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Steward of the Sport

BY JEN WHITING
PHOTOS COURTESY TUFTS UNIVERSITY/GARY CALDWELL

Picture, for a moment, bleachers affixed to a flatbed railroad car. You’re standing on the banks of the Hudson River in late June, a sodden picnic basket at your feet. Even though it’s been raining all day, thousands of spectators have descended on a three-mile stretch of the river, as you have, to watch one of the biggest sporting events in America: the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s national championship race. As the freshman eight race gets underway, the train with the fans on board follows the boats down the course. 

Throughout the day, as the rain continues to soak through your coat, two more races will be held: the junior varsity eight and then the ultimate test, the varsity eight. Crews from Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania have been racing on this river since 1895, when the first IRA national championship was won by Columbia.

This year, though, as you stand on the rain-soaked banks of the Hudson River, it’s 1923 and an upset is underway. Lanky boys from the University of Washington are racing against what has typically been an East Coast event between crews from Penn, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, and the Naval Academy. Wisconsin has been traveling East on and off since 1899 to compete, but this is only the second year that a West Coast school has competed. Washington earned the right to be here after beating California in their annual race. 

The varsity eight race is now underway. Your perch—at the beginning of the last 500 meters of the course—is prime viewing territory. As the railroad car with spectators in open-air seats passes behind you, the crews of Washington, Navy, Columbia, Syracuse, Cornell, and Penn come into view. The river is straight here, so you’ve been watching them approach for a few minutes, but now they come into full view. Washington had finished second the year before, in 1922, chasing Navy all the way. The Huskies had overtaken Navy near the finish but ultimately faltered in the final sprint. The presence of the crew from Seattle was upending sport, in a way. If they could muster a victory here, it would change everything. The wooden shells pass in front of you, and Washington looks strong. Navy is in pursuit, but, ultimately, this will be the year that a West Coast team will expand rowing’s reach across the country, taking home the Varsity Challenge Cup for the first time.

This scene, featured in grainy sepia photos of the crews and their wooden shells and oars, was a common one as rowing grew in a country that craved grueling competition and appreciated a day spent at the races. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association, formally founded in 1898, has been the organization that has stewarded these historic competitions while also evolving with the times; now, the IRA is home to men’s rowing, men’s lightweight rowing, and women’s lightweight rowing. The national championship that the IRA stewards has been run every year since 1895, and has only been cancelled during wartime or, as is the case this year, pandemic.

At the helm of the IRA is its commissioner, Gary Caldwell. Caldwell has, of course, grown up around rowing. He watched the Harvard-Yale Race, often known simply as “The Race,” while visiting his grandparents’ house near the course in New London, Connecticut. In the fall of 1968, when Caldwell was a freshman at Yale University, he was approached by, as he describes it, “very large upperclassmen who asked how much I weighed.” Caldwell was an easy target for rowers looking for coxswains; he was 125 pounds.

The Yale University varsity squad in 1972.

“I had at least a passing knowledge of rowing,” Caldwell explains, as we settle into conversation. “In the late ‘60s, the newspapers ran articles every day leading up to The Race, and the radio stations regularly aired dispatches from reporters at the Yale and Harvard encampments. That was going on through my youth.” So when Caldwell went to the crew information meeting at Yale in the fall of 1968, it wasn’t a stretch for him to begin a career in the sport—one that would ultimately span more than 50 years.

“In 1969, both my parents were still alive and watched me in the two-mile freshman race. My father passed on that year, but my mother kept coming to every race, religiously. She’d watch from the shore—for the 30 seconds she could see us as we passed by.” Caldwell has a round voice, one that fills the room when he talks. As I listen, I feel like I can hear his coxswain calls as he races past the spot on the shore where his parents once stood. A four-year coxing career at Yale took him past that spot four times: in the freshman race, the JV race, and twice in the varsity contest.

After college, Caldwell began coaching at Trinity College, where he coached the lightweight men and was tapped to start the women’s crew program. What transpired was nearly a constant assignment as a crew coach—first at Trinity building the women’s program, then at Marist College, then again at Trinity, and, after a brief stint in industry, at Northeastern. Finally, in the fall of 1990, Caldwell took the head coaching position at Tufts University. “I coached the varsity men, the varsity women, the novice women, and then the varsity women again,” Caldwell explains, as he goes through his 26 years of experience at Tufts. “The reason for jumping from one team to the other when I was at Tufts is that I was the only full-time coach, so I would move around depending on the assistant coaches I could attract.”

Caldwell, now the commissioner of the oldest rowing organization in the country, was at the beginning of many of the programs that now are powerhouses in the rowing world. Indeed, in his 26 years as the head coach at Tufts, he developed the rowing programs there into powerhouses themselves, while also developing an alumni support base that allowed Tufts to build one of the most handsome boathouses in the country, the William A. Shoemaker Boathouse. Although the architecture is more modern, the perch the Shoemaker Boathouse has on the Malden River reminds me of the location of the training facilities early IRA competitors often had on the Hudson River. Rowing shells flow easily across the apron that links the boat bays to the dock, just as they did more than a century ago.

Caldwell’s involvement with the IRA began in the 1990s. He became involved in the administration of events and ultimately was appointed commissioner. When he retired from his coaching position at Tufts in 2016, he remained the commissioner. “Now I only do one job,” he smiles, “not two.”

Caldwell details the role the IRA plays in rowing today this way: “Because men’s rowing and [men’s and women’s] lightweight rowing are not NCAA sports, the IRA acts as the regulating body, much like the NCAA does for women’s rowing. We oversee the eligibility rules, the operating regulations, an athlete’s ability to transfer between schools. We’re a parallel organization.” 

The IRA began with five member schools—the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Cornell, Columbia, and the Naval Academy. But in 2011, the organization restructured, authoring a new constitution and set of by-laws, and now is governed by a board of 51 member schools. “The financial pinch that institutions felt in 2009 and 2010 during the recession accelerated the change. Before restructuring, the five founding schools bore all fiduciary responsibility. Under Clayton’s leadership [Clayton Chapman was the commissioner of the IRA before Caldwell], we managed to balance the budget every year—we never had to go back to those original five schools—but it became evident that putting the financial burden on just those five schools wasn’t sustainable. We are deeply entwined with the NCAA. All of the 51 IRA member schools are also NCAA members. The IRA sets itself up to follow the rules of the NCAA, except where we do it differently.” 

“We are deeply entwined with the NCAA. All of the 51 IRA member schools are also NCAA members. The IRA sets itself up to follow the rules of the NCAA, except where we do it differently.” – Gary Caldwell

And here is where the spirit of the IRA shines through. Perhaps it’s from being the original governing body of the sport, or from staying true to the roots that began along the banks of a river near Poughkeepsie, New York (the IRA National Championship Regatta was held on the Poughkeepsie for most of the first 50 years of the event). Or that the IRA sees itself as the steward of rowing for so much of the rowing population in the United States (at the collegiate level, only women’s open-weight rowing is an NCAA sport). Whatever the source of the spirit pervading the IRA, Caldwell is an able commissioner

“The nuances of the differences [between the IRA and the NCAA] are slight in varsity rowing. When you look at the differences now, there aren’t that many. The biggest is perhaps international travel. For NCAA sports, athletes can only have international competition in one year out of four. The IRA allows athletes to compete internationally every year. We also have different season days [the number of days that are allowed for training in each season].” Caldwell slows down a bit, making sure I get the details right.

“As we’ve moved through the last nine years, since writing the new constitution and expanding the member schools, we’ve worked very hard to make the differences as few or as small as possible. Our compliance officers, many of whom are lawyers, spend 98 percent of their time on NCAA regulations. Any time we make a change to the operating regulations, we go through a legislative process, a comment period, and then an association vote. We really are a member institution. The IRA stewards, those are the people I really work for. They formulate policy and are responsible for the direction the organization takes.”

As we talk, I hear Caldwell’s coxswain voice come out again, that tone that all good coxswains have: they understand they don’t have a hand on an oar, but they can help move the boat, nonetheless. “I don’t make policy,” he says, “I run the regattas.” Caldwell’s grasp of the history of rowing in the United States over the past 50 years—as well as his role in its evolution—has given him a unique perspective from which to lead the regatta that has a longer history in the United States than all others, save for the Yale-Harvard race.

“At Trinity, in the first few years I was there, the women only rowed in the fall. Women’s rowing at Trinity became a varsity sport in the fall of 1978. I remember, every year I would talk about Patsy Mink and all the underclass women would know who I was talking about.” Mink was a congresswoman from Hawaii and one of the authors of Title IX. “By 1990, most didn’t know who Mink was.” Caldwell pauses, assessing. “That’s a testament to how far the world of women’s sports—high school and college—has come. I mean, there are pockets where women aren’t treated as the men are, but the number of schools at the college level…” Again, he pauses just a bit, remembering, “There’s an equal amount of pride for what the teams of both genders are doing.”

And it’s here that I realize that the commissioner of the IRA—the organization that has stewarded the development of rowing in the United States since 1895, and continues to be the governing body for all of collegiate rowing except for women’s open-weight rowing—began his career, after four years of coxing at Yale, coaching women and men on level terms. Caldwell’s first year as a student at Yale was the final year of single-sex education there. He lived through the stormy years of women’s sports gaining a foothold on college campuses throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. He coached men and women to successful seasons, sharing the coaching duties with his assistants so each team could get the input they needed, equally.

Caldwell was in his current role as the IRA went through a restructuring, one intended to protect the institution and its members—indeed, to protect the sport itself—as the financial world came crashing down during the recession. I ask him, as he looks at the future, if he’ll stay in his role as IRA commissioner. “I think so,” he says, unabashedly. “I’m 69. I told a few coaches I trust and respect that if at any point in time they think I’m losing my metaphorical fastball, they need to tell me. I’ve had two bouts with cancer. If my health remains, this is still the work I want to be doing.”

Weathering the most recent storm—the pandemic that caused the IRA to cancel the national championships—will be navigated not just by Caldwell, but also by the stewards of the IRA and the representatives of the 51 member schools. “I get to work with really good people. Katie Boldvich, Laura Kunkemueller, Tom Sullivan, the organizers we get to work with at Lake Mercer and Lake Natoma, they are invaluable. This is not a one-man band by any stroke of the imagination.” For rowers and coxswains, Caldwell’s point is familiar: every good race is won by a team.

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