CT Olympians rowing in the wake of history

The 1924 Yale Olympic rowing crew pictured practicing in Lake Housatonic in New Haven, located on the southern end of the Housatonic River.

New York Public Library

CT Olympians rowing in the wake of history

Connecticut will be represented by boat rowers in the upcoming ‘24 Paris Olympics.

That statement holds as much truth now as it did a century ago.

While Paris gets set to host the Olympic Games for the first time in 100 years, so too do boat rowers with roots in Connecticut prepare.

Oliver Bub from Westport, Liam Corrigan from Old Lyme, Kelsey Reelick from Brookfield, and Ben Washburn from Madison will each row in the 2024 Games. Team USA crews will also feature three alumni of Yale rowing: Margaret Hedeman, Kristi Wagner, and Mary Mazzio-Manson.

When the Olympic water contests begin July 27, these Connecticuters will row into the pages of history. The last time Paris hosted the Games in 1924, a Connecticut-based eight-man crew won gold. The “Yale Eight” won in dominant fashion, more than 15 seconds ahead of silver-medalist Canada.

The legendary 1924 crew included several noteworthy oarmen: James Stillman Rockefeller, great-nephew of John D. Rockefeller, attended the Taft School before going on to Yale; Leonard Carpenter, a graduate of The Hotchkiss School, went on to a successful career in the lumber industry; Benjamin Spock, famed pediatrician and author of “Baby and Child Care,” rowed in the seven-seat.

In the archives of the National Rowing Hall of Fame is a letter from Spock to Rusty Wailes, seven-seat in the gold-winning Yale crew of the 1956 Olympics. In the letter Spock shares his experience of the Parisian Games.

The 1924 Yale crew was delayed in departing for France due to a late-season race against Harvard. The team traveled by boat across the Atlantic and Spock recalled their journey: “Four rowing machines were screwed into the boat deck where one of the life boats was swung over the side and we had two hard workouts a day on the rowing machines in addition to doing calisthenics. Gloria Swanson was on board but was not in our party. Our captain [James Rockefeller] met his wife on the boat and between these two extremes various other possibilities were considered.”

Upon arriving at Olympic Village late, the crew found no available housing for them: “The only place we could get in were some huts right near the track and field stadium where we were with the extras of the various teams who had come in late. They were miserable quarters. Our nearest and dearest neighbors were Esthonian weight lifters. The beds were uncomfortable and the mosquitoes terrific. The representative of the Yale Rowing Committee, however, was very nearly murdered in trying to make us feel better by referring to the noise of the taxi horns outside his accommodations at the Ritz Hotel.”

A July 3, 1924, edition of The Lakeville Journal recounts a different arrival for the American athletes who made it on time to Paris:

“Police Hold Back Surging Throngs Around Olympic Stars

Paris — Trim, alert and eager to be up and doing, the American Olympic team arrived in Paris on two special trains from Cherbourg. They presented a fine spectacle as they descended from the trains, and groups of French fans who assembled out of curiosity broke into cheers of enthusiasm as the young Americans [section damaged] the quays to the wailing cars. All are reported in fine condition.”

Spock goes on to describe the medal race on the Seine River on a sweltering hot day just past where “the sewers emptied out.” He ultimately recalls winning gold and angering the French by refusing to attend a champagne party. He ends with words of encouragement for the 1956 team:

“Having seen your crew a week ago, however, it does not disturb me in the least to say that you must be a faster crew...Let me urge all of you to the extent that time permits to make a hobby of rowing.”

Yale crews went on to win gold in the 1956 Melbourne Games in both Men’s Eight and Men’s Pair.

A Parisian summer awaits the current generation of Olympian rowers from Connecticut. Supporters of the stars and stripes will do well to echo the urge of Spock that the 2024 oarsmen “make a hobby of rowing.”

Note: Connecticut will be represented by several non-rowers in the 2024 Olympics as well.

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