The history behind America's oldest active collegiate sporting event

The Harvard-Yale Regatta is the oldest active college sporting event in the U.S.

— -- More than a decade before the first Harvard-Yale football game, another sport that's still in play started the rivalry: rowing. The first Harvard-Yale Regatta was held in 1852 and the race became an annual event in 1864. The few breaks in the series have mostly been a result of major events like world wars.

This standing record makes the Harvard-Yale Regatta the oldest active college sporting event in the United States, according to historical experts on rowing.

"The Harvard-Yale race is not only the oldest intercollegiate competition in the U.S., but it's also the oldest collegiate rivalry," Daniella K. Garran, former coxswain and author of "A History of Collegiate Rowing in America," told ABC News.

"The race took hold in collegiate athletic culture just as colleges were being established all over the nation and collegiate sports were beginning to evolve," Garran continued. "Football and basketball hadn't even been invented when the first race was held in 1852."

Garran said the race is "an old-fashioned grudge match" steeped in tradition.

"Yale and Harvard are the oldest universities and had established rowing clubs in the 1840s," Bill Miller, Director of Friends of Rowing History told ABC News. "It didn’t take long for someone to suggest that the two agree to a race."

Rowers are dedicated student athletes

The regatta has been held on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, since 1878, according to Miller. The schools attract some of the best rowers in the country, including athletes who competed in the Olympics. These athletes do not take their sport lightly.

Garran said she considers collegiate rowers to be the most dedicated athletes, mostly due to the "grueling training regimen." The teammates must be up before sunrise, on the water as the sun peeks over the horizon and finish practicing as their fellow students stumble back to their dorms after pulling all-nighters, Garran noted.

"To balance the demands of being a collegiate oarsman with the academic demands, particularly at elite educational institutions like Harvard and Yale, one must be a particularly driven and almost sadistic individual," Garran told ABC News.

Garran said Yale and Harvard are the only colleges that have training camps focused solely on the single event: The Harvard-Yale Regatta.

"The Yale-Harvard race was a staple of the northeast summer social circuit from [about] the Civil War until the 1960s," Yale rowing historian Thomas Weil told ABC News.

The contest has been relatively well matched throughout the years.

"The streaks can somewhat be attributed to the effectiveness of the coaching," Miller told ABC News. "One college would obtain the services of a great coach and would go on to a winning streak. Coaches changed and the streak would shift."

"When Harry Parker became coach of Harvard in 1963, Harvard accumulated long strings of victories and the split between the two [schools] became lopsided," Miller continued. "His tenure ended upon his death in 2013 [as did] the lopsided victories for Harvard."

A storied event becomes surrounded by controversy

Yale won in 2015 and, in 2016, the team thought it had won its first back-to-back victory since 1984, according to collegiate rowing records. However, the 2016 competition was surrounded by controversy.

Yale was ahead by a boat length, about one-half mile into the annual four-mile rivalry race, when a wave sent a large amount of water into the Harvard boat causing it to sink. Harvard coach Charlie Butt suggested a re-row, but conditions on the river made that impossible.

"The controversy occurred when the referee discontinued the race although Yale was capable of reaching the finish line thus should have been allowed to finish and claim victory," Miller told ABC News. "The only time a race should be abandoned is when there is a safety issue: lightening to name one."

Yale finished the race and celebrated victory over its arch-rival, but was informed two hours later that no winner would be declared because a referee put up a red flag when the incident occurred.

Yale coach Steve Gladstone appealed the result.

"The race was poorly officiated," Gladstone told ABC News in 2016. "There is some precedent. In the other big four-mile race, the Oxford-Cambridge race, the crew that crosses the finish line is the winner. If the other boat sinks, they sink."

A committee investigated the disputed regatta and determined that nobody won the race and responded by codifying the first official rules for the regatta.

The regatta committee decided the trophy for the event in 2016 would be engraved with the words "no official result."

Stephen H. Brooks, chairman of the Harvard-Yale Regatta Committee, called the decision regrettable in a memo to the coaches on Jan. 24, 2016. But, Brooks said it was made after "much deliberation, research, and consultation with both of you, as well as with respected rules officials, historians, and others."

Miller told ABC News that after the 2016 incident, referees were reminded they must not cancel a race because one crew runs into difficulty.

"Since [the 2016] regatta when Harvard's varsity eight was swamped and nearly sunk resulting in a decision of 'no official result,' a committee has codified a set of official rules to serve as a guide should similar circumstances occur again in the future," Garran told ABC News. "These rules are based on commonly accepted rules used in national and international competition."

Rowing teams are for life

But, the rivalry does not die after the graduation caps are thrown into the air, Garran claims.

"Rowers are a special breed; they tend to keep to themselves and remain fiercely loyal to their teams long after graduation," Garran told ABC News. "Perhaps this is because of the intimate bonds formed on crew teams or perhaps it is due to the fact that rowing is a lifelong sport and many continue their involvement with the sport long after graduation."

Many alumni have reflected fondly on their time with either the Harvard or Yale rowing teams, Garran said. As they should, since Garran claims the Harvard-Yale Regatta -- to rowing enthusiasts -- is as anticipated as the Super Bowl is to football fans.

"Both sites are wrought with history and tradition and having the experience of staying there and being part of 'The Race' is akin to a pilgrimage for many," Garran told ABC News. "In a world that is characterized by athlete scandals, contract negotiations and the like, it is comforting to know that very little, indeed, has changed with regard to the Harvard-Yale race since its inception and likely very little will."

Harvard won the 2017 Harvard-Yale Regatta combination race on Friday.

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