The Eight

A Season in the Tradition of Harvard Crew

Susan Saint Sing

St. Martin's Press

PART ONE

Rower Speak

A HUNDRED YEARS OF SWEAT

I had been recruited heavily by Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, so why did I choose Harvard? Because as soon as I walked into the boathouse I could smell a hundred years of sweat, and I wanted to be part of it, part of something great.

—Patrick Todd, Harvard crew, class of 2002, Olympian

A hundred years of sweat. Hundreds and hundreds of rowers. Thousands and thousands of strokes. Tens of thousands by career end. But the first step in making a Harvard crew begins the first time your oar hits the water. It is an individual moment, as individual as the question, why Harvard? Or, why rowing?

Newell Boathouse is an institution. In the turbulent years around 2008, it has seen other institutions undergo great change: Wall Street tottering; the Twin Towers still not rebuilt; the closing of the old Yankee Stadium, to be torn down leaving the dirt to Fen-way, the last pitching mound the Babe ever stood on. In a mounting global energy crisis, glaciers are melting, Boston Harbor is rising, and wind turbines in Nantucket Sound are helping us "to go green." All around the boathouse, the world is changing, yet at its feet lie centuries of tradition, hardly touched by any of the above.

Newell is covered with red slate siding, looking like a cranberry-colored Victorian fortress. Its roofline has a steely wrought-iron finial that rests on a gold ball atop the gables. Copper verdigris rain gutters and a crenellated roof meet the slate shingles.

As you open the heavy door, gray, wooden, one-hundred-year-old hand-hewn planks spread before you in the boat bay. They seem anachronistic as Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit song "The Way You Make Me Feel" pumps out its steady rhythm and beat from somewhere upstairs in the distance, presumably from the erg room where Crimson oarsmen are ticking meters away during their training pieces. Graceful arched windows rest majestically above the great five-panel two-inch-thick doors. You step inside. You see the water. You see the shells. This is Harvard rowing.

The massive black-and-white picture of the "Rude and Smooth," the undefeated crew of 1974–75, on the staircase landing tells you exactly where priority lies—perfection. Two national championships will do. The look on the faces of the Rude and Smooth digging not just into water but into souls and character formed inside an eight from this house makes almost every person walking in take pause. It serves notice that "this is the bar"; pass over if it you think you can—measure up to it, but do not pass under it. This is Harvard.

The Rude and Smooth symbolize the dream. They present a presence that no other team can. They represent the essence of what Harvard crew is about. If this were baseball, it would be as if, with every contest they attended, they brought the mound that Babe Ruth pitched off of and placed it in the middle of the field silently, without fanfare, without announcement; they simply placed it there because they could. It is theirs and they alone own it. Others might tear it a bit, wrinkle it in a defeat here and there; but they can’t wear it themselves, nor can they destroy the enigma and mystique. It is the essence of Harvard lore.

There are examples of New En gland lore bound inextricably by tradition and heritage. Take, for example, the Gloucestermen just a few miles north of Boston—they go and fish to such a high standard of maritime and nautical supremacy that the very word Gloucestermen conjures up its own image in people’s minds. So it is with Harvard oarsmen. They are expected to be of a certain ilk.

At the foot of the picture the great staircase—majestic, of dark wood, perhaps walnut or heart pine whose sap has darkened over the decades—invites you to lay your hand upon it, touch it, and start the walk upstairs. Underfoot, the crimson carpet that wraps upward to the balcony would be the envy of any Victorian home.

This is both boathouse and home if you are a member of the varsity eight-oared shell. In fact, you may feel more at home here than anywhere else because you are with like people who understand you. You don’t have to explain. Dogged effort, the need every morning upon rising to do something great that day, is on everyone here. You fit in here as an individual, as a teammate. At last everything is right. Youth, health, tradition, opportunity, all work in your favor at last. No one here asks, "Why are you getting up at 5 A.M.?" No one here asks, "Why are you wrapping that sock around your calf?" Or, "Where did you get those track bites? Do those blisters hurt?" No one here asks because everyone here knows that you do it because you must. You love it. You are in pursuit of something ethereal—the pursuit of an ideal. Call it excellence, call it perfection. "It" exists out there in the shrouded morning mists, and you must pursue it because it is your personal grail; and some others are here to join you in finding it.

In "Harry’s house" a "say-less-do-more" attitude prevails.1 The house itself bespeaks that motto. It is almost grim and cold, looking like a castle or suit of armor in its chain mail–esque red slate suit. It could be likened to a giant transformer: young, impressionable rowers and seekers walk through the massive orifice of its front door and—after passing through various contortions and readjustments of attitude, form, skill, trust, and self-reliance in the skillful hands of Harry Parker—return from the waters to stand as mature, confident oarsmen. This mettle gives Harvard an advantage on any dock because everyone knows what these men have gone through and who they’ve become to get there. It is a process of entitlement that every other crew must row upstream against.2

Newell Boathouse, often called "the elder statesman among Charles River boathouses," was built in 1900.3 Its plank dock fronts eight miles of rowable water along the Charles River. It is named for Harvard student Marshall Newell, who was struck by a train and died tragically on Christmas Eve, 1897.4 The Harvard grad, class of 1894, was walking back to his office with his collar turned up against the wind and driving snow when he was struck. The hands of his pocket watch stilled at 6:35 P.M., recording the time of impact. His picture rests on the wall at the top of the stairs, a portrait of the quintessential athlete in his rowing togs and Harvard crew shirt. A football and crew star, he is remembered for his goodness.

Newell’s classmates said of him, "An athlete in the best sense of the word, he loved sport for sport’s sake alone. In football strong and alert, he was effective without being rough. As an oarsman he was per sis tent, determined, powerful. Always to be trusted, his spirit never flagged, his courage never faltered. He was tried often and never found wanting. He stood for simplicity, righteousness, and truth. His character was as sturdy as his body."5

What does Newell say to the modern rower? Tyler Winklevoss ’07 muses, "There is a very special feeling when you enter Newell Boathouse. The creaking floors, old wooden boat bays, the pictures of past crews, it is impossible to forget the oarsmen who have come before you. There is an emphasis on the past history of Harvard crew and repeating it, becoming not only a winner but something more. The character of a Harvard oarsman is something that is unique in and of itself, it is something you will not find anywhere else, and is something you feel each and every day you walk through the doors of Newell Boathouse."

It is a sacred space. Boathouses are storied places. In his book, The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak talks about sacred space and sacred time as they relate to our love affair with sports. "The feeling athletes have for the arena in