NEW LONDON, Conn. -- After seven years of finishing this race shirtless and forlorn, there was only one way for Yale's heavyweight crew to row yesterday afternoon's 142d 4-mile event. "Go for the throat," captain Patrick Purdy had declared.
And so his fellow Bulldogs did, making up an open-water gap in the final half-mile on the Thames River to catch archrival Harvard at the line and win by a half-second in what may have been the greatest comeback in the history of the nation's oldest collegiate sporting event.
"To be able to come from behind against an Eastern Sprints-winning crew, nobody would have predicted that," said Yale coach John Pescatore , after Yale (19:57.50) had knocked off the Henley-bound Crimson (19:58.00) in the closest race since 1914, when Yale won by two- 10ths of a second.
It was the first time the Bulldogs had won since 1999, only the third time since 1984, only the seventh time since 1962, and the first time they'd done it upstream in 23 years.
And they pulled it off against a superb Harvard boat that had missed winning the national title last weekend by less than a second.
"Incredible, truly incredible," said Crimson coach Harry Parker, after the Bulldogs had edged his varsity by 2 feet. "Quite an extraordinary effort by both boats. Yale did a good job of staying on it and not letting us get away."
No Bulldog varsity in memory had come from that far back with so little water left to beat Harvard, and this one had trailed from the start, going down by half a length at the half-mile flag, by a length midway through, and by open water with a mile to go. But after chasing the Crimson to the wire at the Sprints, Yale wasn't going to be shaken free.
"We thought all week it was going to be close," said stroke Hunter Swartz , whose boatmates had been less than a length behind Harvard on Lake Quinsigamond last month. "We knew we were going to have to grind."
By the time they took the line beneath the railroad bridge, the Bulldogs knew their rearranged JV had won by clinging ferociously to heavily favored Harvard until Crimson 4-man Hugo Beekman came apart from exhaustion in the final quarter-mile of their 3-miler and Yale went on to win by 18 seconds.
The varsity had been close enough to Harvard in both the Sprints and their IRA semifinal to know they could hang with them.
"We knew the pressure was on them," said Swartz. "They hadn't lost in seven years. Their senior class was the first that Yale started putting some pressure on."
When crunch time came with the finish line at Bartlett's Cove in view, Yale put on such a severe squeeze that Andrew Boston, the Harvard 5-man, ran out of gas and later was taken by ambulance to New London Hospital to be treated for exhaustion.
"It says a lot for these guys because they were the ones who were suffering and rowing every stroke of the race from behind," said Pescatore, whose crew had lost to Harvard by 2 lengths last year and by 10 lengths in 2005. "It takes a lot of willpower and confidence to sit in that position and keep on going."
No Crimson crew in Parker's 45-year tenure had ever lost to Yale after leading by open water that late in the race. His 1980 crew, which came from more than 2 lengths down to win, had 2 miles to do it. Yesterday, when Yale made its final charge, there was no holding it off.
"Those were the strokes where we went for the throat," said Purdy. "They cracked and we put together some monster strokes."
The finish was so close, the up-down of the flag so quick, officials on the observation boat couldn't tell who won. But the exuberant Bulldogs knew immediately, as did the downhearted Crimson.
"Congratulations to Yale," said stroke George Kitovitz . "They beat us. In the end, they had us on the day."
It was a definitive statement that Yale crew is back and that The Boat Race is a boat race again.
"It's only one race and only one year," cautioned Pescatore. "We're here this year, certainly."