A History of Penn Lightweight Rowing

Penn Lightweight History

In 1917, Joseph Wright, the newly-appointed crew coach at the University of Pennsylvania, advocated a special race for rowers weighing 160 pounds or lighter. Thus, the first lightweight crew in the United States was organized.

A professional oarsman from Canada, Wright was convinced in his first year of collegiate coaching that it was wise to select heavy men for his boats, as they could produce more power from fewer strokes, had the necessary stamina for the four-mile races and allowed the boat to ride more easily because of the balance factor. Since the heavier men were being chose for these varsity seats, Wright organized a "lightweight crew," thereby giving the lighter men a chance to compete on a regular basis.

The 150-pound boats were an immediate success. From 1919 to 1928, Penn suffered just one loss. From its shining start, Penn continued to row with authority and, in the early 1950s, embarked upon yet another undefeated streak which would stretch 23 races.

In 1951, the Quakers capped off the year with their first win at the Thames Challenge Cup, a feat repeated the following year when Penn defeated Christ College of Cambridge by one-and-a-half quarter lengths. More remarkable was the fact that, in 1951, the University had discontinued lightweight rowing, but an enthusiastic group of 14 oarsmen persuaded the University to modify its decision. They then prevailed upon Al Lawn, captain of the 1950 heavyweight crew, to volunteer his services as coach. The crew first lost to Yale, then beat Princeton and headed for the EARC Lightweight Championship.

In a practice trip the day before the regatta, the Penn shell was swamped and damaged. An MIT boatman worked through the night to repair the shell for the Penn crew, and Penn worked through the day to take the Joseph Wright Trophy and the Lightweight Championship. After winning its final American race against Cornell, Penn, with the help of Crawford C. Madeira, sent the crew to Henley. After five races in four days against heavyweight, the Thames Challenge Cup was Penn’s.One week later, the crew competed in the 64th Annual Hamburg International Regatta in Germany and won both races it entered.Lightweight crew was at Penn to stay.

Penn strung together another impressive streak of rowing 20 years later, winning 26 straight cup races from 1975-78.