Eight rangy young men bent to the last long stroke, eight red-tipped oars bit into the water, and as the fragile shell glided easily across the finish the little miracle of Lake Quinsigamond was complete. Cornell had won the heavyweight varsity championship in the biggest one-day rowing regatta ever held. Harvard, the overpowering favorite, had fallen. High-stroking Navy, a menacing contender, had not kept up.
It would be stretching the truth to say that Cornell's victory in the 15th annual spring championships of the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges was a stupendous upset-that it was something on the order of Centre College's unthinkable upset of the Crimson football team in 1921. For one thing, Stork Sanford, the veteran Cornell coach, is known to be a shrewd old fox with a knack for making the most of a short training season. Lake Cayuga, high above which Cornell stands, freezes over early and thaws late, so Sanford is perennially a training jump behind most of his rivals. But he can lose a race one week and then beat your brains out the next.
Additionally, the course was a short one—the Olympic distance of 2,000 meters (39 feet less than one and one-quarter miles). Short courses tend to be great equalizers. "You have a long start and a long sprint with a few strokes in between," as MIT Coach Jack Frailey says.
But as a modest miracle Sanford's achievement last Saturday on the deep, narrow, tree-rimmed trough at Worcester, Mass. will do very nicely. Especially since Cornell walloped Harvard's heavies twice during the day. Most especially since Sanford won with what was, except for one oarsman and the coxswain, his junior varsity the week before.
Now the Big Red must be regarded as a serious challenger in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta June 18 on Lake Onondaga at Syracuse and, above all, the Olympic trials July 7-9 on the same water.
Until Saturday, Olympic rowing fever (on eastern thermometers, at least) was highest at Harvard, Navy and Penn. None of the three had been defeated this season—Harvard not since a loss to Yale at the end of the 1958 season. Besides a string of 12 straight varsity triumphs, including the championship of England's Henley Regatta last year, Harvard had put together no fewer than 24 straight lightweight varsity victories.
It was a big, close-knit, savvy crew that Coach Harvey Love brought in from the Charles River to Lake Quinsigamond, and Friday found him in a cautiously optimistic mood. Wearing a battered felt hat with brim upturned, a rain-streaked trench coat and a small, neat mustache, he paused between workouts to tick off some Harvard assets: average weight a solid 183 pounds, five holdovers from last year's crew and a tremendous stroke in Perry Boyden, a craggy-faced 6-foot 4-inch, 187-pound junior out of Prides Crossing, Mass.
Perhaps because of Harvard's rowing eminence, Love was thinking about the reputation of the Eastern sprints as a regatta for settling old scores: "Everybody is here so you go out and try to clobber the people who have beaten you in the past. However, I think our chances are good. I also think that several others can say the same thing."
Lou Lindsey, Navy's new coach, who like Love and Sanford is a product of western rowing (he was a cox at Cal, Love a cox at Washington, Sanford a Washington oarsman), had a couple of problems. "We've had rough water on the Severn all spring. As a result our blade work is very far behind what it should be. Our slide work, too. We will be in better condition than some for this time of year but won't be rowing as well."
For some reason, Lindsey said, the Navy shell just didn't move except at an ultra-high beat. "From 29½ up to about 32 strokes a minute we don't go anywhere. Against Princeton the other day we rowed sky high. I didn't think we'd be able to keep it up, but we were doing 34-35 into the wind at the finish—and we were strong."
Lindsey's stroke and No. 1 strong-boy on a crew that has the heft of Harvard is the heavyweight boxing champion of the Naval Academy. Appropriately, he is from Tarzana, Calif. His fighting weight is 220 pounds, but for rowing he has sweated down to 198. His name is Joe Baldwin, and Lindsey describes him in one word—massive. "I think I have seen him tired," Lindsey said, "but I have never seen him falter."
If Lindsey had problems consider those that plagued Joe Burk, former Penn star, a brilliant prewar single sculler (U.S. and Henley champion) and present Penn coach. Things weren't really out of hand when the 37-man Penn expedition had to jolt through turbulent weather in a chartered DC-4 from fogbound Boston, their plane's original destination, to Windsor Locks, Conn, near Springfield, Mass. Or on the 85-mile bus trip to Worcester. Or even when their Worcester hotel assigned them just six rooms. Those things could have happened on any Friday the 13th. But Burk was convinced it wasn't his day when he got a frantic call from one of his freshmen who had gone to check into a room.
"There's a sick woman in here," the freshman reported, "and she won't leave."
She stayed, the Penn men muddled through, some going to other hotels. The varsity—all nine men—bunked into one room.
"The principle of togetherness, you see," Burk said resignedly.
Unfortunately for Burk, the principle was applied with more success by Cornell on race day. It was a long day, involving 63 eight-oared shells and 567 crewmen from 13 colleges in a total of 18 races. EARC officials were 99.44% sure that so large a rowing armada had never before been assembled for one day's competition.
Under an overcast morning sky, the crews in the qualifying heats came swinging down the pond-smooth lake, site of the 1920, 1932 and 1952 Olympic tryouts. Light and heavyweight freshman shells, light and heavy junior varsities, lightweight varsities—Harvard, Navy and Cornell were qualifying in every category they entered: Penn, possibly still shaken by the previous day's miseries, was barely making it here and there; Wisconsin (last year's IRA champion), Boston U. and Rutgers were being shut out.
Then it was time for the big boats, and there was Navy high-stroking it out in the middle of the lake at 34, with Princeton moving smartly near the western shore. Navy sprinted in at 41, beating Princeton by three-quarters of a length as Penn squeaked home third ahead of Wisconsin and so managed to qualify for the finals. Navy's time, 6:23.1, was far behind the course record, 5:57.7, made by Navy in the 1952 Olympic trials (with a tailwind). With Saturday's headwind freshening, the record was obviously safe.
As the second varsity heat began the spectators still had no inkling that Cornell was preparing to savage Harvard. For most of the onlookers peering upcourse from the boathouse pavilion near the finish, the shells were not visible until near the halfway point. When they did appear, Cornell and Harvard were on opposite sides of the lake with five boats in between, making it impossible to judge positions truly. Finally, as they swept into the last third of the course, it became suddenly and gaspingly clear that Cornell had a handsome lead. Harvard, in fact, had a job holding off third-place Syracuse. Never really threatened, Cornell finished in 6:26.9, Harvard 6:29.8 and Syracuse 6:31.
The long Crimson string had been snapped. But had Harvard been playing it cozy to conserve energy for the finals? Most observers thought not, but a nagging shadow of a doubt remained through the afternoon as the overcast lifted and the breeze piped up and Harvard made a sweep of the lightweight finals (extending the lightweight varsity skein to 26). Navy won the heavyweight freshman race and Cornell the one for heavyweight jayvees.
CORNELL ALL THE WAY
Finally, the big race. When the shells were still specks in the distance a man with a stop watch yelled, "Navy's rowing 37, but I don't believe it." He checked again. "I get 'em at 36 this time, and now I believe it." Harvard was coming on smoothly at 30-31, Cornell about the same.
Cornell, as it developed later, had jumped off to a magnificent start, with Navy second and Harvard third. The Big Red held the lead all the way. Streaking over the last 200 yards, Cornell had a full length and a comfortable stretch of open water over the Harvard and Navy shells, which were prow and prow. Harvard's closing spurt saved second place by a foot or two, but Cornell was long gone, winning in 6:33.5. Harvard was clocked at 6:38.4, Navy 6:38.9.
Stork Sanford, a tall, gaunt, bespectacled man with the weathered look of a Grant Wood farmer, congratulated his men with a grin and a backslap. "We were only up to 32 at the finish," he said. "You normally expect to have to sprint more, but I can't complain. I don't think this crew is good enough yet for a tough sprint. We're going to have to learn how to sprint and that's for sure."
Soon Sanford was engulfed by a tide of handshakers. When the crowd thinned a bit he went on:
"We had our first race of the season last week [losing to Navy]. When we got back I took two time trials over 2,000 meters. The junior varsity won both trials by something like three lengths."
Hence the new Cornell varsity and thus a most spectacular rowing victory. As Sanford moved off, a voice called out, "Better start studying Italian." The voice belonged to Tip Goes, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee.