RR Interview: Harvard Crew's Mike DiSanto Recaps the 2014 Gallagher Great Race

DiSanto (fourth from left) and the Harvard crew (Photo courtesy Mike DiSanto)
Last weekend, the 2014 Gallagher Great Race took over the Waikato River, and pitted local favorite Waikato University against a Harvard crew in the men's eight race for the Harry Mahon Memorial Cup. While Harvard managed an early lead, a clash led to an ejection in the Waikato boat; the race was restarted, and following the restart, the hometown crew got the better of the Crimson. Strangely, it wasn't the first time that a Harvard entry had faced a penalty and a restart in the Gallagher Great Race, as, controversially, the race was stopped and restarted in 2007 (that time, the Waikato crew made a successful protest saying that the leading Harvard crew had impeded their progress, resulting in a restart and another Waikato win). Here, Mike DiSanto brings us up to speed on what went down in New Zealand.

RR: The last time that Harvard visited for the Gallagher Great Race in 2007, there was a controversial restart, and this year proved no different. What were the tactics going in to the race in the Harvard boat this year?

Mike DiSanto: After talking to Justin Bosley (‘03) and Mike Blomquist (’03)—both of whom raced in 2007 boat—and emailing with Bill Manning (who coached them), as well as watching quite a few of the previous races, we felt as though we had a good understanding the tactics that would get us across the line first: Get off the line quickly!

On the Thursday night before racing started, there was a 500-meter sprint on the erg to determine lanes. Each boat broke down into pairs that would race off against one another head to head at a car dealer ship (think Kenny Powers v. Reg Mackworthy). The average 500-meter split was taken from each pair, and once all four pairs had raced, the averages were added together to determine a winner. Coming out ahead in the erg portion, we realized we’d have a quick start and chose the middle station. Traditionally, the middle station is preferred because it provides a relatively straight shot to the ideal racing line, while enabling a fast starting crew to hold off the opposition to its starboard side. On the day, we were able to execute that portion of our race plan. We crossed the river first and prevented Waikato from clearing us in the process. Unfortunately, within seconds of putting ourselves in a great position, we made a tactical error that ultimately cost us the race. If you’re reading this and haven’t yet seen the footage from this year's race, stop what you’re doing and check it out [below].

RR: Having now competed in it, how would you compare the experience of the Gallagher Great Race to the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, and the Head Of The Charles?

MD: In a sense, everyone in the Harvard boat had done something similar to this race before. Harry [Parker] was very happy to put boats side by side and let them go at each other, sometimes for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. But in terms of the actual race, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Going against the stream with no lane assignments puts a huge premium on a crew knowing the intricacies of the river. Ebbs and flows can make all the difference in a race over 3.8km. Although we were very lucky to have help from some experienced steersmen, nothing beats training on a river day in and day out. So in that sense, it was a bit like the Head Of The Charles where the Harvard boats always have a nice home field advantage. In regards to the tactics, it reminded me a lot of the Boat Race. Most people wouldn’t think much about Xs and Os in rowing, but in this race especially, where ANYTHING goes, tactics proved incredibly important.

RR: What has been your biggest takeaway from the trip to New Zealand? Did you and the rest of your Harvard crew have the chance to get out and explore the countryside, in addition to preparing for the race?

Looking back on the days we spent in NZ, every single one of us realized just how lucky we were. Gallagher and Schick Construction flew nine best friends to the other side of the world to do something we all love. I couldn’t be more grateful to either of those companies or Rob Hamill, the event organizer. The natives, Sam, Ben and James, made sure we were entertained whenever we had free time. Between trips to Waitomo to go rafting in glowworm caves and Rotorua to go swimming in hot springs, we spent a lot of time drinking coffee and catching up at a local café, Hazel Hayes (if you’re in Hamilton, this place is an absolute must). What I’ll remember most about this trip though, is how even after months of not seeing these guys, the conversation picked up right where it left off, like we never missed a beat. I come from a big Italian family and have more uncles, aunts, and cousins than I can remember, but don’t have any brothers. That’s fine, because I have the brothers I made through rowing at Harvard.

Mike is now back into training for the 2015 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, with the Head of the River Fours just around the corner. Thanks very much again to Mike for taking the time! You can read the first interview with Mike from the 2014 Gallagher Great Race trip here


Meanwhile, on the women's side, it was Washington who upset Waikato for the win—you can watch the 2014 Bryan Gould Cup race here.


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