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Henley-on-Thames Regatta

So I watched with unalloyed joy as the Dartmouth eight creamed its first competitor, the Hollandia Roeiclub from the Netherlands, by more than two lengths. I hurried back to the sheds to find the team relieved but hardly callithumping. The men (no longer boys) were already preparing for the match the following day with the dreaded Yale, and the oarsmen looked even grimmer than they had before the race.

The next day, I rode out in the umpire's launch, which trails the racing boats, accompanied by the Yale coach. His chatty confidence continued until halfway through the race—about three minutes—at which point his team had fallen behind by half a boat length. After seven minutes, he stepped out of the umpire's boat, a forced smile straining his face. Dartmouth had pulled off the unthinkable—beaten Yale by more than a length.

On the 27th Sunday of the year (the day the finals are always held), what the New York Times later called "the most exciting race of the day" broke into action at a cloudy, cool 2:40 p.m. One-third of the way, Princeton led by a half-length, then by three-quarters, and seemed to be breaking away. Gradually Dartmouth gained, but never drew even, not at the halfway mark, the mile-and-an-eighth, or a hundred yards from the end. But at the last moment, the upstarts from Hanover somehow pulled across the finish line first, winning by what is called a canvas (about two feet) and defeating the best team on the East Coast.

The normally restrained onlookers burst into catcalls and applause—the race had been so brilliant. Back at the sheds, havoc erupted. We cheered the boat as it docked, and the victors peeled out—one rower with a bad back had to be lifted from the shell, another rolled onto the dock in agony, a third leaned over to throw up into the river. What appears to the casual spectator an elegant and graceful activity—boats gliding silently by under Constable skies—belies the effort and strain the sport requires. But most were simply exultant: they embraced, cheered, threw themselves and one another (and even their coach) into the Thames. Frank cried in his mother's arms, Eddie in mine—they are emotional boys, thank God—and even the customarily reserved Coach Armstrong struggled to fight back tears. The hoopla on the dock lasted nearly an hour. A dinghy motored by, and several Brits hollered, "Three cheers for Dartmouth!" The Princeton team came next, and everyone lined up and shook hands. I am told—and the size of Frank's headache the next day substantiates it—that the neighboring pubs were visited well past their normal closing hours that night.

Jonathan Reynolds is a playwright and screenwriter, and a columnist for the New York Times.

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