In 1843, a group of Yale students purchased a boat named Whitehall and formed the first collegiate sporting association in the United States. Nine years later, the group participated in the first ever intercollegiate sporting event in the United States when it competed against Harvard in a two-mile race on Lake Winnipesaukee. Despite losing by two lengths that day, the students had ushered in a new era of intercollegiate competition: The Yale heavyweight crew team was revolutionary.
Its storied history only improved in the 20th century, when the Yale crew represented the United States at the 1924 and 1956 Olympics, in each case rowing its country and Yale to gold.
Despite its historical dominance, Yale heavyweight crew has struggled for much of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Since 1960, Harvard has dominated the Harvard-Yale regatta, winning 46 races to the Elis’ nine. Keeping up with bigger programs like the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, proved to be a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Yet since the arrival of head coach Steve Gladstone in 2010, the Elis have recaptured their former glory. In 2015, Yale defeated Harvard at the Harvard-Yale regatta for the first time in seven years. Last season, Yale finished second in the country, falling only to Cal in the International Rowing Association final — the highest ever national finish for Yale.
This season, the goal for the heavyweight crew is clear: to win the first national championship in program history.
“This program has come a long way over the past four seasons but going from silver to gold will be the most challenging step,” assistant coach Mike Gennaro said. “Training hard every day will provide the foundation for our speed, but winning the national championships will come down to execution on the day that matters most. You only get one shot to win the national championship, and that’s when our squad will need to be automatic and relentless.”
Expectations for the Elis this season are high. Despite losing 2015–16 captain and former single-scull world champion Hubert Trzybinski ’16 and coxswain Chris Carothers ’16, who coxed the Head-of-the-Charles-winning boat last season, Yale returns every other member of the Varsity Eight, which competed against California at the IRA final last season. On top of that, the Bulldogs welcome Gennaro, a decorated international rower, as an assistant coach along with a strong freshman class.
Yale’s offseason training includes work on erg machines and in the weight room. Though indoor training is “monotonous and tedious,” according to Gennaro, the team has embraced the offseason with vigor.
One of the biggest stars of winter training has been Tom Digby ’20, who has broken four under-19 world records on the ergometer since arriving at Yale. The 6-foot-5 Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, native now owns world records in the 6-kilometer, 10-kilometer, half-marathon and 60-minute pace. According to Gennaro, Yale’s crew has thus far benefited from a combination of hungry underclassmen such as Digby and experienced upperclassmen.
“The quality of our off-season training has been at an all-time high this winter,” captain Robert Hurn ’17 said. “The record number of guys pulling very fast ergometer scores is an early indicator that we could have some very fast boats this spring.”
According to several team members, this year’s Yale crew has been further motivated by the controversial finish in the 2016 Yale-Harvard regatta on June 12. After anticipating the annual rivalry matchup throughout the monthslong season, the heavily favored Bulldogs leapt out to an early open-water lead before the Crimson boat sank less than a half mile into the four-mile course.
The race was counted as no contest, and though Yale appealed the ruling, it was upheld at the start of the 2017 calendar year.
“Many of the guys feel like they were robbed,” Hurn said. “Harvard was significantly behind before they sank, and their defeat seemed inevitable. This year we look to deliver a crushing blow and win so big that it makes up for two years.”
The Elis’ Varsity Eight had little trouble against Ancient Eight competition last season, capping off an undefeated regular season with a first-place finish at the Eastern Sprints Regatta. The Bulldogs’ second consecutive Ivy League championship helped erase memories of a 31-season title drought and set the stage for Yale’s second-place finish at IRA nationals.
As indicated by last year’s sustained success among the country’s top crews, Gladstone has built a program that can more than live up to the great Yale crews of last century. Taking home a national championship in 2017 would provide the icing on the cake.
The heavyweight crew will first race this spring on March 25, when it competes against Brown for the Albert Cup in Providence. Its race against Harvard will take place on June 10, a week after the IRA national championship in Rancho Cordova, California.