#TBT: Audio Interview with Harvard's Harry Parker at the Outset of His 50th Season

Newell Boathouse (Photo: B. Kitch)

The 50th Head Of The Charles Regatta is just a few days away. I find I can't think of that without thinking of Harry Parker, who coached for more than half a century on that very river, and whose name became virtually synonymous with Harvard Crew. Going through some archives recently, I ran across this short audio interview that I did with Parker, when still a very green reporter, just after the 2011 Head Of The Charles—the beginning of his 50th year at the helm. It followed a morning training session on the launch with him, and I was keen to learn more about his experience of change in the sport over his long and decorated career. Listening to it again, I found that it continues to be revelatory and inspiring. I hope you feel the same way, too.

Bryan Kitch: Basically, I just wanted to ask you a couple questions about your career. Obviously, you're coming into your 50th year—is that...is that something that you think about at all?

Harry Parker: Say that again.

BK: You're coming into your 50th year...

HP: Right! Well, not a lot. You know, I'm aware of it. People bring it up, so I'm aware of it then, but most of the time, no, I'm just doing what I've always done, just focused on the coaching and trying to get the crews to row well.

BK: I asked you in the launch, but I'll ask you again—many differences from when you first started. Obviously your career has spanned a number of decades.

HP: Yeah it's been a while. No, surely there have been some changes. In terms of the rowing, the biggest changes have been to the equipment. If you go back to the first...If you go back to 1960, you know, we were using long, narrow blades, 12-foot one, almost all Pocock—so there's been dramatic change in the oars, in the blade shape and the length of the oar, and the materials. The real change in the boats has been from wood to fiberglass, but also you have much more flexibility—modern riggers are much better than they were then, more adjustments, things like that. So there's been some significant change that way.

BK: But the athletes...

HP: The athletes are the same, the rowing is...You know, sure. Little variations, little more emphasis here or there, some changes in technique, but it's still basically the same thing. I hate to say it, but fundamental, good rowing doesn't change. So I feel as though I'm teaching the same thing that I have been all along—trying, anyway.

BK: Um, the way college rowing works nowadays, with so many international students...

HP: Well, it's not so much the internationals. The fact is that there is so much more high school rowing. I mean, that's the other really, really big change is the growth of the sport. It was starting very, very slowly in the '60s an '70s, and it has just sort of snowballed. I mean, the growth of the sport, both at the college level and the high school level has been tremendous. It's a wonderful thing. It's a great thing, and it's just spreading very, very steadily, at quite a good rate, all the time. So you're going to have more people who have rowed in high school, therefore you're going to have more people coming into the program with experience. And you know, unfortunately, we have a few less people who come in as walk-ons, but we still get some and we like that. Certainly, 50 years ago, the majority of people rowing for colleges started at college; they didn't start in high school. And that has gradually shifted so that more and more of them have rowed in high school, and the colleges are attracting more people from overseas as well.

BK: A lot of people talk about 'burning out' in rowing—the idea being that it's such an intense activity that they can only do it for a certain amount of time. Obviously, that's not something that you've experienced.

HP: I don't see that—I've never seen that. You might get one guy every two or three years, or four years—that's not been a fairly common occurrence, in my experience anyway. I think as long as you strike a good balance between the training load and the academic work, and give some time off to those who need it during the summer, why, that shouldn't be a problem. And for the most part, I don't think it has been.

BK: Can you imagine doing anything else at this point?

HP: Not really! [Laughs] That's an easy one to answer. I've never aspired to a life of leisure, or a long time in retirement, just enjoying myself. I find the coaching really very satisfying. So it is hard for me to imagine doing anything else for any protracted length of time.

BK: Backing up on that, is there anything that you would change, any decisions you would change going back?

HP: No, not really. It's been just, very thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying—I've been lucky to have been able to work with a lot of really very capable students here. So it's been a great experience.

BK: Thank you so much for allowing us to be inside on a training session.

HP: My pleasure! Glad to have you along. Sorry the weather wasn't better! But, you know, that's part of the game.

BK: And the water was flat!

HP: The water was flat, that's right. There you go.


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