A shifting demographic for storied Yale crew: International athletes elevate the Elis
International rowers increasingly represent the White and Blue, composing about three times as much of Yale’s three varsity rowing teams as they did 10 years ago.
At Yale, in the Ivy League and across the country, no college sport maintains as much history as crew.
In 1843, Yale started the first college boat club in America, and on an August day nine years later, the Elis challenged Harvard on the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Their race marked the nation’s first intercollegiate athletic event.
But even for a team with a 177-year history, the game still changes. Over the past decade, all three of Yale’s varsity crew teams — the heavyweight men, the lightweight men and the women — have experienced a demographic shift. Increasingly, international student-athletes are representing the White and Blue, composing about three times more of Yale’s rowing teams as they did 10 years ago.
Although nuanced aspects of each team help account for the international spike, those across the sport — including Yale heavyweight head coach Steve Gladstone, women’s head coach Will Porter and lightweight head coach Andy Card — agreed that rowing tends to be more popular and better supported in countries like Australia, Britain, Germany and New Zealand. Communication between coaches and prospective student-athletes abroad has never been more fluid, and a lack of collegiate rowing options abroad have driven top international talent to Yale and other major programs.
“It’s across college rowing, [but] Yale might get in more,” Penn heavyweight head coach Bryan Volpenhein said. “I think European and international countries have strong rowing programs and a strong rowing culture, and as it becomes more popular, people start to look for ways to continue their rowing. Good rowers are going to look for good programs to go to, and the U.S. has a really strong collegiate system.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Gladstone said he first saw international rowers enter the Ivy League in the late 1980s as the coach at Brown. But the shift has been most significant over the last decade, Gladstone said, especially for the heavyweights. During the 2009–10 school year, international students comprised just over 20 percent of the team. This season, the Yale heavyweights are the most international team on campus — nearly 60 percent of the 2019–20 group hails from countries abroad.
Over the course of the decade, the Yale heavyweight team has also become the most international rowing squad in the Ancient Eight, with Harvard and Princeton falling close behind at 48 and 41.2 percent, respectively. The Crimson heavyweights maintained the greatest international population in 2010 — and nearly every crew in the Ivy League has increased its proportion of international rowers since, including the lightweights and women. Columbia’s crews represent one of the few exceptions.
A little under 10 percent of the Yale lightweight team was international in 2009–10, a figure that has grown to about 25 percent in 2020. The Yale women saw its own proportion of international rowers dip below 10 percent during the 2011–12 school year, but now field a team that is more than 35 percent international.
Heatmap of hometowns of Yale student athletes
At Princeton, the lightweight men’s team is the most geographically diverse in the conference, having undergone a jump in international athletes from under 10 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2020. In the league as a whole, Yale has the fourth most international lightweight roster, mere percentage points behind Penn and Brown. For women’s teams at Brown and Dartmouth, which both did not feature a single international rower in 2010, the decade has brought a 10 percentage point increase.
Yale crew accounts for many of the international Elis that make Yale’s student-athlete population more international than Yale College as a whole. 11 percent of the College hails from abroad, according to enrollment statistics from the 2018–19 school year, while about 18 percent of athletes are from countries outside the U.S. Athletes make up just under 22 percent of the international student population, while they only comprise about 13 percent of the overall student population.
Heatmap of hometowns of all Yale students
Data analyzed by the News shows that when compared to the College collectively, the proportion of athletes from a host of foreign countries is at least double the proportion of current students from those same areas: Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, South Africa, Switzerland, Israel, Brazil, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Romania, Serbia, Spain, The Netherlands, and Ukraine. The same is true for only one U.S. state, Indiana.
Of all Bulldog varsity squads for the 2019-2020 season, the heavyweight crew team has the highest proportion of international students, and lightweight and women’s crew are also above the average among all teams. Just over half of Yale’s varsity teams (16 out of 31) have a higher international proportion of international students than Yale College as a whole.
Beyond the data
HEAVYWEIGHT CREW: THE MOST INTERNATIONAL TEAM AT YALE
Crew has historically dominated much of the sports scene in countries such as Britain, Australia, Germany and New Zealand. With boat clubs in almost every town, these countries are filled with promising talent. Yale heavyweight crew head coach Gladstone said that many aspiring athletes abroad, especially physically mature males, often turn to crew in the absence of sports such as American football and basketball.
“The traditions have been around for a couple hundred years,” Gladstone said. “I think that’s the explanation. In those countries, rowers can start in the sixth or seventh grade. They start when they are very young.”
Massachusetts native and outgoing 2019–20 lightweight captain Brian O’Donnell ’20, on the other hand, did not start rowing until ninth grade. O’Donnell said he often hears about international collegiate rowers starting the sport earlier than most of their American counterparts, though he said that he lacks any concrete evidence.
Penn coach Vorphenhein, a three-time U.S. Olympian and a gold medalist at the 2004 Games in Athens, told the News he had barely heard of rowing before quickly getting hooked in college. A walk-on at Ohio State, which today fields a club men’s team and a varsity women’s team, Volpenhein began crew at school. He added that many young American rowers are now starting to row as early as their European counterparts — around middle school — as well.
The sport continues to mature in the United States. Gladstone — who arrived at Yale to lead the heavyweight program in August 2010 after immensely successful runs at Brown and Cal Berkeley — called the growth in American boat clubs “exponential.” When he arrived at Cal, there was only one high school rowing program at Berkeley High School. Now, at least eight clubs operate in the Bay Area, he said.
The timing of his arrival at Yale and the subsequent spike in international heavyweight rowers is unlikely to be a coincidence. Under Gladstone, who was already considered one of the best coaches in the country upon his start in New Haven, the heavyweights have emerged as one of the foremost programs in the country. In 2017, the squad captured its first ever International Rowing Association (IRA) national championship, and its dominance continued in 2018 and 2019 with two more IRA crowns.
“Steve is a legendary coach,” O’Donnell said. “He’s probably the greatest rowing coach of all time. He’s in the conversation, if not the greatest coach, so he knows how to turn a program [around] and guys know if Steve’s got control of that program it’s gonna be really well-run … he’s gonna get guys from wherever.”
Yale heavyweight crew head coach Steve Gladstone (Yale Athletics)
The strength of Yale’s program — and its institutional prestige — is a key selling point for international recruits. However, the draw for athletes is not simply the allure of standing atop the podium. Yale, along with its peer institutions, offers an experience unavailable to many international athletes in their home countries. Coaches like Card and Gladstone said collegiate rowing programs abroad are minimal. Because education systems typically do not incorporate athletics, crew training and attending a premier university are often mutually exclusive.
“Think of yourself as a student from Sydney,” Gladstone said. “You want to get a good education because you are a good student and you really love rowing. You can do that in the U.S.”
Since Gladstone’s first foray into international recruiting in the 1980s, technology has also revolutionized communication with potential athletes. Rather than paying for expensive long-distance calls, today’s coaches can access data online from competitions like the World Rowing Junior Championships before narrowing their focus to a select group of prospects that align with the athletic and academic goals of the team.
A DIFFERENT LANDSCAPE FOR LIGHTWEIGHT MEN AND THE WOMEN
On the lightweight side, coaches face unique recruiting challenges. The U18 Junior Championships feature no lightweight events, which deprives coaches like Yale’s Card the opportunity to see all of the upcoming talent in a single venue. Without this centralized platform, Card and his assistants must devise alternative ways to seek out the most promising prospects.
“This means trying to find the lighter kid who can make their high school or club heavyweight team … the over-achieving type who, through skill and guile, can compete against bigger clunkier oarsmen and hold their own,” Card said. “It’s a very bespoke system, we really look at each candidate closely.”
Although the lightweight squad has experienced an increase in foreign student athletes, the proportion remains far lower than that for the Yale heavyweights. To explain the discrepancy, Card cited the disproportionate attention placed on heavyweight rowing in foreign countries. However, with increased program publicity via streaming, Card anticipates an uptick in interest in collegiate lightweight rowing among internationals.
Coaches can now access information about high school rowers worldwide with ease, O’Donnell pointed out. With an internet connection, any prospective Eli can navigate to yalebulldogs.com and fill out a recruiting questionnaire with their academic data, rowing information, ergometer score, and more.
“[Compared to] 10, 20 years ago, one of the biggest things is the way the world’s more connected,” O’Donnell said. “You get the ability to even send videos of kids rowing so you can see how well they row in high school. It makes [it] a whole lot easier to communicate and for guys [to] get in contact with Ivy schools.”
Although men’s rowing is the oldest intercollegiate sport in America, it has never been associated with the NCAA. However, in 1996, women’s crew became an NCAA-sanctioned sport to help offset inequitable distribution of athletic scholarships prohibited under Title IX. Outside of the Ivy League, Division I women’s crew programs are currently allowed 20 full scholarships.
Before the NCAA’s decision in ’96, the women’s crew landscape looked very similar to the men’s side now, women’s coach Porter said. The Ivy League, Cal and Washington consistently dominated the national rankings. But after the NCAA allowed for the creation of fully-funded women’s programs, the sport exploded.
With well-supported programs popping up at Power Five conference schools such as Stanford, Texas, Michigan and Ohio State, the women’s recruiting landscape changed dramatically at the end of the century. According to Porter, these programs increasingly turned their attention to top international prospects interested in coming to the United States, a trend that has continued over the past two decades.
“Suddenly, you have a huge number of scholarship opportunities for women,” Porter said. “There just were not enough high school girls rowing in America to fill out all those seats, so a lot of those coaches expanded their searches abroad.”
Despite the recent rise, Porter does not expect the upward trend to continue in the coming years. Outside of slight fluctuations from year to year, Porter said he anticipates that the curve will flatten out around its current level.
“I think we’re up and running now on the women’s side,” Porter said. “Recruiting has expanded so much that there’s really nobody out in the world who’s available and not being identified.”
Others are not necessarily so sure, even though numbers each year might ebb and flow with the quality of rowers in a given class. At Penn, where the proportion of international heavyweight rowers has increased more than threefold since 2014, Vorpenhein believes the trend will continue as long as American collegiate rowing remains an attractive option for international athletes. And as O’Donnell put it, “The world’s only becoming more connected, right?”
Regardless of current or future demographics, Yale coaches have a simple goal in whom they hope to attract to New Haven: the best students and the most talented rowers, no matter where they come from.
“The nature of the sport hasn’t changed one iota in my 50 years,” Gladstone said. “The same mentality, the same work ethic, the same way is there. It doesn’t make any difference where these guys come from. The mentality is the same, and to me, that’s refreshing. It’s not refreshing, it speaks to human nature in these modern times when we talk so much about everyone’s differences. I don’t see it.”
“People often ask, if they’re coming from all over the place, do they bond? You bet they do. And they bond for life.”
About our data analysis
The News conducted a demographic analysis to compare the geographic distribution of the broader Yale student body with that of athletes. The analysis cross references team rosters from the Yale Athletics website with that of locations of the general Yale student population, aggregated at a state and country level to preserve student anonymity and privacy. Students who choose to remove their state or country from the student directory are excluded from the analysis.