Every U.S. rowing regatta above the schoolboy level is, unofficially at least, an Olympic tryout. American oarsmen have only a little more than a year of practice left to recapture the Olympic supremacy in eight-oared shells that was theirs for 40 years until 1960. One evidence of their determination to do so is the increasing number of U.S. races scheduled for the Olympic distance of 2,000 meters. This was the length of the courses set for the two biggest regattas in the nation last week. Contending over this distance against a flotilla of the best U.S. crews on each coast was a prime Olympic challenger.
On Massachusetts' gloomy and rain-spattered Lake Quinsigamond, the world champion oarsmen from Germany's Ratzeburg Rowing Club (SI, May 20) were pitted against last year's IRA champions from Cornell and 13 other crews in the annual eastern sprints.
In the western championships on the choppy waters of Redwood Creek in California, the University of British Columbia crew, fresh from winning the Pan-American championship in S√£o Paulo, was matched with Washington and California and six other crews.
In both regattas the visiting crews were officially intruders and hence not eligible for the championships, but their presence and its suggestion of bigger international competition to come made them the shells to beat. Cornell's champions did just that to the hitherto undefeated Ratzeburgers in a qualifying round, and for a brief, blissful moment, U.S. international prestige was restored. But in the finals, with the weather improved, the Germans swept ahead on the Massachusetts lake at their unbelievable 50-beat stroke and crossed the finish line a full length ahead of the first American. Second-place Cornell had the satisfaction of winning the official championship, plus three out of the five remaining races.
Out West, U.S. rowers did somewhat better against a less formidable foreign threat. There the ominous Olympic shadow cast by the University of British Columbia was lightened by the tense old rivalry between the Huskies and the Golden Bears. These two crews had swept over the line in a quick one-two behind victorious Cornell at the IRA last year. They had rowed each other to a frustrating dead heat in an earlier race this year. Last week each was determined to beat the Canadians but, more important, each was determined to beat the other.
Before the rivalry could be properly settled, a few details of regattamanship had to be straightened out. This was the most ambitious western sprints to date (it included not only the heavyweight eights event but single, double and quadruple sculls races, schoolboy, club, featherweight, lightweight, freshmen and even ladies' races), and it was the first to be held on Redwood Creek. It is not surprising, then, that there was some confusion. At the start of one race communications broke down between the start and the finish, and an alarmed voice was heard to say over the P.A. system: "Frankly, I'm not quite sure if this race is fours or eights." A race that turned out definitely to be freshmen eights was delayed at the start while six boats tried to get through a channel wide enough for five.
Even the start of the varsity heavyweight finals was marred by consternation when it was announced that the Huskies had been officially reprimanded for crowding a bank, an infraction that could mean disqualification. However, no one was disqualified, and the race at last got under way.
Forgetting the Canadian threat, the two American rivals pulled away from the pack at the halfway mark and drove in a bow-to-bow seesaw toward the finish. Throughout, the Huskies maintained the characteristic slow stroke that had led a Stanford man to exclaim in a preliminary heat, "Look at that. They're just coasting." Rowing higher than Washington from the start, California—by then a deck length behind—pushed its stroke up to 42 when it was 100 meters from the finish in a last desperate effort to catch up. But Washington's shrewd little Nordic-blond coxswain Dave Amundsen had husbanded the energy in his boat by holding off the Huskies' final sprint for an extra 100 meters, and Washington was able to match California's move. The Huskies slid easily over the line just one and a half seconds ahead of the Bears. The exhausted Canadians, who claim they only reach peak form in the autumn, were well astern, in fourth place. Long Beach State finished third.
As the grinning Huskies amiably tossed their coxswain overboard and swapped shirts with the Bears, Washington Coach Fil Leanderson watched with a distant look in an eye that could be seeing as far as Tokyo. California's Jim Lemmon, however, was no less hyperopic. "That's only round two," he said. "There's more."