The race was all over, and Cornell's sleek Pocock shell was already back on its rack in the boathouse when it happened: the Cornell stroke, sturdy Griscom Bettle, suddenly faltered, then collapsed in agony on the grass. Minutes before on the water, Bettle had done his job superbly by stroking a final, brutal and successful sprint that pushed favored but trailing Cornell past upstart Navy to win college crew's most important race by seconds. This last-gasp effort, made after rowing two and a half miles of the three-mile Lake Onondaga course into a stiff north wind, might have brought on a collapse right at the finish. But somehow Bettle hung on long enough to get ashore. Then, tactfully, with everything taken care of and his crew the accredited Intercollegiate Rowing Association champion for the second straight year and the 21st time in the history of the race, Bettle conked out, only to recover a minute or two later and help toss the victorious Cornell coxswain into the water.
Unbeaten by any college crew in the country, and once victorious over the world champion Ratzeburg rowers of Germany, the Big Red, by winning on Onondaga Lake, climaxed the best season any American crew had had since 1957. That year another unbeaten Cornell crew went to England's Henley and won it. Now the Big Red hopes to repeat the experience.
American rowing prestige has taken an awful beating in recent years, but with a crew of Cornell's caliber on the line to represent the U.S., not only at Henley but next year in the Tokyo Olympics, America's rowing stock again looks blue chip. "It's going to take a terrific boat to beat this Cornell crew," said the coach of another crew before the IRA. But on Onondaga last week a terrific boat was right in there trying. "We'd considered everybody but Navy," admitted Cornell's No. 5 man, Don Light, after the race. Indeed, Cornell's most serious opposition was supposed to come from three big, strapping crews from farther west—unbeaten Washington, once-beaten California and a late-starting Wisconsin crew paced by a gigantic 200-pound stroke. "If Cornell doesn't win up at Syracuse," said the coaches in their prerace poll, "a western crew will." Nobody believed this more fervently than the western crews themselves, especially those from California and Washington. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't think we could win the race," said California Coach Jim Lemmon. "The eastern coaches arc calling Cornell unbeatable, but we're not conceding a thing."
Lemmon had good reason to feel such confidence. No crew in the IRA was more impressive physically than his. Its members averaged 6 feet 4 and 190 pounds—enough to set football coaches adrool. The only crew to beat these leviathans up to last week was their bitter rival, Washington, and that by a matter of feet. "This is the fastest boat I've had," Lemmon said, and that's fast indeed. Twice before Lemmon's California crews have come east to win the IRA.
Washington was even more light-hearted about its prospects against Cornell. 'The heat's on them," chortled Cox Dave Amundsen. ''They're the favorites." And Coach Fil Leanderson actually went so far as to say: "We're more consistent than last year."
Leanderson had carefully prepared his Huskies for the sultry conditions anticipated in the East by making them row for three weeks swathed in rubberized sweatsuits. He also drilled them thoroughly in a favorite tactical ploy designed to demoralize their opponents. As a rival shell tries a short, desperate sprint, the Washington crew, on a signal, digs in and moves right along with the other boat. The effect can be disastrous on opponents who have given their utmost for 10 power strokes and should have pulled clear but haven't. "Whether it will work this time or not," Leanderson said before the race, "we'll find out when we go east. That's where we'll learn a lot of things."
The rollicking Washington crew's first lesson was sobering. Watching Cornell in a prerace workout, one awed Husky oarsman said: "I've never seen a crew get so much brute power in its stroke." Washington's oarsmen, said one coach, were "still confident, but much, much quieter about it."
Paul Quinn's Navy crew, on the other hand, had almost nothing to say the week before the race. Nearly as big as California, Navy had moved over the water like a prehistoric misfit in all its races this season. The Navy crew went to the post listed as sure also-rans. But Quinn was downright impish on race day. "They're big strong boys," he said. "If we get off fast, well—" and he went away looking like a man who knew something no one else did.
He did. The week before the race, Quinn had shuffled the seatings in his boats with the finesse of a light-fingered poker player stacking the cards, until, in trials on the Severn, the shuffled boats had begun to look like the Navy crews of old. In the first two events of the IRA the Middies scuttled Cornell's plans to sweep the field by winning first the freshman and then the jayvee races. Even Quinn, however, was "not quite prepared" for his varsity boat's showing against Cornell and hence was not too disappointed at the last-minute loss. Against this year's champions, even a near win was a triumph.
For a year now, Cornell has given signs of what was coming. In the 1962 Eastern Sprints one coach whistled softly as the Cornell freshman boat, stroked by Bettle, crossed the finish line lengths ahead of the field. "That's the best crew I've seen here all day—frosh or varsity"—said the coach. Four of these oarsmen, including Bettle, moved directly into the varsity boat this spring.
Rhythm and timing
Traditionally, Cornell Coach Stork Sanford primes his crews for the long distance races and they hit their powerful stride late in the season. Early-season losses are not unusual, and Cornell often has trouble qualifying in the season's second-most-important race, the Eastern Sprints. But not this year. Cornell was the class of college rowing from the moment it took to the water on icy Cayuga Lake in March. Long race, short race, it made little difference. Cornell won them all easily. Sanford, who would rather roll naked in a bed of nettles than crow before a race, admitted that "this crew can take the stroke up high much more effectively than previous crews."
And a prime reason for Cornell's "flexibility," as Sanford calls it, is the uncanny rhythm and timing of Stroke Bettle. A stocky prep school fullback (6 feet, 180 pounds), Bettle is a shade smaller than most strokes, but he has, in the words of Penn Coach Joe Burk, "endurance, strength and that wonderful sense of timing. That's something you just can't teach. A boy has it or he hasn't."
Bettle has it—and Cornell has Bettle. The fruits of this combination were apparent even from the shore last week as Cornell's red-tipped oars dipped with seeming delicacy into Onondaga Lake to impart great surges of power to the Cornell boat. Ordinarily such finesse and power would have settled the issue early. It did for all the other boats, except Navy and a surprising MIT crew that also, incredibly, kept pace. With less than half a mile to go, MIT at last succumbed to the terrible strain and fell off enough for Cornell to pass, but Navy was still going strong, just as Bettle laid into the exhausting last-ditch sprint, Navy's No. 4 man, Joe Clare, pulled a shoulder muscle, and Cornell took the lead in a swoop. "Clare's injury didn't help us any," said Quinn sportingly after the race, "but with or without him, we were done for. When Cornell started that sprint of theirs I thought a hydroplane was passing us."