Fifty years to the day after their first international triumph at the Henley Royal Regatta in England, the MIT oarsmen slide their borrowed shell into the Thames River for a noontime practice session. The early July drizzle doesn’t dampen their spirits. They are just glad to be back on the water together. Their coach, Jack Frailey ‘44, SM ‘47, AE ‘54, pushes them away from the dock, and they stroke slowly across the still water. Bob Wilkes ‘55, SM ‘56, notes that the boat is steady, which surprises him. Since most of the men, now nudging into their 70s, have not rowed since their last reunion at Henley in 1999, Wilkes expects their performance to have deteriorated, but instead it seems to have improved. Good, he thinks. The next day, when they take their celebratory row down the course to the finish line, the crowd of thousands gathered on the banks will see a crew that still shows vestiges of a champion’s skill.
The return to Henley, one of the oldest and most prestigious rowing events in the world, celebrated the team’s achievement and marked a golden era in MIT athletics. In 1954 and 1955, two MIT lightweight crews did what no MIT athletic team before or since has ever done: they won back-to-back international championships. The 1954 team won the Thames Challenge Cup with a 29-year-old coach only six months into his coaching career. The 1955 crew, which included four members from the previous year’s team, defended the cup and brought it back to MIT for another year.
Getting to Henley and being a strong contender for a championship were not easy feats. Both teams faced challenges that could have derailed less determined crews, but they found ways to surmount them. According to Fred Nelson ‘55, who rowed on both teams, determination and comradeship were the most important ingredients of their success. Technical skill and strength were part of the mix, to be sure, but it was the teammates’ almost fanatical dedication to the sport and to each other that tipped the scale in their favor and elevated them to the pinnacle of their sport.
The Makings of a Champion
The first test for the 1954 team came in January of that year. Its coach had been called up to active duty in the Korean War, and heavyweight coach Jim McMillan was having trouble finding a replacement. McMillan finally called Frailey. He had captained the lightweight crew his senior year, but after graduation, he had walked out of the boathouse and never returned. He laughs about the call now. “I said, ‘I must be the last guy on your list,’ and he said yes.” Frailey, who went on to coach at MIT for 16 years, decided to give it a whirl. “Bingo. The first crew I ever coached was a national champion and a world champion,” he says, with a mixture of pride and humility. Today he takes only a little credit for its success.
The real inspiration for the MIT oarsmen was their close third in the national championships in May of 1953. After that, they were unwavering in their desire to win it all in 1954. “They were motivated like no other group of folks you can imagine,” Frailey recalls. At the end of their workouts, he’d call them back to the boathouse, but often they didn’t pay attention and just kept rowing. “Many evenings we rowed in the dark,” recalls coxswain Jerry Waye ‘54. “I’d site on a light on the far shore, sometimes a major building, and I would steer by the reflection on the water.” The cold didn’t deter them, either. The thermometer needed to register only slightly above freezing for them to take to the Charles. Sometimes the temperature dipped well below freezing before they quit, and they’d return to the boathouse with ice coating their sweatshirts.
By the time the first race of the season rolled around, the team was eager to test itself. It lost its first race to Harvard by only one-third of a length. Instead of being let down by the loss, the team was encouraged. “Harvard ruled the water,” says Waye. “They were a difficult team to beat.” Their good early showing convinced the MIT oarsmen that their goal of a national championship was really possible, and it motivated them to work even harder, feeding on their devotion to each other and to their sport. “We all relied on each other,” says Waye. “If one of us didn’t show up, it was a disaster.” The crew flew through its season, defeating the seven boats it met, but it wasn’t until it met Harvard again late in the season and won—in a race that also included Princeton, which finished barely a meter behind MIT—that the 1954 crew knew it could win the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Sprints, which would determine the national championship the next week.
Having handily defeated all of its opposition, the close-finishing Princeton boat was clearly the one for MIT to beat. “It was the hardest race we ever had, physically and mentally,” recalls Wilkes of the national championship. Four boats made the finals: Princeton, Penn, Cornell, and MIT. With 800 meters to go, the race had turned into a match between Princeton and MIT. Princeton was half a deck ahead. Waye, who as coxswain called the stroke and steered the boat, made a risky decision. “I knew we wouldn’t be able to outrow Princeton,” he recalls, so he set the crew on an all-out sprint at 40 strokes per minute. Since sprints are usually reserved for the last quarter of any race, the Princeton coxswain concluded that Waye had committed a grievous error. “No one sprints for half a race,” says Waye. “No one has that stamina.” But the MIT crew had devoted a good part of its training to sprinting, and it dug deep and kept up the furious pace to win the race by a third of a meter. It grabbed the first lightweight championship for MIT and the right to row at Henley as U.S. champion. The oarsmen were exhausted and elated, and they were headed for England.
MIT had never sent an athletic team abroad for international competition. President James Killian ‘29 promised that the Institute would pay half of the expected $15,000 in expenses, but the team would have to raise the rest. The general student body took over quickly and raised the money during the last two weeks of the semester. In the meantime, the crew went to work, focusing on training only. “We worked our tails off,” Waye says. They were on the river twice a day for seven weeks and lifting weights in between. When the crew arrived in Europe, it was among the best-conditioned teams in the regatta.
The Henley Experience
To row at Henley is to be part of a grand English social tradition that dates back to 1839. The regatta quickly became associated with England’s leisure class, who rowed for pleasure. It also became the pretext for an elegant garden party held along with the races. Thousands come to the village at the end of June for four days of races. For the MIT crew, the experience was what Wilkes called an “Alice in Wonderland adventure.” It was the team’s first trip abroad, and the members lived in private homes and ate foods they’d never heard of.
It was also their chance to race against teams from Europe. At that time, Henley awarded 10 cups, and hundreds of boats vied for them. Teams rowed two at a time in elimination heats—five races in four days—until only two boats remained to race in the finals for each of the 10 cups. MIT entered the pool for the Thames Challenge Cup, which was started in 1868 to provide an alternative to the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup for the top heavyweight teams. Thirty-two teams, both heavyweights and lightweights, entered the 1954 Thames Challenge Cup competition.
The grueling weeks of two-a-day training sessions on the Charles paid off in England. The MIT oarsmen won each of their four heats leading up to the finals by one to two-and-a-half lengths, often rowing at half the pace of their races at home because they so easily outdistanced their competition. The finals against the Royal Navy crew proved similar. Navy jumped to a half-length lead that it steadily increased to three-quarters of a length, but MIT gained, centimeter by centimeter, and cut the lead to a half-length by the middle of the 2.1-kilometer race. By the mile marker, the Navy lead was less than a meter, and MIT poured it on, finally overtaking the Navy boat and sprinting away to win by two and a half lengths. For young men who described themselves as nonathletic when they arrived at MIT, walking away with one of Henley’s most popular and important cups was the thrill of a lifetime. “I did something I never had an inkling I’d achieve,” says Wilkes.
Hopes were high for a repeat at Henley in 1955, but three oarsmen plus the coxswain had graduated, and as the season progressed, a return trip to Henley seemed less and less feasible. The team struggled, losing race after race, but it did not lose heart. Frailey faced his own challenge, trying to find the fastest combination of oarsmen from his three lightweight boats for the varsity crew. He spent endless sessions pitting the boats against each other, and then moving different men into the varsity boat, one position at a time. A week before the national championships, he found what he had been searching for. He moved Tom Blood ‘58 from one of the other lightweight boats into the varsity boat. The fit was perfect, and the boat was immediately 12 seconds faster. Although the team did not have time to reach its potential in the five days before the championship race, MIT placed second in the field of nine, one half-length behind the University of Pennsylvania and ahead of every crew that had beaten it during the course of the regular season.
Athletics director Roy Merritt and President Killian agreed that there were too many other important demands on the department’s funds, so given the crew’s poor season record, no Institute money would be made available to send it to England. But Frailey asked Merritt to reconsider. “I feel confident a successful defense of the cup is possible,” Frailey wrote in his appeal letter, but to no avail. Instead, faculty, students, and alumni went to work raising the money. The Tech solicited contributions from “everyone who wants to prove that a college can have a good team without pouring subsidies out of bottomless vaults into its athletic program.” The effort fell short. Members of the crew had to pay part of their own expenses. Ultimately, the Institute made up the difference.
During my three years of rowing, I had never been on a boat that won a race,” Blood wrote in a testimonial years later. “Now I was on my way to England to help defend MIT’s name on the cup.” The 1955 team had a new mission—to prove that Frailey’s faith in it was justified. Despite the crew’s winless season, the British press called MIT “formidable opposition,” and no one took the team lightly. MIT won its first two heats handily, by three and three and one-half lengths over two boats from the University of Cambridge. Its third heat against Dartmouth, a heavyweight crew it had never met in the States, was a different story. Fred Nelson still vividly remembers that race. “I rowed third seat. At the start of the race I looked across and saw their fifth seat. We were already two seats behind.” MIT increased its number of strokes per minute and rowed harder. Centimeter by centimeter the oarsmen gained on Dartmouth. “We caught them with about 20 strokes to go,” says Terry Carney ‘55, SM ‘58. MIT won by three-quarters of a length, but the race took its toll on the team. “At the end of the race, we took our usual rest in the shell,” Nelson says, “but it seemed really short. I remember rowing into shore, but my muscles wouldn’t work. I had to mentally force myself to row.”
The next day MIT met the London Rowing Club in the semifinals and struggled in a closely matched duel until the last few strokes, when it pulled ahead by about three-quarters of a length to win and advance to the finals against the British Royal Air Force boat, winner of the Thames Challenge Cup in 1953. In the final race, MIT jumped out to the lead and never relinquished it. “We moved ahead right away and sat on them,” recalls Carney. “We never felt seriously threatened.” And so the Thames Challenge Cup came back to MIT for another year.
Just before noon on July 4, 2004, members of the 1954 and 1955 teams slip their shell back into the Thames. It’s the last day of the regatta, and the lunch break is longer than usual. The course is shut down, presenting the perfect time for a reunion row. They carefully thread their way through the pleasure boats near the shore to an opening onto the course about 400 meters above the finish line. “Being on the course again is a thrill,” says Wilkes. The MIT shell is on the course for only about 90 seconds and is followed by polite applause from the thousands along the banks who understand what they are seeing. It’s the third and probably final reunion of the two crews at Henley. Travel is becoming more difficult as members age, and some of their teammates have passed away. Rowing itself is also becoming a physical challenge. “You’re on display, and the years have taken their toll, but we were better this year than some of the other years,” says Wilkes. They quietly dip their oars into the water and move with grace and harmony over the finish line, the rush of glory from races a half-century ago coursing through their veins.