While businessman Jim Millar ’80, a former heavyweight rower, was trying to explain exactly what made Yale crew special, he paused to take another phone call.
He returned a few moments later with an answer.
“That was a friend of mine, an ex-Harvard guy [class of ’74],” he said. “We row together now. We’re both in the venture capital business, and we’ve gotten to be very good friends and business associates through rowing.”
Millar explained that he and his Harvard friend love to share stories about their college years as members of two of the Ivy League’s most dominant crew teams.
Yale crew was the first organized college team in the country, and its rivalry with Harvard is the oldest in college sports. Just as the historic rivalry can inspire friendships between nostalgic veterans like Millar and his former rival, Yale’s rich crew legacy continues to motivate Eli rowers today.
In 1843, a group of Yale students formed the first college boat club in the nation with the purchase of the Whitewall — a small recreational boat. Just nine years later, the club rowed against the Crimson in the inaugural Harvard-Yale Regatta. The original two-mile race was a promotional gimmick sponsored by a local lodge on Lake Winnepesaukee, N.H. Harvard’s team got the best of the Elis that day, winning by nearly two boat lengths, but that outcome is just a historical footnote from an event that signaled the inception of a new era of intercollegiate competition.
“All of collegiate athletics traces its birth to the Harvard-Yale Regatta because that was the first athletic competition among schools,” said Dave Vogel, who coaches the heavyweight team and has been with the crew program since 1972. “Certainly, that predates the invention of most sports.”
The crew team became a success, and college life changed forever with the emergence of intercollegiate athletics.
Henry Camp 1860 led Yale to a victory over Harvard in the 1859 race, and some of his classmates recalled watching Yale win as the highlight of their college lives, according to messages in Camp’s autograph book.
By 1878, the race had become an annual event and permanently relocated to New London, Conn.
Taste of fame
In less than a century, Yale’s recreational boat club soon established itself as an international rowing power.
“Up until the last 30 years, in the modern Olympic games, the United States’ representative was a winner of a trial event,” Vogel said. “For the most part there were a lot of colleges. Yale is the only Ivy League school to have its eight win a gold [medal].”
The Eli eight-man crew won Olympic gold in Paris in 1924 and Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
One member of the 1924 crew was Benjamin Spock ’25, who went on to write the best selling book “Baby and Child Care.” Originally a high jumper, Spock was recruited by captain James Rockefeller ’22 because of his natural rowing build. He went on to become the seventh rower on Yale’s record-setting Olympic eight-man boat.
“[Spock’s book] is the largest selling book ever written in English outside of the Bible,” Vogel said. “He died several years ago, certainly one of the most famous Yale products for his world renown and one of the most famous Olympic gold medalists ever.”
Although only those two Yale teams have won Olympic gold medals, a far greater number of Bulldogs have won Olympic medals as part of the American team.
In a program as old and storied as Yale crew, legends and myths grow.
Besides being credited with choosing Yale’s colors, the crew team is also credited with inventing the crew cut in the 1920s.
“The captain of the crew wanted a hair cut in the style worn by [German Chancellor Otto von] Bismark,” Vogel said. “He went to an Italian barber in New Haven, who refused to do any haircut that had anything to do with Germany, and he [the barber] said I’ll give you a short haircut, but we’ll call it the crew cut.”
With the lack of clean water in boathouse showering facilities, other team members quickly adopted the short haircut.
In 1972, Title IX went into effect, requiring all institutions receiving federal money to guarantee equal financial support for men’s and women’s programs. As a result, funding for women’s intercollegiate athletic teams increased, allowing Yale to establish a women’s crew program.
Crew was not the first women’s sport at Yale, but it made one of the nation’s most storied stands in support of Title IX.
Now the subject of a documentary called, “A Hero for Daisy,” the 1976 women’s crew team lacked separate locker room facilities. The team asked the administration for equal facilities under Title IX regulations, but administrators were slow to react.
To advance its cause, the team stormed into the Yale athletics director’s office during his meeting with a New York Times reporter. The women proceeded to remove all their clothes and reveal that they had written “Title IX” all over their bodies. The event made national news, and the administration gave the women’s team equal facilities.
The current women’s team still takes pride in the story.
“We have all the freshmen watch [the documentary], and it’s very good for our team because we can see where we came from,” rower Megan Leitch ’02 said. “We have an enormous amount of resources, and it makes us really appreciate what people in the past did.”
Just seven years after its first race, the women’s team claimed its first national championship in 1979.
Vogel proudly remembers the Harvard-Yale race in 1999. Yale trailed for the first 3.5 miles of the 4-mile race but managed to come back and win.
“The victory over Harvard in 1999 was probably one of the best Harvard-Yale boat races in the last 50 years,” Vogel said. “[The comeback] was a heroic effort. I was very proud of it.”
The high point of recent years, however, was the lightweight team’s victory at the Henley Royal Regatta in England last summer. While the team had already secured the national title, it had its sights set on the more coveted championship at Henley. The international race ranks behind only the Olympics and the World Championships in prestige, lightweight coach Andrew Card said.
The Henley Regatta is single elimination and does not divide teams by weight class. This puts lightweight crews at a disadvantage because heavier boats generally have the strength to clock faster times. Few college teams win the event, and no lightweight team had won since 1974.
“What I felt most proud of is that every year in the championships in the States, you will always have a champion, but you don’t necessarily get one of those teams winning at Henley,” Card said. “So we felt pretty damn special when we did.”
The team made it to the finals and faced a British heavyweight team that averaged 196 lbs. By comparison, the average man of the Eli eight tipped the scales at only 166 lbs.
“We led the whole way,” Card said. “I don’t think the British were very prepared for our start. They kept sprinting at the end. We won by one-third of a length.”