BOSTON A giant in the world of sports died Tuesday.
Harry Parker spent more than 50 years coaching the men’s rowing team at Harvard University. Parker also spent much of that time coaching the U.S. national and Olympic teams.
Parker’s death has left many in the rowing community at a loss.
“It really is like God died and nobody knows what anything means now, because Harry was the sport,” said Bruce Smith, executive director of Community Rowing, the organization that has transformed rowing in Boston by making it accessible to everyone.
Parker helped raise millions of dollars to build the new Community Rowing boathouse on Nonantum Road. That boathouse, one of the two most beautiful on the river, is named after him.
Tiff Wood was part of a group of rowers, many of them once coached by Parker, who founded Community Rowing. More than 1,500 people row there now. But in 1985, the program had just a $4,000 budget and was based at the Harvard women’s boathouse, the Weld boathouse. Wood said Parker was extremely helpful in making the resources of Harvard available to Community Rowing in those early seasons.
“We were able to rent boats and space in the Weld boathouse in particular for the first couple of years,” Wood said. “And he was pretty good to Community Rowing in terms of being willing to sell us the group of shells that might be getting a little outdated for his program but were perfect for Community Rowing and doing so at a reasonable price.”
Wood’s quest to make the 1984 Olympic team coached by Parker was immortalized in David Halberstam’s book about rowing, “The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal.” But Wood first rowed for Parker at Harvard.
“Harry was, first and foremost, one of the greatest rowing coaches ever,” Wood said. “When you watch people row, there are probably 10 things that a good coach can see that they’re not doing quite right, but the hard part is to tell what’s the most important thing to get him to think about? Because if I tell him to try to fix all 10 at the same time, he’ll never be able to do it, and some of them are perhaps not that important, some are more stylistic than actually functional in terms of really making a boat go fast.”
Gregg Stone also rowed for Parker at Harvard, then coached the freshmen crew and rowed for the national team under Parker.
On the boat ramp at another beautiful boathouse in Boston, the Newell boathouse, the Harvard men’s boathouse, Stone recounted the turning point in Parker’s coaching career. Parker had what Stone calls a fairly undistinguished career as freshman coach. Then, in 1963, the varsity coach Harvey Love died, and Parker took over. The varsity did not win a single race the entire season.
“And the crew then retired to the training camp in New London to prepare for the four-miler against Yale where Harry taught them the German high-stroking technique, and Yale had finished second in the Eastern Sprints and was the heavy favorite,” Stone said. “Harvard went on to win that race by eight lengths. And Harry showed in that his innovation and his ability to convince people they could win, and his crews didn’t lose the Yale race for another 18 years.”
Paul Prioleau, my cousin, rowed for Parker on the 1980 Olympic team, and recalled his minimalist style.
“It’s funny, because he never really said much when we were training,” Prioleau said. “I remember one particular time when he started us off on a piece. He said, ‘Full pressure on this one,’ and then didn’t say anything and actually left the room for awhile and came back 45 minutes later. We were all just rowing along at full pressure wondering when it was going to stop.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge Parker’s rowers ever faced was not rowing. That’s what happened that year when President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Sean Coulgan was bow man for the eight-man boat.
“And Harry said, ‘The goals haven’t changed,'” Coulgan recalled. “‘We want to be the best in the world. Those who want to stay can stay. We’re going. Those who don’t want to stay can retire.’ Most of us stayed to fulfill our goal, which was to be the best in world. Whether someone gives us a medal to signify that really doesn’t make that much difference.”
At the other end of that boat, stroke seat, was Bruce Ibbetson.
“It was a political gesture at best using other people,” Ibbetson said. “We were the pawns and we all felt hurt that more intelligence wasn’t injected into that process. But we moved ahead. We said: ‘Look, we’ve been training all this time,’ and we didn’t stop; we kept going. We were already racing in Europe. He had picked us. We were the boat. We even told the State Department we want to go to Moscow anyway and they threatened to revoke our passports.”
The team raced in all the pre-Olympic regattas. On the boat ramp at Newell Thursday night, Kurt Somerville, who rowed at three seat, argued that they did prove themselves the best in the world.
“We did manage to beat all the other countries except for East Germany, which I think we now know was using performance-enhancing drugs,” Somerville said.
That experience, says bow man Sean Coulgan, forged a lifelong friendship among the men in that boat.
“I was on 10 U.S. national teams, and this is the only boat that gets together at least twice a year, sometimes three times a year.”
The boat gathered once again with Parker last weekend. Coulgan said it was fabulous.
“Fabulous and bittersweet, in that we all knew this was the last time we would see Harry, and at the same time, no one mentioned the elephant in the room, and we went out and rowed as best as we could and he drove his own motor boat,” Coulgan said.
Parker would have only two more days to live. A memorial service is being planned for August. Tiff Wood said he can’t imagine anyone in rowing who would not want to be there.