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August 3, 1852: An Unlikely Group Launches College Sports

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On a nice summer day on August 3, 1852, Harvard University and Yale University upped the ante in rivalry by introducing a fun little sporting competition between the two schools. The first college sporting event in American history was born. 

No, it wasn’t football or basketball. It was rowing. The idea for the race was sparked when Harvard issued a challenge to Yale, which was promptly accepted.

Harvard writes, “On August 3, 1852—in a two-mile race on the calm waters of Lake Winnipesaukee—Harvard and Yale battled like never before. Yale was represented by two boats, the Shawmut and the Undine, while Harvard rowed in the Oneida. Harvard won the inaugural race by about four lengths, earning a pair of black walnut oars as its prize. It seems that people right away knew this was going to be the start of something big for among the distinguished observers was General Franklin Pierce, the Democratic party nominee and native of nearby Hillsborough, who would be elected President later that year.

No further races were held between the schools until July 1855, when Yale issued another challenge. In a contest held on the Connecticut River in Springfield, Harvard made it two straight, winning by one minute and 38 seconds. Harvard and Yale met again in 1859 and 1860, but it wasn’t until 1864 that the Regatta became an annual event. Yale gained its first series win that year, taking the three-miler on Worcester’s Lake Quinsigamond by 42 seconds.

 In 1876, the series’ first four-mile race was held as the crews met on the Connecticut River. Yale won the contest, which was the first since the inaugural one to use eight-oared shells, by 29 seconds.

 The Regatta came to New London in 1878 and, with rare exception, has been held in the town originally known as Nameaug (good fishing place) ever since. Yale arrived 12 days prior to the June 28 race, settling in at Gales Ferry and taking quarters at a two-story house owned by Latham Brown. Harvard set up camp five days later, moving into a house owned by Charles Stoddard, about a mile south of Yale.”

Over the years, the regatta has seen several changes, including the location and the distance of the race. The Harvard-Yale boat race is still held annually, drawing significant attention and support from both universities’ communities and beyond. It has become a symbol of the intense rivalry and camaraderie between the two institutions and remains an essential part of American collegiate rowing history.

In the beginning, the race was only between the main teams, but now there are three events: a 2-mile freshman race, a 3-mile junior varsity race, and a 4-mile varsity race. The varsity teams compete for the Sexton Cup, the junior varsity for the F. Valentine Chappell Trophy, and the freshmen for the New London Cup. The team that wins most of these races gets the Hoyt C. Pease and Robert Chappell Jr. Trophies.

The day before the main races, there is a 2-mile race between the backup rowers from both teams. These boats are made up of rowers from the second freshman boat and the third varsity boat, and it’s called the “combi” or “combo” race. The winner of this race gets the James P. Snider Cup and can paint their school’s colors on a rock at Bartlett’s Cove for the next day’s races.

Currently, Harvard is leading in the varsity series with 95 wins and 55 losses, the junior varsity (JV) series with 75 wins and 38 losses, and the freshman series with 72 wins, 39 losses, and 1 tie. Yale holds the record for the upstream course, completing it in 18 minutes and 35.8 seconds in 2015. Harvard set the record for the downstream course, completing it in 18 minutes and 22.4 seconds in 1980.

As everyone gets ready for college football just around the corner, remember to tip your cap to the rowers on Lake Winnipesaukee who made it all possible. 


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