By Peter Rae
Eighty-one years ago this month, a resurgent Germany under Chancellor Adolph Hitler was completing final preparations for hosting the 1936 Olympics ─ the international competition that would show the world that the Third Reich was for real. New stadiums and arenas had been built in and around Berlin, world class German teams readied themselves, and the local populace was gearing up to root for the teams from Deutschland.
Not everything went according to Hitler’s plan. Most notably, America’s Jesse Owens, an African-American, made it hard for Hitler to brag about Aryan supremacy by trouncing Germany’s and the world’s best track and field athletes in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 x 100 meter relay.
Nine other less famous Americans also made history at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They were the crew and coxswain of America’s eight-oared shell competing in the 2000 meter rowing race. And the “road” they took to Berlin flowed down the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, longtime site of the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
How the Poughkeepsie Regatta Came To Be
Rowing is one of America’s oldest collegiate sports, having begun in 1852 with the first competition between Harvard and Yale. The Harvard/Yale race was held annually, mostly in the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, and still is to this day. By the 1880s, other schools had organized their own rowing teams plus a governing body, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (I.R.A).
Unable to forge an agreement with Harvard and Yale for a joint championship the I.R.A. decided to hold its own at an alternate venue. In 1895 it chose the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie for its fledgling event. The standard distance for a championship race was four miles, and the river here provided a straightaway exceeding that distance. The course began at Hyde Park, north of Poughkeepsie, and ended south of the railroad bridge now known as the Walkway Over The Hudson. On June 24, 1895, Columbia won the first I.R.A. championship, defeating Cornell and Pennsylvania.
The regatta was held almost annually at Poughkeepsie from that year through 1949. Teams came from all over the east, the Midwest and eventually the far west to compete. Different formats were tried, but by 1926, the regatta consisted of three races: a two-mile race for freshman crews, a three-mile race for junior varsity boats, and a four-mile race for varsities.
The event quickly captured the imagination of the public, and crowds of 75,000 and even 125,000 were often reported. For the public it became “the Poughkeepsie Regatta” during this time. People came early to get a good spot and picnicked as they waited. Some viewed the races from boats of all kinds, while others sat in bleachers mounted on railroad flatcars forming a train that traveled at the rowers’ pace along a railroad on the west shore of the river.
The West Coast Rivals
In 1923 the University of Washington Huskies won the varsity race for the first time, ushering in a long period of dominance for them and their west coast rival, the University of California at Berkeley. Indeed, between 1923 and the final Poughkeepsie regatta in 1949, Washington won nine times and California won six. Two of California’s victories occurred consecutively in 1934 and 1935, but Washington, which by then had won four championships, was determined win its fifth in 1936. And it had extra motivation that year because rowing was an Olympic sport.
The nine members of Washington’s shell in 1936 had begun the season as the school’s second boat. In the east, rowing was considered to be an “elite” sport, but this crew was different: all nine came from middle- or lower middle class backgrounds. It soon became clear, however, that this younger, stronger crew was better than its older, more experienced rival, and by race day, June 23, 1936, had been named Washington’s no. 1 boat.
Five other crews ─ Navy, Columbia, Cornell, Penn and Syracuse ─ faced off against reigning champion California and rival Washington that day. The Huskies started off slowly. Fifth after the midway point, they swept past the competition in the final sprint in a dominating performance. And for the icing on the cake, Washington also won the freshman and Junior varsity races that day, the Poughkeepsie Regatta’s first clean sweep ever!
On to Berlin
Events moved swiftly for the Huskies after that. They won the Olympic trials in Princeton on July 5, and sailed to Europe. In England, they defeated several of Europe’s best eights at Henley, England’s top rowing venue, and continued on to Germany. There, in a preliminary Olympic heat, they barely edged England but set a new Olympic record time in doing so. While the heat itself was grueling, winning it gave Washington the benefit of bypassing a second preliminary and conserving their energy and strength for the finals.
Thus it was that on August 14, 1936, the Olympic rowing championships were held in the Berlin suburb of Grunau. Seven races were scheduled, with the featured event, the eight-oared shells, going off last. Seventy-five thousand partisans, including Adolph Hitler and some of his top Nazi leaders, were on hand, and the German boats were heavily favored. The races were televised to venues in the Berlin area, and also broadcast by radio live to more than 300 million listeners around the world. And things went well for Hitler, as Germany’s crews won five of the first six races.
Six eight-oared shells, including the University of Washington crew representing the United States and the powerful, heavily favored boats representing Germany and Italy, lined up for the 2000 meter 8-oared championship event. As described in the online magazine Slate in 2012, the American crew started off slowly, hovering near last place while the Germans and Italians dueled for the lead. With less than 800 meters to go, the Huskies raised their stroke. At 500 meters they were in 3rd place and “pouring it on” according to radio announcer Bill Henry. At 300 meters they were “dead even”. All three boats crossed the finish line in a photo finish, and after several minutes the results were posted: the United States was first, in 6 minutes, 25.4 seconds; Italy was second in 6:26.0 and Germany third in 6:26.4.
The USA victory was a stunning upset. Sportswriter Grantland Rice called it the “high spot” of the 1936 Olympics, and announcer Bill Henry said it was “the outstanding victory of the Olympic Games”. No one recorded what Adolph Hitler said.
On returning home, the Washington Husky eight-oared crew was celebrated in newsreels and in feature articles in the leading magazines of the time. The school won a second straight championship at the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1937, two more in 1940 and 1941 and another in 1948, and continued to be successful in collegiate circles after the I.R.A. moved its championship from Poughkeepsie after 1949. But while the school remained powerful in the sport, its Olympic championship crew drifted back into the obscurity of everyday life. That is, until 2013, when The Boys In the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, became a New York Times bestseller. Additionally, the story rights have been acquired by leading moviemaker Harvey Weinstein.
After the departure of the regatta in 1949, the sport of rowing In the Hudson Valley became an afterthought in the public mind. But when the Walkway Over The Hudson was opened in 2009, one of the events held in conjunction with it was a revival of the regatta, under the sponsorship of Marist College and several local rowing clubs, and a second revival was held in 2010.
Marist maintains rowing as a collegiate sport today, and as you look out from the walkway you sometimes see its crews plying the waters of the Hudson River – not quite the glory of The Poughkeepsie Regatta but a reminder nonetheless of the storied past of the river and city.