History on the Water

Wellesley’s venerable tradition of rowing—and winning—from Float Night to national championships

History on the Water

The class crew of 1894 rows on Lake Waban, with College Hall in the background.

Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

The class crew of 1894 rows on Lake Waban, with College Hall in the background.

Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

After constructing College Hall, the majestic building where 314 students lived and learned when Wellesley College opened its doors in 1875, Henry Fowle Durant bought three rowing vessels and docked them on Lake Waban. These high-railed boats—the Argo, Mayflower, and Evangeline—resembled whaling dories more than today’s sleek low-to-the-water crew shells, and they were propelled by the first collegiate oarswomen in the United States. These inaugural crews launched the College’s enduring rowing journey that by May 2016 found 16 rowers and two coxswains hoisting trophies as the NCAA Division III rowing champions. Blue Crew won the national championship again in 2022.

This year, as Wellesley’s crew races toward a spot in the 2023 championships, the College celebrates 50 years of intercollegiate rowing. How crews moved from unwieldy dories to untippable barges, from racing fours to top-ranked national powerhouse eights, is the story I’m here to tell.

Singing Songs to Sliding Seats

A fervent believer in the mind-body health benefits of vigorous exercise, Durant insisted on a daily hour of outdoor activity for students. But Wellesley’s first oarswomen were selected for their singing voices, as during the College’s first two decades, these rowers’ primary purpose was to entertain the College’s guests. Attired in elaborate boating costumes, the rowers sat primly side by side in pairs on immovable seats and pulled their oars with restrained, ladylike exertion.

Durant revered poetry as much as he took pride in his college’s rowers, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the first Wellesley College guest to be rowed on Lake Waban. When Longfellow arrived on campus in fall 1875, he watched the christening of Evangeline, named in honor of his epic poem, before its rowers welcomed him aboard. After an unsettling row, the crew deposited its 68-year-old guest at the base of a craggy hill, which he climbed with difficulty under an archway of uplifted oars. Until his death in 1882, Longfellow visited College Hall often, but never again assented to be rowed to his readings.

By the early 1890s, rowers sat single file on movable seats in longer, lighter, narrower cedar boats that had replaced the bulkier originals. On special occasions such as Float Night, a tradition since the 1880s, class crews paraded in their boating finery through a crowd of spectators before inconspicuously removing their billowy skirts to row in bloomers. In 1893, many of Float Night’s 5,000 ticket holders came by train from Boston to watch the students row on a lantern-lit Lake Waban. Helen Shafer, Wellesley’s then president, assured anyone who might be concerned for the ladies’ well-being that they rowed “not for speed, but for skill and grace,” adding that “racing is not allowed, hence there is no temptation to overstrain.”

The class of 1887 crew poses on the steps of College Hall.
Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

In 1897, Wellesley athletes competed against another college for the first time—losing to Radcliffe in tennis. It would take 73 more years for Wellesley rowers to leave Lake Waban to compete against another college’s crew. On a November afternoon in 1970, five members of the class of ’73—rowers Wendy Evrard Lane, Sally Brumley Keller, Liz Senear, and Gigi Coe, and cox Debbie Kaegebein—borrowed a racing four from MIT, then handily defeated two MIT women’s crews in a 500-meter race on the Charles River. They returned home with no medal, nor was their race included with the results of the men’s races. Senear ruefully remarked to The Wellesley News that the women’s race was planned “as the comedy event of the afternoon,” though neither she nor her fellow rowers had viewed it that way. Leading up to the race, they’d driven in the early morning to MIT to learn how to row a racing four, as Wellesley didn’t own one. The News sports columnist, Mary Young ’76, described the racing shell as a “long, skinny cardboard thin racer, tippy as a kayak,” much tougher to row than Wellesley’s wide “barges.” The 1973 rowers welcomed the challenge, savored their win, and pined for more intercollegiate competition.

Young had nailed the zeitgeist by seeing this MIT race as marking “the dichotomy … between the intercollegiate and recreational crews.” In fact, after it, MIT challenged Wellesley to a 1,000-meter race, and Radcliffe sent word that they wanted to race Wellesley in the spring. But without boats in which to practice or race, the answer from Wellesley’s water coach, Barbara Jordan, was succinct: “We cannot set up any races with anybody unless we have a [racing] shell.”

By the next fall, Wellesley had a racing shell—a wooden four residing on sawhorses in the boathouse. The day it arrived, Jordan asked me to row in it, which I did. Three of those who’d raced against MIT, me, and new cox Ridgely Ochs ’73 comprised Wellesley’s first intercollegiate team rowing a racing shell that the College owned. A dozen years later, Wellesley acquired a racing eight, the first step in transforming Wellesley rowers into national competitors.

From Festivities to Finish Lines

On Float Night in June 1905, 6,000 ticketed spectators squeezed onto the lawn sloping down to the lake. Henry Durant’s widow, Pauline, sat on the platform at Waban’s edge as the College’s fleet came into view. At dusk, large light machines cast colorful beams across the water as the coxswains brought their boats’ bows together and formed a star and then, for the first time, a “W.” Lifting their oars lengthwise into the sky, the oarswomen joined the glee and mandolin clubs in singing the crew and class songs, launching a decades-long tradition. That night’s event ended after the “varsity” eight, in which the College’s most skilled oarswomen sat, rowed “its lengthy shell back and forth with much skill,” according to the Boston Globe.

My grandmother Teresa Pastene, class of 1907, rowed in that boat.

In my grandmother’s senior year, Wellesley’s rowers were invited to race other women’s college teams on the Thames River in Connecticut when Harvard raced Yale in June. “We are not allowed to actually compete in races,” the president of the College rowing club reminded her fellow rowers. In March, the student body voted on the matter, and a Boston newspaper declared the decision: “Wellesley to Send No Crew.” The idea was said to be “entirely impractical” despite enthusiasm expressed by many of the rowers, including, I’d like to think, Teresa Pastene. In her final class crew competition, she stroked the senior crew to victory “by unanimous vote of the judges,” according to the College News. When the boats were put away in June 1907, “the large Hunnewell Rowing Cup [was presented] to Miss Pastene.”

Wellesley’s crew team celebrates after winning the 2022 NCAA Division III National Championship in Sarasota, Fla.
Photo by Mike Janes

Miss Pastene graduated, married, raised four children as Mrs. Edwards, and never rowed again.

In fall 1971, her youngest daughter, Jean Edwards Ludtke ’45, stood on a dock at Onota Lake in Pittsfield, Mass., to see her own daughter cross the finish line ahead of the Williams College crew. In spring 1972, the five of us launched our four into the swollen, swirling Connecticut River. That rainy afternoon, we defined victory as just finishing the race without having our wooden boat punctured by one of the many free-floating logs loosed by the storm. If one of us wore Wellesley blue, it was by chance. No one’s T-shirt and shorts matched anyone else’s. Crew outfits, like racing eights and coaches who understood rowing, remained a distant dream as 1973’s pioneering intercollegiate rowers raced on.

At Home on the Charles

Women were allowed to compete in eights in the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta for the first time in fall 1972. Wellesley seniors borrowed an eight to race three miles against 12 other boats, finishing seventh. The next fall, Wellesley raced its first eight in the Eastern Sprints, earning a spot in the finals on the Charles River. Congratulating the rowers, the Wellesley News observed: “Crew has come a long way in the last three years at Wellesley, largely due to the enthusiasm of those (now notorious) ‘crew jocks.’ This kind of dedication to team sport is a welcome breath of fresh air at a school with such an incredibly stagnant intercollegiate sports program.”

It wouldn’t be until 1998 that Wellesley’s competitive rowing team moved its eights into its permanent boathouse on the Charles River. Before then, the College rented space at Boston University’s boathouse, and the rowers met at 5 a.m. at Wellesley’s gym to drive to the Charles River so they could train at distances that would prepare them to compete in 2,000-meter races. Lake Waban offers crews only 700 meters to row at their hardest.

This shortcoming likely played a surprising role in the unexpected inclusion of Wellesley’s lightweight four in the 1977 National Rowing finals. Three years earlier, Wellesley had hired 21-year-old Mayrene Earle to teach physical education, her major at Northeastern. She also coached crew—recreational and intercollegiate—though she knew nothing about the sport. “I felt like a babysitter,” Earle told me, so she found rowers who taught her to coach. Joel Ristuccia, a former Yale rower, was one of them. In exchange for storing his single at Wellesley’s Lake Waban boathouse, he joined Earle in the launch and coached her rowers. “I’d ask him questions,” Earle says. “I needed to learn everything.”

“The mindset I want from each rower is ‘any seat, any day.’ It’s about the program going fast, not your seat in the boat.”

—Tessa Spillane, head coach of Wellesley crew

In May 1977, Wellesley’s four shocked everyone by winning the Eastern Sprints. Then, Ristuccia surprised Earle by saying this boat should compete at the National Women’s Rowing Association Championships in Philadelphia in June. The team’s slim budget meant staying at the home of College trustee Barbara Barnes Hauptfuhrer ’49 and racing without uniforms. In her contemporaneous letter about those races, Earle described the semifinal: “Best race I’ve seen them row. … I could hardly believe we were at Nationals, blowing the rest of the country off the water!!! After the race, word was quickly being passed around to watch out for Wellesley—especially their starts.”

Polly Munts Talen ’77 called their starts “our Lake Waban special—that’s all we have room for.” With their practices being circular affairs, the team specialized in sprint bursts, glides to a balanced stop, quick turns, and “blistering fast starts—practiced with purpose,” recalled Eleanor Horrigan Spyropoulos ’80. “We’d ride the boat out, gliding in silence to a dead stop at the end of each day. It was an amazing feeling,” says Kim Himmelfarb ’77. The team’s nickname, “Ping’s Angels,” was a nod of respect to its cox, Elizabeth “Ping” Pingchang Chow ’79, who made this “boatful of women able to perform as one,” as Chow puts it. In Philadelphia’s final, Ping’s Angels had to fight back to finish fourth after a “miserable start,” according to Earle. “The race felt like a struggle,” says Karen Cunningham Van Adzin ’79, who stroked the boat. “Very tense.” Reflecting on her team’s achievement, Earle wrote: “This is quite a feat for a crew who has never experienced the pressures and excitement of a national competition.” Wellesley’s four—with new rowers, after two of the 1977 crew graduated—raced in the next two nationals in Seattle and Detroit.

21st-Century Champions

The crew team’s next national competition was the 2003 NCAA Division III Rowing Championships. Blue Crew appeared again at the NCAA championships in 2010 at Sacramento State Aquatic Center, taking fifth place in Tessa Spillane’s fifth season as coach. After watching other teams stand on the podium, Wellesley’s rowers left Gold River, Calif., with a goal: to be on the podium in 2011. After taking third place, they were. Since then, by pairing her pursuit of excellence with rigorous and mindful training, Spillane has coached two eights to the championships every year except 2020 and 2021, when it was canceled due to COVID-19. Spillane’s time as a rower at Mount Holyoke taught her the sport, and she honed her coaching first with her alma mater’s novice team, then as head coach of the men’s and women’s teams at Lewis & Clark. By hiring an experienced rower and coach in 2005 to direct its competitive crew, Wellesley sent a signal to its rowers that it was likely just a matter of time before they would be competing in the NCAA rowing championships. What no rower could know until Blue Crew won in 2016 was that rowing would give Wellesley its first team NCAA national championship. Wellesley was also the first women’s college to win a national championship in rowing.

Six mornings a week in the spring and fall, Wellesley’s 50 rowers rise at dawn for strenuous rows on the Charles. Each practice starts with mindful yoga. On the water, Spillane expects rowing to be about the rowers’ mindsets as much as the physical demands. With Wellesley students hardest on themselves, she aims to replace harsh self-judgment with mindful attention to each stroke. “If they aren’t thinking about rowing and thinking about winning, then we won’t,” Spillane told me. “The mindset I want from each rower is ‘any seat, any day.’ It’s about the program going fast, not your seat in the boat.” If that mindset clicks, they win.

In winter months, the rowers maintain their fitness in Wellesley’s state-of-the-art indoor training facility. They come back together in February for a month of intensive indoor practice, which rowers tell me are the most demanding weeks of the season. Mindfulness training is integrated into each day’s tough workout. Next, for one week they train at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. With seat racing there, Spillane decides on line-ups for their return to the Charles.

“She looks for attitude,” says Emma Anghel ’23, a varsity eight rower for the 2022 NCAA win. “It’s just being willing to put my head down and put the work in. I had no expectations about where I’d be in the boat. Just excited to be in it.” In the NCAA final, Wellesley’s varsity boat finished second. “We’d just done the hardest thing we’d ever done. It was all we could humanly do. My vision went black at the finish, and my legs felt like they couldn’t move anymore,” Anghel says. “We rowed to the dock in silence. There, Tessa was silent, and the [second varsity] crew had deadpan faces. Then, Tessa says, ‘Do you know what you just did? You just became national champions.’”

With the second varsity team finishing second in its final, too, the cumulative points of Wellesley’s two boats made its team the NCAA victor. “I burst into tears. One rower was gagging over the side of the boat and had to be helped out,” Anghel says. “I was crying and hugging Kaylee [Liu ’24], my pair rower. We were stunned.”

As good as it felt that day to hoist the trophy, Anghel is glad she has another shot in her senior year. “Both boats felt disappointed [in finishing second in the races]. And though I’m happy we won in that way, we now have another goal to reach. Those results left us wanting more,” she says.

Meanwhile, recreational rowing in the colorful barges resumes each fall on Lake Waban, culminating in a competition at the end of the term, one of the country’s oldest intramural crew races. In May, while Blue Crew will likely be applying their minds and bodies to the strokes they take on the Cooper River in New Jersey in the 2023 NCAA championships, Ridgely, Sally, Gigi, Debbie, and I—Wellesley’s first intercollegiate crew—will row out of Lake Waban’s Butler Boathouse at our 50th reunion. With each of us taking our same seat in the wooden Pocock four the College named Spirit of ’73 in our honor, we will stroke its heavy wooden oars, circling the lake with a few powerful sprints, gliding stops, and blistering fast starts.

Melissa Ludtke ’73 is a veteran national journalist and author of three books, including Locker Room Talk: A Woman’s Struggle to Get Inside, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.

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