For the first time in the history of the oldest American collegiate sport, freshmen will be permitted to compete at the varsity and junior varsity levels in the upcoming spring crew season.
In June 2012, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) decided to allow freshmen to compete in the IRA National Championship regatta, held every spring and considered one of the definitive races of collegiate crew. This decision applied only to the national championship, which annually takes place in late May or early June.
Then, when the Ivy League administrators heard of the change, they voted to open freshman eligibility to all levels of varsity competition throughout the entire spring season, including non-championship races, cup races, and the Eastern Sprints championship, according to lightweight crew coach Andy Card.
The new regulation is in effect for both the heavyweight and lightweight crews, and marks the first time since 1852 — when Yale and Harvard first went head-to-head on the water — that freshmen will be able to compete outside of their own race category in the varsity or junior varsity boats.
Heavyweight crew coach Stephen Gladstone said that men’s crew was the last collegiate sport to segregate freshmen from upperclassmen in their own competitive division. He added that most collegiate sports used to be structured in this way.
While freshman-only races will still take place at regattas throughout the spring season, the youngest members of the teams will be able to vie for a spot in the varsity or junior varsity boats.
“It’s a step forward for men’s crew, after a century and a half,” Gladstone said. He added that men’s crew has now joined women’s crew and the rest of the NCAA in allowing freshmen to race outside of their own category.
Heavyweight crew captain Jon Morgan ’13 said that the freshman-only division has lasted so long in men’s crew because the sport was the first collegiate sport in the country and is technically not a member of the NCAA.
Morgan added that the debate over freshman eligibility has been ongoing in the rowing community and that he sees it as an exciting and positive opportunity for the team to improve.
Gladstone said he expects this “healthy development” to make the team atmosphere a meritocracy, allowing the strongest oarsmen to compete at the highest level. He added that he thought a number of freshmen last year would have be able to compete in the varsity boat, but that the old regulations prevented them from doing so.
Clemens Barth ’15, who rowed in Yale’s freshman eight last year, said he enjoyed getting to know his classmates on the team, but would have liked to opportunity to prove himself amongst the upperclassmen.
“[The new regulation] will allow people who have the capability to race in the varsity boats, and it will make room for walk-ons and give them the opportunity to race,” Gladstone said.
But there may be drawbacks to the new regulation. Card said he liked the former organization of the crew teams with freshmen in their own race categories.
“The freshman category worked fine,” Card said in an email to the News. “There was less pressure on each freshman to get to a varsity level right away, since they had their own separate category, and they could start their academic career off properly in the fall when so much is new to a freshman.”
Lightweight crew captain William Ferraro ’13 noted that with the new regulation, freshmen are expected to “hit the ground running” and forgo a period of time to transition to college-level rowing. He added that the youngest members of the Bulldogs’ squad have stepped up to the challenge and realize that it is special to be potentially the first freshman ever to race varsity.
But with more rowers in the running to race varsity, the competition for those coveted seats will be stronger.
“We say on our team that under nobody’s seat is a name, and now that freshmen are varsity-eligible the intra-squad competition is going to be that much fiercer,” Ferarro said in an email to the News. “We welcome that competition because we know that it’ll translate to more boat speed.”
David DeVries ’16, a freshman on the heavyweight crew team, said that all the freshmen are excited with the prospect of competing at varsity level this year. DeVries said he expects the new regulation to heighten unity on the squad and help the rowers push harder in practice.
Last spring, the heavyweight crew varsity boat placed 12th overall in the IRA National Championship, and the lightweight crew varsity boat placed third.