The nation's best oarsmen were moving in fast company last week as the top college crews on both sides of the continent met on lakes in Worcester, Mass. and Seattle to settle the eastern and the western sprint championships. In all, 20 college crews were involved in the varsity races—13 on Worcester's Lake Quinsigamond, seven on Seattle's Lake Washington, but as far as the top contenders were concerned, the contests might have been dual meets.
In Worcester, Coach Paul Quinn's high-precision heavyweight eight from the U.S. Naval Academy was facing the only other unbeaten crew in the East for the first time. There was little doubt who were the chief rivals in the race as Navy and Cornell headed out in a mad dash across the Worcester lake virtually alone. With only 200 meters of the short 2,000-meter course left to go, the two Crews were bow to bow. Then, pulling a furious 41-strokes-to-the-minute beat, Navy pulled ahead to cross the line a mere five feet in front of its rival.
West Coast dopesters, attempting to predict the results of the Western Sprints on Lake Washington, had put the University of California first, with Washington fighting off British Columbia for second place and Stanford, UCLA, Long Beach State and Oregon State trailing. As it turned out, this was pretty close to accurate—except for the winner.
Washington, traditionally a slower-stroking crew, had worked relentlessly to lift its cadence to the flat-out frenzy required for sprint racing. "They're pulling these sprints now the way dash men run the 100," said Coach Fil Leanderson before the race. "Just go go all the time. And you've got about the same chance to recover if you goof."
May 28, 1961
On the morning of the race California Coach Jim Lemmon talked philosophically about the sport of competitive rowing. He noted a predominance of science majors and good students among college crews, possibly because the sport "appeals to the type of guy who's not afraid to work." Lemmon also likened the working of a crew to that of the hand: "My hand can't make a fist without all five fingers, and a crew can't win without support from all nine members."
Six hours later Lemmon stood before the television set in a stuffy room in Washington's boathouse and saw Washington, not California, close its hand into a fist. Slow starting in the dual meet, Washington kicked away from the mark at well over 40 strokes a minute, while Cal fought to stay abreast. Washington figured a lead at the halfway mark would hold up right through the finish, so they set the beat at a hard-driving 36 and held it there. Cal threatened to take the lead any number of times but never made it. One serious challenge came with 500 meters to go. "We were four beats up," recalled Washington Coxswain Ron Wolfkill, "and they began closing the gap. All of a sudden Schmidt, at stroke, looked over toward one of the returning fours and gave them a big grin. I pretty nearly flipped—Cal right on our neck and him that casual—I started screaming at the top of my voice: 'sprint, sprint.' "
The Washington boat shot ahead with such force that a student told Wolfkill later, "It looked like you sat on a tack." The tack proved just sharp enough. Seconds from the finish line, Cal pulled up even and, some witnesses swear, even nudged her bow out front. But Washington drove right back in front and held on, crossing the line in 6:32.3, just two-tenths of a second ahead.
In the TV room at the starting line, where the coaches and press had gathered to watch, no one spoke for the six and a half minutes of the race. But as the leaders flashed across the line, Washington Freshman Coach John Bisset, varsity coxswain three years earlier, simply let loose. He jumped on top of head coach Fil Leanderson, pounded him on the back and arms and sobbed, "Fil, Fil, you did it, you old s.o.b." Leanderson looked pleased but embarrassed, and Cal Coach Jim Lemmon looked surprised. By the stiff-lipped, undemonstrative standards of crew coaching, this was a distasteful display. Bisset hastily recovered and apologized to losing Coach Lemmon.
British Columbia stayed with the winners right to the end, but its crew obviously lacked competitive practice. The UBC season began only three weeks ago, after a full month of writing exams, and the sprints was the team's first real race. Although UBC's 1960 crew had captured a silver medal in the Olympics, only one of the returning Olympians had come out for the sport again. "Four of the fellows are married now," explained the team manager, "and the others want to improve their grades."