“[Rowing] takes people who are patient, who are willing to work hard, and who are willing to deal with a lot of frustration.” – Harry Parker
Harry taught me not only the sport of rowing, not only world-class coaching, not only programme building, but also nurturing an ethos and a tradition. And that ethos was partly about not being seduced by easy or early success and embracing laggards or less successful. He understood that in life as on the rowing lake the race was long and those best off the start weren’t necessarily the ones who crossed the finish line in the best time.
Special thanks to Art Malette, my 25th Reunion Stadium-Running (a ritualistic form of physical torture regularly inflicted on the rowing team) teammate, who sent me this Go Crimon piece, “Harvard Mourns Loss of Legendary Crew Coach Harry Parker,” that so eloquently pays tribute to Harry’s generous approach…
- “Notwithstanding the many successes of his varsity crews, Parker took particular pride in the success of his so called lower crews; second, third and fourth varsity boats. He strove to ensure that every member of the varsity heavyweight squad received equal coaching attention and had a satisfying experience while on the team. As a result, Harvard’s lower boats also enjoyed great success over the years and a large percentage of the oarsmen remained with the team for all four years.”
I was one of those “lower crews”. I never rowed at Henley, I never won a championship. My football (the sport I came to Harvard to play) fitness never quite translated into top water form (though I had some strong ergs). But none of those failures took away from the wealth of experiences and dividends my introduction to rowing gave me. I made lifelong friends and had indelible experiences that formed a big part of who I am today. My 28 year marriage itself was partly down to rowing a my (successful) opening gambit to meeting Lori was “If you introduce me to that woman, I’ll give you my Harvard crew shirt” (best trade ever).
I took that fondness for the sport and lessons with me when I found myself transplanted in the epicentre of the sport in the Thames Valley. Living in Marlow, the Medina to Henley’s Mecca of rowing, I joined the storied Marlow Boat Club (home to Sir Steve Redgrave) and started helping with the local school’s rowing programme. I’ve turned a bit of assistant coaching at Sir William Borlase’ Grammar School into a bit of a personal pursuit to foster so many of the principles Harry exemplified. From the bit haphazard improvisation that prevailed when my son Chase started rowing in 2004, Borlase has now become arguably the top state rowing school in the UK (second in the medal count at this year’s National School Championships and third in the medal table last year).
People often ask how this tiny school with no money and training out of dilapidated caravans in a muddy swamp has risen to such heights (well, actually this year we splashed out on a new caravan!). There are so many factors and contributors, but a big one has been embracing the ‘failures’. Supporting those rowers who have lagged in physical development, lacked previous sporting experience, and struggled to get to grips early on. Just this past weekend, Borlase alumnus Matt Bedford took silver medal at the World Rowing Cup at Dorney, but I remember Matt being so hopeless when he started out that he kept capsizing quads. The Borlase rowing hall of fame is not packed so much with natural born rowers, but as with whose drive and spirit thrived in an environment of as much support as well as could muster. Just like Harry’s Harvard oarsmen.
My other teammate, Stephen Keeler, reminded me of the “poem [Harry posted] on the bulletin board in the locker room Newell” that spoke volumes of Harry’s perspective on success…and failure…
The Hammer, by Carl Sandburg
I have seen
The old gods go
And the new gods come.
Day by day
And year by year
The idols fall
And the idols rise.
I worship the hammer.
The old god of rowing will be missed, but his spirit lives on in all the lives of so many he has guided and spurred both directly and indirectly.
A shot (still for sale as a postcard in Harvard Square) of me sculling as one of Harry Parker’s many rowing acolytes.