The year was 1973 and Northeastern had just captured the U.S. rowing championship at the Henley Royal Regatta on England’s River Thames, besting the University of Wisconsin by a boat length.

The eight-man crew was jubilant—but they still had one race to go. This one, to be held the very next day, was for the Grand Challenge Cup, the most coveted trophy in the world of rowing.
As if that wasn’t enough drama, their opponent was a battle-tested crew from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev had vowed to “bury” America, communism was advancing through the world, and the Soviet Union was viewed as an evil empire.

“My experiences with the guys from the Russian boat flew counter to the stories I had been told back home,” says Brian O’Connor, S’75, who has remained in contact with one member of the Russian crew. “They were regular guys like us who were committed to rowing.”

Jack Irving, S’76, had a slightly different impression. He recalls a stark difference in the personalities of the two crews, noting that “we were easygoing American college kids and the Russians were quiet, professional, and seemed to be a very imposing force.”

The Huskies came close to defeating the Soviets on that fateful Sunday. Behind, but closing in fast, “we were making up a seat with every stroke and could hear the roar of the crowd as we made our way to the race’s final quarter mile,” recalls John Maslowski, DMSB’74. “We just ran out of water.”

According to O’Connor, the matchup against Wisconsin the day before had sapped their strength. “It was the hardest race I ever rowed,” he says. “Afterward, I was unable to open my fingers to get my hands off the oars.”

Winning a national championship and placing second in the world is no small accomplishment, so this July all but one member of the 1973 crew returned to Henley to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their race and take a ceremonial row down the Thames. Over the last four decades, the tightknit gang of rowers has remained close. “My best buddies are my rowing buddies,” says Maslowski, who is the godfather of one of O’Connor’s children. “We’re like brothers.”

Jason Kornwitz, AS’08, is a staff writer and editor.