Engineering a comeback

MIT oarsmen are finally doing more than just treading water

No longer a shell of its former self, the MIT crew has become increasingly competitive and is ranked 13th in the nation. It's trying to remain on the upswing. No longer a shell of its former self, the MIT crew has become increasingly competitive and is ranked 13th in the nation. It's trying to remain on the upswing. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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Tom Larsen was recalling the embarrassment of a previous trip to Princeton, when his freshman boat finished more than 10 lengths behind. "When we got back to the dock, everyone was clapping for us," MIT's varsity heavyweight crew cocaptain said. "It was the most demoralizing thing of my life. That pity clap."

Last weekend, though, the applause was for real. It wasn't that the Engineers had won the Compton Cup. That hasn't happened in nearly four dozen years and nobody's betting it'll happen again for a while. But after finishing a distant third out of three for 33 years, Tech placed second, cause for a general hurrah.

"Did we just beat Princeton?" stroke Luke Urban kept asking coxswain Steve Young after their boat had come from behind to nip the Tigers by eight-10ths of a second on Lake Carnegie. Said Young, "It took a while for the gravitas of that to set in."

It didn't matter that MIT still finished a couple of lengths behind Harvard, which has won the cup so often that it practically has become part of the furniture at the Crimson's drafty Victorian boathouse. It still was the closest the Engineers have been to the winner since 1963, the year after their last victory.

Such is progress for a program that has been struggling to stay on the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges radar screen for years. With MIT ranked nationally (13th) for the first time, there's cross-the-fingers optimism around Pierce Boathouse.

Tech will be favored to beat Colgate Sunday and figures to give second-ranked Wisconsin a decent push in the Cochrane Cup the following weekend. And if the Engineers can finish in the top nine at next month's Eastern Sprints, they'll earn an automatic bid to the IRA national championships in Sacramento in June. "The change in mentality is huge for us," said Larsen. "To be part of the club . . .' "

Not that anyone is having fantasies about silver loving cups and armfuls of rival racing shirts. "We wanted to establish ourselves as a middle-of-the-pack Sprints crew, and maybe make the grand final once in a while," said Young. For now, just not getting squished like a waterbug is a notable achievement for Tech, which has five walk-ons on the varsity, doesn't have enough oarsmen for a junior varsity eight, and only 10 freshmen.

MIT is a Division 3 school playing in rowing's big league, with two of its cup races against three of the most storied programs in the country. So expectations are realistically modest. "If we're consistently competitive year in and year out, and some years better than that, that's a pretty big win for MIT," said third-year coach Tony Kilbridge, who has turned things around since he arrived from Virginia's club program.

None of his guys were close to being born during the glory days of the '70s, when Tech finished second twice at the IRAs and provided two members of the 1976 Olympic team, John Everett and Gary Piantedosi. Since then, both collegiate rowing (foreign recruits) and MIT (now 45 percent female) have changed dramatically. "The program had been a mess at every level for decades," said Kilbridge, a former Harvard lightweight oarsman and Boston lawyer. "Morale was terrible, retention was terrible."

And losing was considered a permanent part of the deal until last year, when MIT came from behind to beat Boston University for the first time in 15 years. Finally, there was a ray of sunshine at the lower end of the Rivah. This season, after giving Columbia a scare in the Alumni Cup, the Engineers began believing they might be competitive. "Going to Princeton, we looked at times and results," said Larsen, "and we thought, 'We might have a chance against these guys.' "

Just being in the chase figured to be a novelty. "We've always looked at the Compton Cup as a dual between Harvard and Princeton," said Urban. MIT always had been somewhere over the rainbow. This time, though, the Engineers were only four seats behind the Tigers midway through. "We kept trucking, kept trucking, kept trucking," said Young.

And eventually, Tech pushed its bow ball ahead and kept it there. Shock quickly gave way to exuberance and dockside congratulations. "Harvard seemed really happy for us," said Larsen. And the MIT spectators, who included a member of the 1962 boat, were jubilant. Though Princeton is having an off year, the Tigers still are a brand name, Sprint champions as recently as three seasons ago.

What the Engineers wanted to prove is that, finally, attention must be paid to their lane, that rival coxes will have to include them in their race calls. They're part of the club again, at least for this year. The mandate for Kilbridge is to keep things on the build. Rowing escaped the budgetary ax that yesterday chopped eight teams from MIT's athletic program.

Now the challenge is to recruit experienced oarsmen who can get admitted into one of the world's most competitive colleges and find the time and will to turn up for 6 a.m. practices. "MIT students are remarkable," said Kilbridge. "They're driven, they're highly motivated. They can do whatever they put their minds to."

What he needs is more of them who can tell port from starboard. Spreading the word at high schools is key. "A lot of people don't even know we have a crew," Kilbridge said. Until recently, Tech couldn't prove it by the results. "Success on the water is huge," the coach said.

At MIT, success has a different definition than it does "Up The Creek," where Harvard lives. Colonial empires have fallen since the Engineers won their only Sprints crown in 1950. "Every year I've been here," said Young, "we've been dead last." Next month in Worcester, ninth will do just fine. This year, it's all about upgrades.

John Powers can be reached at