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Everyone’s Here. Let’s Race!

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS.COM

Like a lot of rowing fans out there, I glued myself to YouTube to watch the IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association) regatta. How have drones changed video coverage of our sport? The standard shot from a motorboat trying to both show the leaders and not wake the trailing crews has always been problematic because it’s hard for the viewer to read the angle. Is the crew closest to the camera really out ahead? Most of the time they are not. But with drones, not only can we see who really leads, but the overhead shot also shows us the beauty and magnificence of rowing. As Dave Vogel, one of the announcers, observed, “The drone shots show you things that you don’t see from the side. You watch the puddles and can tell the speed of the crews. The real swirling puddles, not the foamy splashy ones, are the mark of a fast boat.”

Speaking of announcers, it was a pleasure to listen to the team of Vogel and Fred Schoch, veterans of countless regattas. Colleen Saville and her broadcast partner, Steve Todd, described the racing with authority and intelligence. Well done, IRA.

The highly anticipated duel between California and Yale lived up to its billing for a thousand meters, and then the Golden Bears powered away. It wasn’t so long ago that it would have been surprising to have Yale in the IRA. Yes, I’m showing my age, but for more than a hundred years neither Yale nor Harvard came to the IRA. Instead, these two powers trained for their dual race, the famous four-miler, the oldest collegiate sporting event in the country.

 What brought them into the fold, after over 100 years of ignoring the IRA, the putative national championship? History buffs will recall that there was a group of collegiate rowing programs in the 1870s that formed the Association of American Colleges, which Harvard took the lead in assembling. In 1875, there was a huge regatta with 25,000 spectators in Saratoga, N.Y., that included 13 Eastern colleges, the usual Ivies, and also Wesleyan, Williams, Bowdoin, and Hamilton. They raced in coxless sixes, the most popular boat of its day, and there were crashes and arguments galore. So unsatisfactory was this arrangement that Yale resigned from the association and challenged Harvard to a match race in eights the next year, 1876.

The model for this race was, of course, The Boat Race, held between Oxford and Cambridge since 1829. Although Harvard and Yale had raced each other as early as 1859, the race didn’t assume its present form until it moved to New London, Conn., in 1878. The two universities imitated their British forebears and settled on a four-mile race for the varsities. Over the next 20 years, other colleges tried to gain admission to the race in New London, but it remained a dual match. Frustrated at not having a championship, Cornell, Columbia, and Penn started a regatta on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie in 1895 that would evolve into the IRA. Harvard and Yale preferred The Boat Race model and continued it until their first foray into the IRA.

The credit for bringing Yale into the IRA goes to John Pescatore, a Penn oarsman who stroked the 1987 world-champion USA eight. Pescatore was hired by Yale in 2002 and, not having been a part of the Harvard-Yale races, made it clear that he was going to take his crews to the IRA. His counterpart at Harvard, Harry Parker, announced that it looked like the academic schedule would now allow Harvard to join their rivals at a true national championship. “We’ll be there, too,” he said. Did Harvard have a superb crew in 2003? Of course they did. Parker. who had always said that the Harvard-Yale race was the only race he really cared about, sure didn’t mind bringing his guys to the Cooper River in New Jersey to take home the title. In its initial entry into the IRA, Yale finished third in the third-level finals.

Yale may not have walked away with hardware, but Pescatore’s entry paid dividends. He recruited an outstanding class that would place four guys on the U-23 team in 2007. Yale’s decision to enter the IRA freed up Harvard to change also. Training for a four-miler is significantly different from training for a 2000-meter race, and it made sense to continue the four-miler only if both universities were at an equal disadvantage by training for the IRA’s shorter distance and then plunging into the four-miler a week or so later.

The IRA is now a terrific regatta, hosting a championship for lightweight men and women, fours, and Division 3 men’s programs. It differs from the well-run NCAA championships for women, first run in 1997, in that there are no strict criteria for admittance, making it much larger, but it manages to maintain the quality that one would expect of a championship regatta. Is it a better regatta now that Harvard and Yale include it in their annual schedule? Absolutely. Now we don’t have to have arguments that were common in the 1970s and ’80s about whether the IRA champion was a true national champion since neither Yale nor Harvard was present. All credit to those who made it work. Now, wouldn’t it be great if somehow there was one championship regatta that included men’s and women’s programs?

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