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These days, regatta is a bit less romantic

By Karin Crompton

Publication: The Day

Published May 30. 2010 4:00AM   Updated June 01. 2010 8:03AM
Abigail Pheiffer/The Day
Alice Mitinger, center, of Pittsburgh, talks with Harry Olivar, right, of Pasadena, Calif., as Jay Grossman, left, of Chicago, takes a picture at the Harvard-Yale Regatta. Olivar was the captain of Yale's 1985 heavyweight crew and Grossman was the coxswain.

Ledyard - It would be easy to slip into sappy romanticism, to hold up the Thames River as a place where blood rivals do battle and dreams come true - an actual destination, for crying out loud, for the kings and queens of the Ivy League.

And all of that might well be true if you're talking about the river and the Yale-Harvard regatta, the oldest collegiate sporting event in the country. But only to a point.

There was indeed a time when the river was, perhaps, "The River." A reported 100,000 people attended the regatta in 1925, and for decades, yachts continued to crowd the race's route.

"There was an aisle between the (spectator) boats," for the race to pass through, said Peter Schellens, who rowed with Yale's 1950 team.

"It was a place to be seen," added Schellens, who, despite his Bulldog credentials, had come to the Harvard boathouse on Saturday morning to watch the 145th running of the regatta because it is closer to the finish line than Yale's.

Saturday morning, the crowds were much different. A couple of dozen people milled around at the Harvard boathouse, while across the river, about 100 people watched from the famed rock near the finish line that the winners paint each year.

Harvard won all three races - freshman, junior varsity, and varsity - to sweep the regatta for the third straight year. The Crimson won the 4-mile varsity race with a time of 19 minutes, 40.3 seconds, 5.9 seconds ahead of the Yale boat.

Now, though, any romanticism that exists about the race is reserved for other places, namely the boathouse and the lockers signed by successive generations of rowers.

The Thames River is not the place for sap. It is, instead, friend and foe: a century and a half of hearty competition and revered tradition, and yet a fiend, its saltwater rough on the equipment and its choppy waters a brutal complement to its marathon-like 4-mile course.

"It is a wonderful place," said Kate Woll, but, "it wouldn't be everybody's first choice."

Woll and her friends, Cecile and Stewart Tucker, all rowers and/or coaches, characterized the Thames and its environs as a great training venue.

Cecile Tucker, who also rowed with the U.S. Women's team at the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, added that the areas of undeveloped banks along the Thames make it a special place for alumni to return to.

"For the guys, when they come back, it's the same as it was years ago," she said. "It just doesn't change. So you are in a very active and physical way involved in tradition in a way that I think most people don't (get involved)."

Down on the dock, Göran Buckhorn cranked a hand-held radio to listen to the regatta's broadcast. A rowing history enthusiast, Buckhorn was one of the few spectators Saturday who had no official connection to Harvard or Yale.

Buckhorn, who works at the Mystic Seaport Museum, has a blog called "Hear the boat sing" and is a director with Friends of Rowing History. A native of Sweden, Buckhorn lamented the decline in interest for the Yale-Harvard regatta as opposed to the Oxford-Cambridge regatta, which, he said, draws millions of fans on television.

"I have always been surprised how little interest there is of this race if you are not connected to any of these two universities," Buckhorn said.

Buckhorn snapped photos of the Harvard team mugging for photos and throwing their coxswain and various coaches into the river after the race. He was excited to talk about the museum opening a National Rowing Hall of Fame in March 2008, finally giving a physical space to a hall that had previously only existed online.

As they waited for the varsity race to begin on Saturday morning, their young daughters running about, Woll and Cecile Tucker said a quote from "The Wind in the Willows" kept running through their heads: "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

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