May 18, 2009
NEW HAVEN - Along with seven other universities, Yale was invited by the provincial government of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province of China, to compete in the Longhu Cup International University Regatta. The ceremonial regatta and the accompanying cultural exchange were both part of the opening festivities for Chengdu's 1,300 year old traditional dragon boat festival, which features the Xinjin Dragon Boat Race on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The other participating universities were Copenhagen (Denmark), Milan (Italy), Otago (New Zealand), Sydney (Australia), Trinity (United States), Peking and Tsinghua (China). The Bulldog crew finished fifth based on time, and seventh based on heat draw.
A year earlier, Chengdu was the victim of the "Sichuan Earthquake" that claimed the lives of over 70,000 people. Earlier this month, the city turned away from that tragedy to focus on a celebration of culture and tradition -- both Chinese and Western. The city government invited the eight university crews on an all-expenses paid trip to participate in the festivities and engage in a cultural exchange. The annual dragon boat festival features performances and celebration, in addition the Xinjin Dragon Boat Race, in which 16-meter long boats of 22 people compete on a 1,000 meter course.
From an initial pool of 24 Yale Crew alums who expressed interest in participating, the coaching staff cut to a group of 10 rowers -- eight oarsmen and two substitutes. The most prominent of these was Josh West, a Yale grad who won a silver medal on the Great Britain boat in the Beijing Olympics. In addition to these ten alums, the Yale contingent also included two crew alums who would not be on the boat but who spoke Chinese, a coxswain and lightweight assistant coach Ryan Sparks. Aside from Coach Sparks, the alums who went on the trip were Josh West '98, David MacIntosh '08, Justin Knapp '03, Steve Rawl '06, Alfred Shikany '07, Greg Williams '06, Adam Gustafson LAW '09, Scott Dolff GRAD '09, Alan Chin '06, Andrew Perrson '02, Joe Fahrendorf '06, Andrew Towne '05 and Andrew Brennan '04.
All the participating crews were greeted very warmly by the Chinese hosts, and were treated as celebrities by thousands of Chinese spectators who swarmed the rowers for autographs. Prior to the competition, the athletes participated in an elaborate nationally televised show that kicked off the festivities. The show took place on a large outdoor stage and lasted for several hours, featuring performances from Chinese opera singers, dancers and acrobats. As part of the show, former Whiffenpoof David MacIntosh ('06) sang "Bright College Years" acapella and won the audience applause contest for the best song over the Kiwis and the Australians. In addition, Justin Knapp ('03) was picked to give an opening speech representing all 90 of the foreign athletes from five different countries. He made the speech in Chinese and reached a potential audience of 1 billion on national Chinese television.
After the opening ceremonies and a week spent training and experiencing Chengdu, the eight crews participated in two heats spread out over two days of racing. The races were 2 x 1,000 meters -- the same distance as the dragon boat races -- and they took place on a 2,000 meter man-made lake. The semi-finals took place on Saturday May 2nd. In the first race, Milan, Otago, Sydney and Tsinghua raced for two spots in the A-final. In the second race, Yale, Trinity, Peking and Copenhagen competed for the final two spots. The four qualifying teams were Otago in 2:48, Sydney in 2:51, Peking in 2:54, and Trinity in 2:56. The finals occurred the following day, on Sunday May 3rd. In the B-final, Tsinghua took first place with a time of 2:49, followed by Copenhagen in second, Yale in third and Milan in fourth. In the A-final, Otago came in first with a time of 2:45, Sydney took second, Trinity in third, and Peking in fourth.
However, given the short course (regattas are typically 2 or 3 by 2,000 meters) and the fact that the teams participated in a lottery for boats of varying conditions, the Longhu Cup was far more about cultural exchange than competitive racing.
Coach Sparks agreed with this assessment.
"In short, I think it was a very good trip for Yale and Yale rowing," Sparks said. "It was not an international championship level regatta - I need to stress that point, because it was unclear when we went over. It was a 'performance,' meaning we did two very short pieces against some very competitive university rowing programs from across the world as a sort of prelude to the dragon boat racing festival that occurs there once a year. In reality, the point was to have a cultural exchange, to showcase a very civilized sport to their people and likewise to ourselves be cultured by association."
With this point in mind, it becomes significant that the entire Yale contingent made extra efforts to understand the Chinese culture and participate in Chinese customs as well as possible. Two of the Yale rowers spoke Chinese, and the Yale team took care to give gifts at the appropriate times, to speak about and represent Yale to the Chinese, and establish a congenial relationship with the provincial government. Knapp's speech in Chinese was especially important in making a good impression and properly representing Yale to an audience of at least 100 million people. As a result of these efforts, Yale was the only team that was guaranteed an invite for next year, should Chengdu decide to host a real championship-level regatta.
"I think the victory of the trip is to be found in how well-received we were overall," said Coach Sparks. "The major success was the relationship formed with the Chinese, our guys worked to enhance this relationship more than any other team, and it is for this reason that Yale is at the top of their list to return for next year."
The Yale rowers also established good relations with the other university crews. "I believe we gained the respect of the other teams and coaches," said Coach Sparks. "I think the guys made some good friends -- there were a fair amount of very good rowers there -- both the Australians and the New Zealanders carried five or six guys who had represented them at some point internationally, and we and Copenhagen both carried Olympic medalists. Additionally, almost every rower on the Trinity boat had won the Henley Temple Challenge Cup in 2005. I think the teams got on really well, and the time spent rowing and talking about rowing was great given the overall talent level."
Overall, the experience was a very positive and productive one for Yale crew. This is evidenced in the many relationships that Yale crew succeeded in forming both with the Chinese and several of the other international caliber rowing programs.
Report By Arsi Sefaj '11, Yale Sports Publicity