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" New York City was in a trance as the good news of Columbia's victory was spread by extras soon after the race. Everywhere, from private residences to City Hall (on the Mayor's orders), the Blue and White fluttered gaily in the breeze, while the good citizens made merry over the victory of the city's 'own crew', realizing at last that they had one college that truly represented the spirit of the great metropolis. Crowds of enthusiastic New Yorkers flocked to cheer our returning heroes and to hear the Columbia president's speech on that momentous occasion.
'...I believe, gentlemen, that although we have had men of brains here who could compete with those of any other institution, and I believe that we have been in that position for the last century, still I believe that in one day you have done more to make Columbia College known than all your predecessors have done since the foundation of the college, by this great triumph.' " Columbia students since have done things to make their institution even better known. The "great triumph," as it is described above in a Columbia rowing history, came in 1874, and was over the likes of Harvard, Yale and Wesleyan. This was during the university's first official crew season, though students had been rowing boats on an informal basis the year before.
The crest of the wave was reached on July 4, 1878. Four guys from Columbia are sitting on the Thames River at Henley in their shell, which they've entered in the Visitors' Challenge Cup race, more for a lark than anything else. They can't win, but it doesn't hurt to enter, although it does hurt mightily to row. At any rate, the starter yells, "Ready all. Ready. Row!" and simultaneously with "Row" he fires his pistol. (The echo has long since died away.) The guys tear off down the Henley course at a little over 40 strokes a minute. Five minutes later they can't believe they were ever interested in rowing and really wish they were dead. Eight minutes and 42 seconds later they've moved 1 5/16 miles down the river, just the boat with them in it, no freight or anything, but they've blown everybody's minds and the rest of their life is going to be downhill.
"The victory of the Columbia four came as a complete surprise to the entire world," The New York Times dispatch says. "The Columbians have won the only boat race ever gained by an American crew in England and are today the heroes of Henley.... The crew of Oxford, fully two lengths behind, was so completely exhausted that their boat, uncontrolled, was demolished on the shore." Do you want to know what the mayor of New York did this time? He presented Columbia with a document praising "the gallant four: Jasper T. Goodwin, Henry T. Ridabock, Cyrus Edson and Edward E. Sage, who so manfully held up the honor of their native land on the anniversary of its natal day, at the capital of a nation from which a century ago we won our political independence and which, until this victory of Columbia College, claimed to be our superior in manly sports and athletic games."
Columbia's crew never did anything like it again, perhaps because insidious distractions began to rear their heads. The Titanic sank. A graduated income tax was passed. The entire 1917 season was canceled "because of World War." (Somehow it seems that world war could as well be rain, a totally unremarkable phenomenon unless coincident with a regatta, when it becomes irritating.) Nonetheless, one feels sure that the oarsmen dutifully trundled off to join the Lafayette Escadrille.
As long as we're into quoting old stuff at length, laughing it up about how people talked funny in the old days and everything, check this out from Yachting and Rowing, Chambers' Useful Handbooks � 1855.
"It is often alleged that a fondness for athletic exercises is apt to induce our youths to neglect objects of higher importance and to waste upon the training of the body that time which might be more profitably applied to the cultivation of the mind. And in some cases this may be true." But not generally. It seems that everybody from Socrates through Alexander the Great to Rollo the Ganger was a jock. "A fondness for such exercises, and an ambition to excel in them, is one of the surest preventatives against dissipation. For excellence in these amusements is utterly incompatible with sensual indulgence; and of none of them is this more true than of rowing."
All that considered, it is hardly surprising that at Columbia College today rowing is not, as it were, what is happening. At Columbia when you say "race" people don't think of crew. They may think of how Columbia University is making a white enclave out of the once-integrated community of Morningside Heights. They may think of how the college itself is less than 4% black. They may think about unsatisfied demands for the black studies program or about demands that Columbia should serve rather than exploit the people of Harlem or that Columbia should not be a slumlord. They may think about certain American enterprises against yellow people that Columbia supports with war research. They may think about trustees' investments in South Africa. But they do not think about boats.
About 800 students seized buildings last spring in order that the university should stop serving the narrow interest of the people who run it. The university was not about to change its way, so what is euphemistically known as a "confrontation" took place.