The History of  the Sport of Rowing

The sport of rowing has been in existence as long as humans have traveled the water by boat. The first reference to rowing as a sport, and not simply as a means of transportation, comes from a fifteenth century BC Egyptian funerary carving. The writer Virgil mentioned rowing as part of the funeral games for Aeneas. During the Middle Ages, Italian Carnevale often featured regatta races that pitted the nation’s best rowers against one another. Boatmen who offered taxi service across London’s Thames River give us the first glimpse of a modern rowing competition as the taxi operators competed with one another for monetary prizes put up by London’s guilds. Although there is no official record of when rowing was first brought to America, the first recorded race took place in New York Harbor in 1756. Once rowing was brought to America, it found its way into the sports programs of several of the country’s most prestigious colleges. Since the early 1800s, rowing has been a mainstay on U.S. college campuses and is easily the oldest intercollegiate sport in America.

The first rowed vessels made their appearance more than 4,000 years ago as a faster method of transporting people and goods over short distances. The first evidence we have of competitive rowing for leisure comes from 1430 BC Egypt. A funerary carving for Pharaoh Amenhotep II heralded the king for his prowess as a rower and details some of the competitions he won against rival Egyptian nobles. Upon the death of the mythic Greek hero Aeneas, the Greek story teller Virgil describes the funeral of Aeneas which included rowing as one of the funerary games. Rowing continued to be practiced for its economic and trade benefits throughout the Roman period and European Dark Ages, but rowing as a sport saw a major revival during the Middle Ages. Because the city is built directly on top of the Mediterranean Sea, Venice has long been at the epicenter of watercraft development. During the fourteenth century, the ancient sport of rowing saw a revival in the Carnevale regattas in which rowing teams and individual rowers raced the narrow canals and waterways of Venice. The first modern rowing competitions can be traced to renaissance England, where guilds sponsored boats to compete in the “Lord Mayor’s Water Procession” beginning in 1454. The “Doggett’s Coat and Badge” race is the oldest continuously held boat race in the world, the race between London Bridge and Chelsea Harbor has been held annually since 1715. The sport of rowing made it to the Americas in the 1700s, where the first recorded race was held in New York in 1756. For as long as rowing has been a widely practiced sport, it has been closely associated with college athletics. One of the oldest college teams in existence is the Oxford men’s rowing team, which began competing in 1815. This close relationship with colleges carried over to America where prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale, and the U.S. service academies immediately took to the spot, giving rowing a permanent foothold in America.

When Yale challenged Harvard to the first intercollegiate boat race in 1852, the sport rocketed to prevalence and, for several decades, outpaced football in terms of popularity. The year 1903 brought the formation of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (later joined the NCAA) as the world’s first scholastic organization devoted to the oversight of rowing. With the advent of rowing as an Olympic sport in 1900, the United States was finally able to showcase its rowing talents to the world, winning gold in the first two competitions in 1900 and 1904. After consecutive wins by the English team in 1908 and 1912, the U.S. team ceased using professional rowing teams to compete at the Olympic level, instead calling on the best college team to represent the U.S. at the Olympics in 1920. The change paid off as the team from the U.S. Naval Academy beat the English team and recaptured the gold medal for the U.S. This success led to gold medal victories in rowing for the top U.S. college team in every Olympic Games from 1920 to 1948. But the immense early success of US college rowing programs could not protect them from being overshadowed under the growing popularity of college sports such as basketball and especially football.

Rowing was the most popular college sport in America 80 years ago. But the last century has brought a significant decline in the number of programs and scholarships offered at the NCAA level. Today, 91 college programs officially recognize the sport of rowing, and the NCAA allows 20 scholarships per school to be devoted to rowing. Despite the decline in popularity over the last several decades, rowing coaches are constantly on the lookout for high school talent to bolster their rosters. Getting into contact with these coaches is the key to receiving a rowing scholarship. Athleticscholarships.net has worked with hundreds of rowers over the past decade, and we have been successful in finding scholarships for the vast majority of them. We know exactly what coaches want to see when scouting a high school rower, and our database of coaches allows us to put you in direct contact with every NCAA rowing coach.

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