At the end of the 2010-’11 rowing season, his first year with the Bulldogs, heavyweight crew head coach Stephen Gladstone set a 6000m time standard for all oarsmen planning to return to the team in the fall.
“[Gladstone] made it clear that only people who were entirely committed to the team and to going fast were welcome back,” varsity coxswain Oliver Fletcher ’14 said.
On the first day of practice in September, the entire roster was tested, and Gladstone said approximately two-thirds of the oarsmen bested or nearly beat the 20-minute time limit. He added that the other one third of returning rowers either did not make the cut or decided to leave the team due to the higher expectations.
Fletcher said the result of this was a drastic decrease in the roster size. Last season, there were 47 athletes on the team. This academic year there are only 32.
The smaller roster means the team is racing fewer boats this season. So far this spring, Yale has raced in three regattas against Ivy rivals Brown, Dartmouth, and Columbia and Penn. The Bulldogs have raced three boats — varsity, junior varsity and freshman eights — in each regatta, whereas Brown and Penn have each raced five. Dartmouth and Columbia also have a smaller roster and only raced three boats against Yale.
While one might think that with fewer crews the Blue and White is at a disadvantage against bigger teams, that has proven not to be the case this season. The three Yale boats are undefeated this spring, as the team has swept all three regattas to date.
Gladstone said that the success of a team is not contingent on the number of boats it races, but rather on the strength and motivation of all the athletes.
“I wouldn’t describe it as downsizing,” Gladstone said. “We wanted to get a core of like-minded people striving for excellence and dedicated to performing at the highest level. It’s successful addition by subtraction.”
Gladstone added that since a different coach had recruited all of last year’s team, some of the athletes were not prepared for his expectations of team protocol, behavior and dedication. That, in addition to the heightened fitness standards, made a few oarsmen elect to leave the team.
Team captain Tom Dethlefs ’12 noted that this year, Yale is one of only a few rowing programs in the nation to be undefeated at all levels at this point in the season.
“Perhaps the biggest difference between last year and this one is that we now have a critical mass of guys who are really pushing the limits and making boats go fast,” Dethlefs said, describing the current squad as “smaller but more elite.”
In contrast to this season, last spring the Bulldogs’ varsity squad fell to Brown, Princeton and Cornell in the season cup races and placed seventh in the Eastern Sprints in mid-May and 10th in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championships in June.
Dethlefs said that while last year’s championship finishes were solid and mid-pack, the team was disappointed with its results. This “period of adjustment” allowed the team and coaches to reevaluate the team and figure out a strategy to elevate Yale to medal standing.
Dethlefs said that the fall fitness requirements kept everyone motivated over the summer and that some team members returned in better physiological shape than when they had left in the spring.
“While we do miss those who decided they couldn’t fully commit, the downsize left a solid core of guys who you know you can absolutely count on,” varsity oarsman Zach Johnson ’14 said. “It has pretty much eradicated the culture of self-doubt that had plagued our team in past years.”
The Bulldogs hope to continue their winning streak against Cornell and Princeton as they race for the Carnegie Cup in New Jersey on Saturday. The upcoming regatta will be the last cup race of the season, and Yale’s last opportunity to compete before the season-defining Eastern Sprints regional championships, Yale-Harvard boat race, and IRA regatta in May and early June.
Yale last won the Yale-Harvard boat race in 2007.