Fordham University Rowing Centennial Rekindles Legacy of an Olympic Champion

The Victorian era Fordham boathouse, which succumbed to fire in 1978.
The Victorian era Fordham boathouse, which succumbed to fire in 1978.

James Sciales, who was the president of the Fordham University Crew in the late 1980s and is now a director of the Empire State Rowing Association, which is located on the Harlem River in New York City, writes:

Without a doubt, legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, for whom the coveted Super Bowl trophy is named, is the most famous coach from New York City’s Fordham University. But Olympic sculling champion John J. Mulcahy, who became Fordham’s first rowing coach three decades earlier, is only a deck length behind.

On November 14, 2015, the rowing community will commemorate the founding of Fordham Rowing by Olympic gold medalist John J. Mulcahy (1876-1942) at a dinner at The Water Club in New York City.

An alumnus of the Fordham class of 1894, Mulcahy was president of the Atalanta Boat Club on the Harlem River, then the oldest rowing club in the United States. It was the turn of the century, and New York City was the epicenter of the American rowing scene. Back then, rowing ruled – before baseball, football and basketball dominated American sports. Three dozen boathouses lined the city’s shores, and thousands of spectators crowded the banks of the Harlem River Speedway Course to watch the annual Decoration Day Regatta (before it was known as Memorial Day).

John J. Mulcahy, in younger days.
John J. Mulcahy, in younger days.

Mulcahy was one of the most accomplished rowers of his day. On Creve Couer Lake at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, he and partner William Varley had captured gold in the double sculls and silver in the coxless pairs. Fordham’s first Olympian, Mulcahy remained an amateur in an age when professional rowing still lingered. He captured several national and international titles, becoming one of the most prominent figures in the rowing world at the time. He was later inducted in the National Rowing Hall of Fame in 1956 and the Fordham Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.

“Jack” Mulcahy was a superb athlete who also excelled in football. In fact, his figure was so impressive that he posed for the famous artist Melva Beatrice Wilson, who created two sculptures based on his likeness that adorned the 1904 St. Louis Olympics venue.

Half a dozen years after his Olympic victory, when he was a football coach at Seton Hall University, Mulcahy decided to return to his roots in rowing and Fordham. He began a relentless campaign of lobbying university officials and alumni to add rowing to the sports program. After five years of persistence, on April 10, 1915, the first Fordham Crew – a freshman eight – was boated, “and thereby made some history in Fordham Athletics,” The New York Times reported.

The late Vincent M. Doherty, stroke of the first Fordham eight, recalled his impressions of Coach Mulcahy: “He was not a tall man, but had the voice of command, and in fact had commanded a gunboat in the Spanish-American War. He wore his clothes like a professional model, occasionally sporting a brown derby. He was a stern master, but he had the affection and respect of every man on the squad.”

Coach Mulcahy
Coach Mulcahy

Using the Atalanta Boat Club as its headquarters, Mulcahy worked his young charges vigorously in hopes of entering them in the freshman race of the prestigious Decoration Day Regatta. But as race day approached, the novice Rams had to contend with entering the Junior Eight event against their cross-town rivals, Columbia University. They would face competing against junior varsity rowers with several years of experience.

For the first half mile of Fordham’s inaugural race, neither eight dropped below 32 strokes per minute, with spurts bringing them as high as 40. But as the crews crossed the finish line of the Harlem River Speedway Course, the Rams remained a length behind Columbia. Doherty recalls, “I stroked that Fordham crew and I wish that I could say that we won the race. We did have a few disadvantages. In addition to our inexperience, we were rowing in a 16 year old shell which had soaked up a fair amount of Harlem River water.”

Although defeated, it was an encouraging debut for the Rams. The New York Sun reported, “It was Fordham’s maiden race, and when it is considered that the Maroon yearlings covered the mile and a quarter in five minutes and 58 seconds, their naval debut was anything but discouraging.”

Since launching its first crew a century ago, Fordham rowers have been making up the distance. In the 1950s, they were coached by another alumnus, New York City rowing legend Jack Sulger, an Olympic committee official and past president of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (NAAO). Fordham prospered under Sulger, capturing its first Dad Vail medal, a silver, against LaSalle University in the Varsity eight in nearly a photo finish. Under Sulger, the Rams garnered several more. In the ensuing decades, Fordham survived the loss of its 102-year boathouse to fire; embarked on ambitious fundraising efforts to rebuild its fleet; and captured a national collegiate single sculling championship thanks to Glenn Florio, who competed in the 1988 Olympics.

For the past quarter century under coach Ted Bonanno, Fordham has taken rowing to a higher level. Under Bonanno, the Fordham Rams have captured more than two dozen Dad Vail medals and a Division I national collegiate championship in the women’s lightweight four in 1994, and have competed at Henley Royal Regatta.

Fordham Rowing Centennial logoBut for the remainder of 2015, the Rams will be looking to the Olympian who founded Fordham Rowing for a little bit of extra inspiration.

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