of the country’s top recruits are well prepared academically, coaches said, something that cannot be said for football and other high-profile sports, and Yale has been able to recruit the best athletes without much fear of academic ineligibility.

The suggestion that rowers tend to be wealthier than the average athlete and as a result better educated is not easily received by rowers, especially given the recent expansion of the sport.

“I worry about saying it’s easy to recruit rowers because people who do wealthy sports have better educations,” Hume said. “I don’t think that’s true at all, because there are a lot of smart kids who go to schools who can’t row.”

Instead, rowers said the long history of crew at Yale has perhaps been most important in sustaining each program’s success.

“The rowing team was started such a long time ago that it existed here at Yale before most of everything around us existed,” men’s heavyweight coach John Pescatore said. “The history forces it to be a great fit.”

In 1843, undergraduate William Weeks dipped his personal boat, The Excelsior, into New Haven Harbor. Ten years later, Harvard and Yale competed in the first collegiate race. The rivalry has lasted over 150 years, and both teams have remained near the top of the sport since its inception.

That history is not easily separated from the seemingly elite nature of the sport. The expense of rowing in high school probably prevents many teenagers from taking it up, Pescatore said, though he said the expansion of rowing has weakened some of the financial barriers.

“I think people refer to rowing [as elite],” he said. “It’s not entirely incorrect because it is an expensive sport. If you have to have a lot of money to do something, then that kind of means elitism. But at Yale, because of the financial aid available, we are getting recruits and walk-ons from vastly different backgrounds.”

Caroline Berson ’09, who attended a public high school in northern Virginia, said she paid $600 a year to row there, a prohibitive cost for many students. Public schools with rowing teams also tend to be in the wealthiest neighborhoods, meaning that most rowers come from more economically secure circumstances, she said.

Whereas football head coach Jack Siedlecki recently spoke of “recruiting the recruitable athlete” — those students who can both afford to come to Yale and qualify academically — as one of his most important limitations, crew coaches might be able to recruit a wider range of rowers because many are so well prepared in the classroom.

Mark Davis, who coaches the men’s freshman crew, said the success of the sport at Ivy League schools has little to do with economic forces but instead rests on tradition and the value placed on a combination of strong academics and athletics. Rowers are drawn to Yale for its past success, he said.

“I don’t think rowing is an elite sport at all,” he said. “I think it has the reputation of that but there are many people that are not elite that are rowing. I think the reason Brown and Yale and Princeton do well is they have a long tradition of great programs and the fact that a lot of the good high school programs are very good academic institutions as well.”

Whatever the reason for the academic preparation of high school recruits, rowers continue to choose the country’s top academic universities. Since 2003, the NCAA title in the women’s heavyweight eight has gone to Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Brown and Harvard, consecutively. Four of the top seven men’s varsity eight teams at the end of the spring were from the Ivy League.

But the dominance of traditional programs may be waning. While a few of the country’s elite academic institutions have been able to stay near the top, others have fallen off in recent years. Large Midwestern schools, including Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State, are building formidable men’s and women’s programs, coaches said.

Hume said the change has been especially dramatic for women because of Title IX, a Congressional provision passed in 1972 that has been interpreted as requiring equal athletic opportunities for college women, especially in terms of funding. As a result, universities see women’s crew as a convenient way to spend heavily and bring in dozens of female athletes to balance male teams.

Both men’s and women’s teams are feeling the pressure, though. Lightweight Kevin Michel ’09 said the sport’s expansion has been good for Yale’s teams but made it much harder to win national titles.

“It’s good for the sport, there’s more competition,” he said. “It pushes you to work harder. There’s a good chance that 50 years down the road there might only be five teams in the top 10 that are in the top 10 now.”

Michel said that the key to sustaining the success of the crew teams is to use Yale’s winning tradition to attract the best coaches and oarsmen. Winning begets winning, and as long as the Elis continue to be competitive, rowers will be drawn to New Haven. The unique place of crew in the national landscape might allow Yale and other elite universities to withstand the onslaught of scholarships and new programs.

“I really believe Yale and Harvard and Princeton will continue to compete at the highest national level,” Michel said. “The added competition will only push these programs further, I don’t think they’ll fall into obscurity. But you can never be sure.”

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