Collegiate Rowing

by Bernard Frei on April 10, 2019

For over one hundred years the sport of rowing has consistently been a mainstay of collegiate athletics. First coming to fruition with the elite schools of the Ivy League in the 19th century, the sport has since evolved in a plethora of ways, and has expanded to be more and more inclusive. Today’s collegiate rowing world is sponsored by numerous organizations and conferences and sees more and more participants yearly.

Early Years and Laying a Foundation

The history of collegiate rowing runs all the way back to the 19th century. In 1852, long before the days of the NCAA and its counterparts, Harvard challenged its rival, Yale, to a race. This event, now held annually on the Thames River in Connecticut, marked the first intercollegiate event ever held in the United States. From that moment forward, the sport began to catch fire amongst elite schools in the United States. In 1870, Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania coalized to form the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA). From that year on, the IRA’s annual regatta has come to be one of the premier racing championships on the men’s side of the sport.

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The rest of the 19th and early 20th century stood as a formative time for the sport, with a plethora of new programs entering the competition, and new regattas being formed. As the sport evolved with new variations of racing, such as the varsity four and lightweight divisions, the Ivy League continued to be at the forefront of the sport. At the turn of the century, however, new competitors and athletes began to enter into the picture.

A Changing Sport and Rivals out West

While the early 20th century marked a groundbreaking time for the Ivy League schools, as Harvard and Yale began to compete in even more variations, western schools began to catch up to their eastern counterparts. The University of California and the University of Washington in particular arose as clear rival powerhouses. After Yale’s Varsity Eight dominated the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, it appeared the Ivy League was set on path of continued world domination. However, their historic win in Paris would be the last Olympic crown for an Ivy School for over thirty years. Between 1928 and 1952, both California and Washington would go back and forth winning the world title, with California capturing the championship three times to Washington’s one. In 1956, Yale’s eight man crew reclaimed the crown, but at this point in sports timeline, a coming change was inevitable.

It was clear the exclusivity that was formerly established amongst the eastern elite schools was breaking down. If Ivy Schools were to maintain a firm grip on the tradition and expectation of collegiate rowing, they would be forced to change with not only their competition, but impending legislation concerning collegiate athletics as well.

Title IX and New Equal Opportunities

In 1972, steps were taken to ensure equal opportunity amongst male and female athletics offered by educational institutions in the United States. Every sport on every level was being opened up to both men and women, and the sport of rowing was no exception. In truth, female rowing at the collegiate level began a year prior to Title IX legislation with the establishment of the National Women’s Rowing Association Championship (NWRA). This entity would serve as the governing body for women’s rowing in the U.S. for nearly two decades, and provided the first opportunities for women in the sport. The fight for equality was not without controversy, however. In a move of defiance, the Yale women’s team in 1976 is infamously remembered for stripping naked in front of their athletic director in a demand for equal opportunity that was still not being presented to them. This event gained the national spotlight, and the shortcomings of Title IX were indefinitely exposed.

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Early in the history of the NWRA, competition was widespread, and no school in particular, Ivy or otherwise, managed to consistently dominate the season. East vs. West clashes were inevitable, with Wisconsin and Yale emerging as major rival teams toward the end of the century. In 1986, the NWRA officially dissolved, and by 1997, the NCAA moved in to fill the void in women’s rowing.

A Modern Era and Competition Today

In collegiate rowing today, the NCAA continues to sponsor and provide a platform for women’s rowing, however, men’s rowing is not an NCAA sponsored sport. With the IRA remaining as the de facto national championship on the men’s side, the rich history and continued legacy of early American collegiate athletics influences the sport to this day. While the Ivy Leagues and the earliest participants of the sport have maintained a firm grip of success at the top levels of the sport, elite schools from a variety of conferences have seen success in recent times, demonstrating the clear spread the sport has taken since its conception.

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Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.

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