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  • Writer's pictureEric Guo

Cornell Rowing: Traditions to Treasure

Photography by Eric Guo

Onward, make her cut the water,

And for fame of Alma Mater,

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

The voices of rowers, coaches, alumni, and parents reverberated across the dock at Cornell’s Rowing Center as they sang the Cornell Crew Song. On this brisk October 1st morning, many members of Cornell’s rowing community had gathered not just to watch the Big Red race in the annual Schwartz Cup, but also to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the school’s crew program. Rowing is a sport rich with history and traditions, and it is no different here at Cornell.

By the time Cornell University was founded in 1865, colleges such as Yale, Harvard, and Rutgers had already established crew programs to compete in intercollegiate events. The sport’s influence inevitably reached Ithaca, and by the early 1870s, Cayuga Lake became home to several boat clubs in the area. It was not long thereafter that the birth of Cornell rowing occurred: Cornell President Andrew Dickson White, with a new shell and coach, officially created the program in 1873, and over years, the decision has resulted in great success. Two influential coaches of the program were coaches Charles “Pop” Courtney and R. Harrison “Stork” Sanford. Under Courtney, the Big Red won 14 intercollegiate championships and created its lightweight crew under his tenure starting in 1889. In 1937, Sanford was appointed as head coach of the Big Red and began a legendary 34-year tenure that is arguably best remembered by six IRA championships, four Eastern Sprints championships, and an undefeated crew that broke a 118 year-old record at the Henley Grand Challenge Cup on the Thames River.

Courtney’s greatest impact to the program though lasts beyond the glory of multiple championship-winning crews. Spirit of ’57 Director of Rowing and Head Coach of Heavyweight Rowing Todd Kennett holds a lot of admiration toward Courtney for his work: “He not only coached men, and he’s one of the most winning coaches in the history of the sport, but he also coached women’s crew 25 years into it,” mentioned Kennett as the Schwartz Cup races were finishing. “So, we have a 125th anniversary of women’s rowing here too.” A man who was “way ahead of his time,” Courtney also coached the blind and trained with Black rowers.

Individuals like Courtney are reasons why the history and traditions of Cornell Rowing are special to the rowers and their families. The Schwartz Cup has had many names, starting as the Fall Regatta, moving on to the Forbes Cup and the Treman Cup, and then, in 1988, being dedicated to alumni Dick and Jean Schwartz who have held the race’s name since then. For every year since the rowing program’s start, even in times of war during the 20th century, this competition sees Big Red rowing host four class boats in each division of rowing in an intra-squad competition. These races, which include a 5-kilometer race around Cayuga Lake and a 50-meter sprint down the Cayuga Inlet, celebrate the talent, hard work, and dedication of Cornell’s men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight, and women’s rowing teams as they enter the upcoming fall season. This year, there were also two alumni boats with several World Championship rowers on the water to add to the fanfare.

Photography by Eric Guo

“This race helps to encourage the competitive nature to progress into the athletes as we enter the beginning of the fall race season,” Kennett said of the competition. On this day, the upperclassmen had the upper hand in each division. The men’s heavyweight boat dominated the field with the fastest time out of any other boat that was racing while the men’s lightweight senior boat took home the victory in the lightweight races. For the women’s division, the junior boat beat out the seniors in impressive fashion.

Competition, however, is not just limited to the time trials for each boat. An annual tradition that captures the attention of the audience and rowers alike is the costume contest. As the boats flew by the finish line, onlookers could see crews dressed as firemen, Cornell Dairy cows, chefs, and sparkling mermaids, among others. The creativity and spirit of each class shone throughout the event, but the heavyweight juniors seemed to have the most fun with it. With tall bearskin hats bobbing and red guard’s uniforms moving in synchrony across the water, they transformed into the Queen’s Guard protecting their Queen shouting commands from the stern, the coxswain. Regardless of whether those tall hats had affected their performance, the heavyweight juniors could at least claim bragging rights over their senior teammates in the costume contest.

Photography by Eric Guo

The fun and games of the costume contest is only a glimpse into the type of community that these athletes are a part of when they begin to row for Cornell. Rowing is a sport of discipline and perseverance (“and misery” as Kennett likes to joke), but at the Collyer boathouse, camaraderie and passion pervade. During the winners’ ceremony for the Schwartz Cup, rowers from all classes gathered on the dock to joke around, spread congratulations, and admire each other’s costumes. Even the women’s “Queen’s Guard,” who may have felt the heavyweight juniors stole their idea from them, congratulated their male counterparts and reveled in each of their abilities to row fast in such inconvenient outfits.

“The whole university just encompasses itself to me,” remarked Kennett. “You have all that going on up the hill with school, but then you come down here, you have this whole [other] focus… and just ‘being.’ Everyone’s on the same page: you got your time management going on, and you’re working your brains out to go really fast.”

To Kennett, the beauty of rowing comes in its simplicity. When the head coach first arrived at Cornell an undergraduate, he had no rowing experience at all and joined crew as a walk-on. Now, universities will actively recruit rowers from around the world to bolster their squads. It represents a changing landscape for collegiate rowing programs over the past century, but here at Cornell, Kennett views the rowing program as a full developmental experience for rowers so that they improve every year rather than just a recruiting destination for top-end Olympic talents. The potential of a crew depends on, above all else, the chemistry. Even when Kennett fields a boat with rowers that are smaller than their competitors, he remains proud of the synchrony and understanding of his crews and even smirks when his crews beat those who have underrated them.

The Heavyweight Men’s head coach summarized his beliefs and experiences as a rower well: “Rowing is a simple sport: you’re sitting on your butt going backwards, and all you got to do is get your boat to the finish line first. It sounds really simple until you actually have to do it.” To that end, Cornell’s rowers are some of the strongest and most dedicated individuals on campus, and the annual Schwartz Cup celebrates and recognizes the work they put into their sport ahead of the upcoming season.

For a sport as old as rowing at Cornell, 150 years represents more than just the number of years since A. D. White announced the program’s creation. They are 150 years of memories, 150 years of races, practices, and hauling shells from the water to the boathouse, and 150 years of Cornellians becoming ingrained in history forever.

One last effort! All together!

Steady! Old Cornell forever!

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!


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