The Medal

A Rowing Favorite Since 1965

 By Vanessa Nason – Posted on October 18, 2015

For one weekend every October, world-class athletes from across the globe take on the Head Of The Charles Regatta–one of the most time-honored traditions in all of rowing, with one of the most desirable rewards.

Extremely difficult to obtain and iconic in design, the Head Of The Charles medal’s look and prestige remain unchanged since its inception 51 years ago.

Today one of the most sought after prizes in all of rowing, its roots trace back to early 1965 when Howard McIntyre, one of the competition’s founders, asked his friend and Princeton faculty member Joseph Brown to create something special for the winners. The medal Brown returned was the same as the one seen today: an aerial view of a rower, narrow and angular in design, with “The Head Of The Charles” inscribed at the top. Simple and memorable, the prize today carries history, tradition and an honor among those in the rowing world.

“From an athlete’s standpoint it’s an award I’d sell my firstborn to get,” said Katie Donnelly, laughing. Both a rower and a co-chair for the awards committee, her passion for this day is almost palpable. “The high caliber of athletes makes it so exciting,” she explained. “When you win Head Of The Charles, you’re among some of the top athletes in the world.”

But, as Kate Osterman explains, it’s not just the medal’s prestige that makes people yearn after it–it’s the atmosphere surrounding the event itself.

“This is America’s favorite rowing festival,” said Osterman, also a rower and a co-chair for the awards committee. “It’s not fall without the Head Of The Charles, it’s not college rowing without the Head Of The Charles.” There’s a reputation, there’s a history, and, as she says, there’s just something about this event, something inherently personal. “This regatta just matters.”

These are sentiments shared by Jill Gardner, who won this year in the women’s veteran II event, for racers 65-69. Gardner was no stranger to the medal hanging from her neck. This is the second year in a row she’s emerged victorious in the vets event, and in 1980 she became the first woman’s masters single winner. “It means I’m still hanging on,” she said. “When you get to a certain age, that’s all you want, and this medal is a sign I’m still hanging on.” Her smile never faded and she didn’t miss a beat when she said she’d be back on the water next year.

Dan Gorriaran and Mike Smith are also familiar with this prize. Winning in the senior masters double division this year, they have now won 11 out of the 13 times they have competed together. Oddly enough, they did not begin their Head Of The Charles career as a team.

“We met in ‘99 racing against each other,” said Gorriaran. They were always close, within about five seconds of each other. Finally, in 2003, they decided to team up. That year they set the record for masters double, a record that still stands. “I love this race,” said Gorriaran. “This is why we trained all year.”

“And the training starts tomorrow,” said Smith, smiling.

Interestingly enough, the team trains separately, Gorriaran in Rhode Island and Smith in Pennsylvania. They don’t even get together until the day before the Head of the Charles. “It’s a magic boat,” said Gorriaran. “It just works.”

That magic has also helped them secure the record for the senior masters double.

For Mag Donaldson and her team of rowers from the Marin Rowing Association in the San Francisco Bay Area, winning their medal was surreal. “It’s the first time a women’s boat with eight people and an average age of 70 [competed],” she said. When they assembled their team in February, Donaldson said it was with the goal of having the HOCR recognizing the veterans category within the senior masters eights race. Now they stand at the finish line with medals in their hands. “The fact that we as 70 year olds could do this,” she said. “We’ve been breaking barriers our whole lives, and we’re still doing it.”

The renown of the medal transcends age, time and location. It is known universally throughout the sport. When Osterman recently visited her old high school, she said the students “cared less about their college applications” and more about their chance to someday compete In the Head Of The Charles. And for Donnelly, even working with the awards committee is exciting.

“Rivalries fall away,” she said. “Whoever wins, it’s always super special and really exciting. It’s great for us to be a part of that for them.”

For many in the sport of rowing, the banks of the Charles and the crisp Cambridge weather is the most important arena in the whole of the sport. It’s unlike any other. It retains a sense of magic and importance, and it remains as the most significant.

“It’s like, yeah, Olympic medals are nice,” said Osterman, “but did you win a Head of the Charles?”

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Make this year’s Head Of The Charles® a success. There are many opportunities to get involved over race weekend and before.