Some Firsts That Weren’t – The Beginning of U.S. Collegiate Lightweight Rowing

ARA1919Thomas E Weil writes:

To pull off the first of anything can be a challenge, and rowing is no exception. Not infrequently, initial attempts are frustrated for some reason, leaving the ultimate attainment of the goal to a later day.

One of the best known of these doomed maiden voyages was the effort to include rowing in the Olympics. A regatta was on the schedule for the first modern Olympiad in Athens in 1896, but could not be carried off due to bad weather at Piraeus harbor. That goal was not achieved until the next Olympics, in Paris in 1900.

Another thwarted initiative came with the effort to hold the first multi-collegiate regatta on the Connecticut River at Springfield on July 23, 1858, to include Brown, Harvard, Trinity and Yale, which was cancelled due to the drowning of one of the Yale oarsmen the week before the race. Brown, Harvard and Yale did manage to reach that milestone when they competed the following year at Lake Quinsigamond.

Of particular interest to an entire class of rowers, however, might be the story of the first planned collegiate lightweight race in the United States, which failed to take place for a very important reason.

Although collegiate varsities into the 1870s would qualify as lightweights today, by 1917, when Canadian oarsman Joseph Wright was hired to coach at the University of Pennsylvania, it was the rare college rower who weighed 150 pounds who could have made a varsity boat. Wright had seen weight class rowing in Canada, especially at the Canadian Henley. He knew that there were many enthusiastic and capable oarsmen on college squads whose sole challenge to represent their schools lay in their size, and he wanted to create an opportunity for them to compete.

Wright proposed introducing a 150-pound class to collegiate rowing. The Pennsylvanian noted: “This would give the needed opportunity for a great number of good men who try out for the sport yearly, but who are too light to make either the first ‘Varsity or Freshman eight.”

Wright’s views attracted immediate interest in collegiate rowing circles. Yale was the first school to respond and to agree to compete. A 150-pound race was scheduled for May 12, 1917, on the Schuylkill. This would have been the first collegiate lightweight race in the United States.

Alas, the fates were not kind. There can be many reasons for which a regatta is cancelled. This was a particularly unhappy one – the entry of the United States into World War I.

The U.S. declaration of war against Germany on April 6 led to a wave of enlistments from college ranks and transformed campus life, bringing with it the cancellation of the scheduled event, postponing what would have been an historic debut for the sport.

With the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, collegiate life could begin to resume a normal path again. Before any intercollegiate lightweight race was scheduled, however, an organization which wished to accommodate club and collegiate oarsmen across a wide spectrum of events added a very special race to their program. The American Rowing Association, based in Philadelphia and racing over the Schuylkill River course, inspired by the multi-event structure of Henley Royal Regatta, had instituted an annual fixture called the American Henley, and Event I on the program for their fifteenth regatta, to be held on May 31, 1919, was for Special Eight-Oared Shells (150 Lb. Crews).

An interesting foot note in Event II for ‘First Four Sculls’: Vesper BC’s subs are the cousins John R. Kelly [sic!*] and Paul Costello, who a year later would become Olympic champions in the double sculls. Kelly would, however, first take an Olympic gold medal in the single sculls, beating Jack Beresford Jnr with a second. Kelly and Costello would repeat their Olympic victory in the double sculls at the next Games. As a matter of fact, Costello would take a third Olympic gold in the double, in 1928, together with Charles Mcllvaine. *Misprint in the programme, Kelly’s middle name was Brendan.
Only Navy and Penn came to the line for this historic occasion. Navy defeated Penn over the Henley distance in 7:09.8, realizing Joseph Wright’s two-year old dream – well, perhaps not the Penn loss! – by introducing collegiate 150 lb. rowing to the United States.

At the next American Henley, a year later, Penn defeated Navy, Princeton and Yale in the 150 lb. eights event. But it was not only colleges that had adopted lightweight rowing. On September 6, 1920, just four months after that American Henley, the Middle States Regatta Association held their annual regatta on the Harlem, and The Lone Star Boat Club from New York, The Active Boat Club from Edgewater, N.J., and Malta Boat Club from Philadelphia each entered the race for Senior Double Sculls (140 lb. Class). Lightweights, now able to compete at both the collegiate and club levels, had finally found their way into the ranks of U.S. rowing.

So, if you enjoy celebrating centennials, is it the 1917 agreement or the 1919 race that should be honored as the 100th collegiate lightweight anniversary? Well, if you enjoy celebrations, why not … both?

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