The Yale heavyweight crew team concluded its historic season atop the podium at one of rowing’s most historically significant locations: the Henley Royal Regatta in England.
“It was a breakthrough season,” coach Steve Gladstone said. “The athletes showed great resiliency throughout the course of the season. I’m really proud of them.”
The first varsity eight went undefeated during the regular season and was thus seeded first when they entered the 70th Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Sprints in Worcester, Mass., on May 17.
With a first-place finish at Eastern Sprints — the team’s first since 1982 — the Elis took both the Ivy League and EARC titles.
After Eastern Sprints came the IRA National Championship Regatta, a larger competition that includes west coast teams like perennial powerhouse University of Washington. The Bulldogs raced the Huskies in the semifinals, ultimately falling to the then-four-time-defending national champions.
“Throughout the regular season, we went into each race not caring who we were racing, but putting out our best possible race and taking the outcome as it came,” coxswain Chris Carothers ’16 said. “In the semifinals, we had a switch in attitude and tried to race Washington.”
Despite a fast start, Yale struggled to find its rhythm against Washington, captain Hubert Trzybinski ’16 said. The Bulldogs led for about 300 meters, but the Huskies, well-known for a punishing mid-race pace, came back to win the heat. Washington went on to win its fifth consecutive national championship.
But Yale did not dwell on the loss — the varsity boat’s first of the season .
“It was about confidence,” Nate Goodman ’17 said. “We had a discussion, the nine of us and Coach Gladstone, where we said that race doesn’t define the season for us.”
A week after IRAs, the team took on Harvard in the 150th iteration of the Harvard-Yale regatta at The Ferry near New London, Conn. The new champions had not won the Harvard-Yale regatta in seven years, and despite the hardware back home, Gladstone said losing to Harvard would have put a black mark on the season.
“Coach wanted to build towards [the Harvard-Yale regatta]” Carothers said. “Winning Eastern Sprints was big, but the biggest statement for our program was beating Harvard.”
The Bulldogs’ first varsity boat finished 16.7 seconds ahead of the Crimson en route to setting a new course record in the four-mile. The second varsity boat also beat Harvard in the three-mile race, winning by 4.3 seconds.
“Coming in to the end and hearing the crowd was exhilarating,” Carothers said. “We had three times as many fans [as Harvard], and there was a huge yacht that had a bunch of our teammates as well as family, friends and alumni. You could hear the chants, the crowd going nuts.”
Goodman, along with two freshmen, had not raced at The Ferry before. Although the race felt different, Goodman said he fed off his teammates.
Thanks to a strong rhythm, Yale snagged an early lead and held steady for the first three miles before separating from their Cantab counterparts in the last mile.
“In a long race like that, we just try to go out there right away and take the other crew by force,” Cole Tilden ’18 said. “Rowing is a sport that’s very hard on the body. The mental game is such an advantage.”
Traditionally, the winner of the Harvard-Yale regatta paints a large rock that sits near the finish line in its school colors. This year, for the first time since 2008, the rock will be blue instead of crimson.
Blue rocks and hardware aside, the wins at Eastern Sprints and Harvard-Yale will also benefit Yale’s standing, Carothers noted.
“We showed the rowing world that Yale is back and we’re ready to become a powerhouse,” Carothers said. “To be able to win those races gives us bragging races in America … and sets us apart.”
While local races helped Yale’s standing in the States, Carothers added that the win at Henley will help international recruiting.
The Henley Royal Regatta, which draws the best collegiate, club and national teams from around the world, is among the most prestigious regattas in the sport. This year, 526 crews from 18 different countries competed.
Yale originally intended to enter two eight boats, but ended up entering three due to a rule that forbids rowers who have previously competed in a first varsity boat from entering the second varsity race. The second varsity eight split into two fours, one coxed, one coxless, and competed in two separate events. The coxed four made it to the finals of the Prince Albert Cup before falling to the University of Washington.
The first varsity eight took on Germany’s Ruderclub Germania Düsseldorf von 1904 and the hometown Leander Club. After beating Leander, the Bulldogs found themselves up against a familiar foe in the finals: Washington.
“It was like a second chance,” Carothers said. “We knew what we did wrong the first time around. We weren’t going to race Washington’s race. We had nothing to lose.”
Goodman added that, at the IRAs, he worried about results, but at Henley, he worried about executing Yale’s race. That meant getting off to a fast start and not allowing a late Washington surge to throw off the team.
Yale finished the 2,112-meter course in 6:34, a length and three-quarters ahead of Washington. The race was also the Huskies’ first major defeat in five years.
Despite the successes of the 2015 postseason, the heavyweights still feel like there is work to do.
With only five athletes lost to graduation, and all nine members of the first varsity boat returning, the Bulldogs are looking to increase the depth of the team. There are at least 12 members from the class of 2019 joining the team, with the possibility of more walk-ons.
“We won Eastern Sprints, we won Harvard-Yale, we won Henley, but what’s bothering us is we didn’t perform at the level we’re capable of at IRAs,” Trzybinski said. “That was disappointing for every guy on the team, because we knew we were better than our performance.”
Carothers and Goodman echoed Trzybinski, calling the IRAs “a big goal,” noting that the team still has much to prove and is not yet “the top dog.”
Still, the heavyweights have an excellent foundation on which to build.
“These next four or so years, Yale is going to be very talented,” Tilden said. “The national champions from these last few years are graduating half their entire boat … We’re only graduating two seniors from our top 16 rowers, which is insane. [Coach] Gladstone came in five years ago and did an amazing job recruiting, so we have a lot of young talent.”