A drenching, overnight rain melted the wind on Cayuga last Saturday for the Carnegie Cup Regatta and, when the freshman seconds started down the willow-lined inlet to the course on the sprawling lake, only the whirlpools from the bite of eight oars marred the glassy calm of the water.
"I've never seen it so smooth," said Georges Cointe, the Cornell trainer. "The times should be fast today." He stood on the ramp which led from the Cornell boathouse down to the water and looked after the fast-disappearing eights gliding around the bend. He was deeply tanned, his black hair flecked with silver at the temples. He spoke of the crews in a soft French accent, which had not seen Paris in 25 years.
"These kids—you don't know what they go through in this sport. I'm a trainer. I've been a trainer so long that the kids call me Uncle George. I've worked on the football players, the lacrosse players, Rugby—anything you want—but nobody takes the physical beating an oarsman takes. He dies twice in every race. The first time at the quarter-mile he's spent and his lungs are burning from the initial effort of overcoming the inertia of a 60-foot shell. He wishes he could slump over his oar, but somehow he reaches down deep inside and comes up with new life. He settles to the stroke, maybe 30 or 31 a minute. The rhythm helps. He revives. He dies again in that last sprint for the finish. The coxswain steps up the stroke to maybe 35 or 37, maybe even 40. The other boats are pulling up steadily. This is the painful death. The stroke steps up, and the other seven oars meet it. He is part of a human machine and, if he can't keep the stroke, the machine breaks down. He is dead, but somehow, subconsciously, the instinct wrought from nine months of training takes over and he meets the cox's cruel demand. And finally he takes the last stroke, and the shell glides across the finish line and he slumps, utterly exhausted, knowing he has nothing left, that he could not have stroked once more. He gulps hard for air to cool his lungs, while the muscles in his arms and legs quiver uncontrollably. This is a magnificent athlete who has given everything in his body to the race. I'm the fencing coach here and I should be loyal to my own sport, but these crewmen—you just can't help admiring them."
Uncle George had been talking a long time. The freshman seconds were sweeping up the inlet toward the boat-house, their race over.
Someone on the dock called out for the winner. "Cornell: 5:08," was the answer. "Good time," murmured Uncle George. "It will be fast this afternoon. Maybe a day for a record."
By 2:30 the crews were hauling their shells to the water. Cornell, Yale, Princeton, and their specially invited guest, Syracuse. Cornell, with seven oars and a coxswain, back with its 1956 Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship boat, was the favorite. Yale, with four oars and the cox held over from the Olympic championship boat, was expected to be the toughest competition for the Big Red.
The freshmen went out first. Yale won by 2½ lengths. "Cornell caught two crabs in the last quarter mile," said Uncle George. "You know what a crab is in rowing? It can lose you anywhere from half a length to a length. It occurs when an oar goes in the water at an angle. The blade heads right for the bottom. At 20 miles an hour the force is so great that the upward swing of the oar handle can knock a man right out of the boat."
The jayvee crews went off at 3:30. Cornell won easily. Yale was second.
Now it was time for the big race for the Carnegie Cup. The winner, everyone agreed, would be the best crew in the country. The IRA referee Clifford (Tippy) Goes, said that even the fourth boat home would be a good crew, for these were the best in the East, if not the country.
Cornell and Princeton had magnificent starts. The two shells shot out stroke for stroke and had gained almost a length over Yale and Syracuse by the time they settled to their pace.
With a half mile to go over the two-mile course, Yale, in third place, stepped up to a 35. Cornell, by this time, had a length of open water on The Blue. Yale moved out, passed Princeton and began pulling up on Cornell, but it was too late. At the finish, Cornell still had a full length on the Olympic champs and had indicated pretty decisively that the Big Red crew is the best in the country.
In winning, Cornell also became the first crew ever to break 10 minutes on Cayuga in a regatta in three-quarters of a century of racing on the lake. The winning time was 9:58.2. Yale was clocked in 10:02.2, which broke the old course record of 10:07.
Back at the boathouse after the race, raspy-voiced Tippy Goes, an old Syracuse coxswain, was pumping hands and telling everyone within shouting distance that the Cornell team reminded him of the crews he used to cox "back in 1911, '12, '13 and '14. Not as tough maybe, but damned near."
Uncle George, standing close by, said: "From him that's praise. Nobody ever gets as good as an oldtimer, until they become oldtimers. This rowing—it never leaves you. Once you get it in your blood, you'll want to be buried in a single scull."