Connecticut Journal: Rowing for Yale (part 1 of 2)

Against the backdrop of a crispy clear afternoon in early September, I eagerly wait to see the historic Yale boathouse at the head of the Housatonic River in Derby, Connecticut, the training grounds for over 150 years of athletes, scholars, and gentlemen. As I ride the big yellow school bus to Gilder Boathouse in Derby with the other rowers, the pure energy and anticipation of catching a glimpse of this mystic place reached a crescendo.

Taking a deep breath and snapping out of a daydream of gliding across the finish line two lengths ahead of Harvard, I take my first step off the bus and raise my head. In front of me looms a sprawling wooden complex that resembles a canoe tipped over. I immediately likened the awe-inspiring boathouse to a huge Viking ceremonial hall. I easily imagine the walls carved from the undisturbed beauty of Scandinavian forests, the hanging tapestry exotic treasures from raids across the sea. We were contemporary Vikings marching towards the battle against the unforgiving currents of the Housatonic. Along the way, I hear a few grunts and wild yells, perhaps paralleling the Viking stereotype too well.
We step through a wide open entryway as a group, bordered on each side by a row of metal oars that were melded together into a majestic gate. The entrance cuts through the body of the boathouse and takes us onto an endless deck out back with a panoramic view of the river. The river morphs into a silver expanse that continuously laps at the boat deck below and pours off into the horizon. The still green hills behind the river bring out the light reflecting off the rippling water and gentle waves. A few jet skis flutter around, creating miniature whirlpools and a whirling buzz that disturbs the otherwise tranquil scene.

I cross the deck and peer into a vast common room with vaulted ceilings and a towering fireplace. Long wooden tables line the room, again conjuring up images of Viking gatherings, and I’m sure if they were still around, they would have used the audiovisual equipment there to recount their various heroic conquests. The Vikings were rough, but disciplined and determined people who had the ingenuity to build grand halls. The architect had aspired to recreate the grandeur of Viking design and function, to shock and awe while providing a close-knit community meeting place. Even with all the hi-tech shells, oars, and ergometers (rowing machines) around, nothing much has really changed in rowing since then.

One side of the room caught my eye. Lined from wall to wall and floor to ceiling are a century of glittering trophies, the contemporary rower’s way of recounting various heroic conquests; and there is only room for the most memorable races.

“Final Round, Head of the Charles – 2004”
“2005 Lightweight Crew National Champions”
“EARC Sprints Winner, Freshmen Team”

“Harvard Wins Inaugural Regatta against Yale,” read the 1852 headline from a local newspaper clipping immortalized on the wall. The Crimson Cantabs got lucky that day, or at least that’s the story passed down the countless generations of Yale crew teams. Just nine years earlier, a few Yale rowing fanatics had formed the first college athletic team in the country, with the Whitewall, a rickety, scrawny boat that occasionally kept the river water out; it had no sliding seats and came with oars cut from the rough oaks of Connecticut hills.

On that historic Saturday morning, the Yale crew team had no idea they were about to row their way into a sport now steeped in tradition, and of course, herald in the most storied intercollegiate rivalry. But the battle was lost that day for the Bulldogs as Harvard sped away at the finish of the two-mile course on Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire, winning by more than two boat lengths. Of course, Yale stormed back in the next few years with spectacular performances a fan described as, “the best memory of my college experience.”

The overwhelming achievements of past rowers who have already set the bar as high as the vaulted ceiling rattled my nerves and undermined my hopes in finding a home here. We enter the sprawling locker room to change into spandex shorts and a crew t-shirt. I sure didn’t feel like a heroic Viking at this moment, but rather a dazed freshman feeling very exposed in stretchy spandex, stumbling down to the deck by way of the sweeping stairs that spills to the river. We spent that afternoon on the training barge practicing fundamentals like turning, rowing straight, and stroking.

Stay tune for part 2 of this story tomorrow.