There will be no Yale-Harvard Regatta on Saturday, the first cancellation since 1945
There is the sheer historical perspective. The Yale-Harvard Regatta is the oldest collegiate sporting event, first held on Aug. 3, 1852 at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
Then there are the emotional ties to the race, rowed annually since 1878 — with few exceptions — on New London's Thames River. Yale, for instance, celebrated winning the national championship the last three years at their home on the Thames, dubbed simply "Gales Ferry," prior to taking on Harvard in the widely celebrated four-mile race which has now been contested 154 times.
"Every athlete is motivated to do well," Yale coach Steve Gladstone said. "Rational mind does not dictate. No Yale oarsman or Harvard oarsman feels complete about their racing without winning the race at least once. ... For them, it's probably the most memorable time of the year from a rowing standpoint."
The 155th meeting of the two men's heavyweight eights was scheduled for Saturday. It was canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis, making it the first time the Yale-Harvard Regatta has not been contested since 1945, coinciding with World War II. There has been a regatta for the last 78 years consecutively.
Yale was vying for its fourth straight national championship and its sixth straight Yale-Harvard title.
"It was a shock to the system to go from full speed to zero," Gladstone said in a telephone interview this week, speaking of the cancellation of the season. "The first three or four weeks I made some adjustments, like keeping a productive schedule.
"We met before we dispersed. We've had ongoing conversations; they're adapting to their new life. You're getting ready to go into the racing season and highly charged and all of a sudden it's not happening. But people are resilient. I just have to say, 'What can I keep doing to keep bringing the squad forward?' Without question, it is the weirdest ... and this would have been my 50th campaign, my 50th year coaching."
Gladstone took over at Yale in 2010, making this what would have been his 10th spring season with the Bulldogs.
Gladstone, with 14 Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships, tying him for the most in history, only added to the lore of the race.
Harvard has won the race 95 times, Yale 58, with Harvard running away with 18 straight victories from 1963-80. The narrowest margin in the series came in 1914, with Yale winning by 0.2 seconds. In 2016, there was no official result after Harvard's boat was swamped in rough conditions.
Legendary Harvard coach Harry Parker coached the Crimson for 51 seasons, leading them into the Yale-Harvard Regatta for the final time in 2013 just prior to his death less than a month later.
Said Parker from the team camp at "Red Top" (also in Gales Ferry) following his final victory over Yale, which made him 44-7 against the Bulldogs in his storied career: "Nothing feels better than winning this race."
Charley Butt, the former men's lightweight coach, took over as heavyweight coach upon Parker's death. He recently completed his 35th season at Harvard. As lightweight coach, he would still travel to New London for the festivities each spring.
"It's remarkable. You can hardly believe it exists," Butt said this week of the regatta. "It's just such a tradition that's worth preserving. It needs stewards. It needs people to protect it to maintain its mission. It's something we have to be certain we respect and tend and act as stewards. ... We'll be back at it as soon as things quiet down."
Yale was scheduled to begin the spring season March 28 vs. Brown for the Albert Cup and Harvard's opener vs. Cornell was slated for April 4. The Eastern Sprints were slated for May 17 in Worcester, Mass., and the IRA National Championship May 29-31 in Princeton, N.J. The 155th Yale-Harvard Regatta was scheduled to be rowed upstream, with the varsity race beginning at 10:30 a.m.
The Ivy League announced it was canceling the remainder of its spring sports schedule on March 11 due to the spread of the coronavirus. On April 2, despite the NCAA's previous announcement that spring athletes would be granted eligibility relief for missing the season, the Ivy League — which doesn't allow graduate students to compete — denied its athletes that provision.
And so Yale and Harvard say goodbye to their distinguished seniors.
At Yale, Tom Digby and Lenny Jenkins would have been gunning for their fourth straight national championship. Digby, from Oxfordshire, England, won the Mallory Award this year as Yale's top senior male athlete. Jenkins, from Whakatane, New Zealand, likewise rowed in the varsity boat for three straight national championships and three straight Yale-Harvard wins.
At Harvard, David Ambler, from London, had been in the first varsity boat all four years, leading the Crimson to a third-place finish at last year's national championship and being selected to captain this year's team. Conversely, fellow senior Pieter Quinton, from Portland, Ore., worked his way up from the fourth varsity eight into the first boat.
"We would've been in New London right now for several weeks," Butt said. "It's a special time for several weeks. This is really hard (for the seniors to) leave in such a way. This is extremely difficult."
Butt has also seen the quarantine through the eyes of his own children, a plight which mirrors that of the Harvard rowers.
"As a parent, you absolutely thrive on these students putting their souls into it all," he said. "The fact they can't do the sports, the being together ... the experience revolves around your friends and the friends you make and the things you do."