Since Harvard is the nation’s oldest college — founded 1636 — it should come as no surprise that Harvard participated in, and won, the first intercollegiate sporting event in the United States.
It all began on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee more than a century and a half ago. On August 3, 1852, Harvard and Yale crews met in the first athletic contest between two American universities, with the Crimson rowing to victory in a two-mile race.
From the first stroke, Thomas J. Curtis ’52, who drove Harvard to that historic victory over the Elis, down through the four Harvard Olympians who rowed in heavyweight and lightweight events at the 2008 Beijing Games, Harvard has boasted some of the best oarsmen in the country and the world.
There have also been great crews. In 1914, Harvard’s junior varsity made history when it became the first American entry to win the coveted Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. Harvard’s varsity captured the Cup again in 1939, ’50, ’59 and ’85. The undefeated 1965 varsity won the prestigious Lucerne (Switzerland) International Regatta and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The 1967-68 heavyweight boats won the Pan American Games in 1967, took second at the world championships, and represented the United States in the Olympic Games in Mexico City.
The 1974 and ’75 "Rude and Smooth" crews won two unofficial national championships and set numerous records along the way, including one for the course at Henley. The 1985 crew won the Eastern Sprints, the national championship at Cincinnati and Henley’s Grand Challenge Cup. In the time since, Harvard heavyweight crews have won seven more national championships, seven Sprints crowns and seven additional titles at Henley.
While perhaps hard to judge a historical context while living in the moment, it is the most recent era which just may go down as the most prolific period of success for Crimson crews. The Harvard heavyweights won three IRA National Championships gold medals, three Ten Eyck (team points) trophies at the regatta, four gold medals at Sprints and went 32-3 in dual action from 2003-07.
Behind the bullhorn have been coaches Tom Bolles, hired in 1937 and credited with the resurgence of the program, Harvey Love (1952-62), and now Harry Parker, who has guided the Crimson to Eastern and national dominance — and international prominence — since coming aboard in 1963.
Great athletes and great coaches have produced great crews that have won more national titles, more Henley trophies and nearly three times as many Eastern crowns as any other school.
A similar story holds true for lightweight crew at Harvard, which traces its roots back to 1921. The Crimson lightweights possess a storied past and — now under the tutelage of Charley Butt — have continued to dominate opponents on a national and international stage right into the 21st century.
Harvard’s 1938 crew was among the first lightweight entries to compete at Henley. Harvard has won Henley’s prized Thames Challenge Cup on five occasions and advanced deep into the competition many other times.
Harvard lightweight crews have won more Eastern Sprints titles than any other program, and the varsity has captured seven national championships since 1991 — the most of any school in the nation — most recently taking the 2003 crown in dramatic fashion on the Cooper River.
One hallmark of the heavyweight and lightweight programs is a commitment to all the boats. While the varsity eights traditionally gain the most acclaim, Harvard coaches believe in building a deep program. The benefits are two-fold, developing rowers who will move up the ranks and help the top boats later in their collegiate careers and furthering the growth of the sport by having many devoted participants.
A proud tradition with success spanning centuries — not just years — and a future equally bright. That’s Harvard crew.