Never since Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club first won the eight-oared event in the 1900 Olympics has the U.S. been represented in eight-oared crew by anything but college boys. Last week, in the unlikely setting of Orchard Beach in The Bronx, two of the best college crews of all time—Harvard and California—came together to settle the question of who would row for the U.S. at Tokyo. They should have stayed at their books. A crusty bunch of adults from Vesper—what, again?—in a dilapidated old shell straight out of a Pogo comic strip left both Harvard and California wallowing in their wake. With a notable lack of inspiration they had named the winning shell John B. Kelly after Vesper's millionaire-bricklayer patron instead of after his daughter Princess Grace, but this was the only thing the Vespers did wrong all week. "A boatload of men will beat a boatload of boys every time," explained Coach Allen Rosenberg, and Bull Halsey could not have said it any better.
Rosenberg is a 32-year-old attorney of jockey size who has been coxing club crews for years. Like the Europeans they will face in Tokyo, the time-tested husbands, fathers, war veterans, political refugees and successful businessmen he has combined in the Vesper boat have all grown up with sweeps in their hands and are not particularly awed by the sight of a burly college boy. "We've seen college rowers before," said one of the club crew last week when an eager reporter pointed to their formidable opposition: unbeaten Harvard, unbeaten University of California, and only twice-beaten Yale.
Getting the Vesper boat together was slow work; it did not take effective shape until early summer, when Lieutenants Joe (Air Force) and Tom (Army) Amlong rejoined the crew and Bill Stowe, a onetime Cornell stroke, now a lieutenant (j.g.) in the Navy, returned from Vietnam. With the Amlongs and Stowe as his principal pieces, Rosenberg began rearranging his boat like a manic housewife moving furniture in spring.
He put Stowe ("the best in the country," he says) in at stroke. Right behind him, at No. 7, he put Bill Knecht, 34, the father of six and a dynamically successful sheet-metal contractor who kept in touch with his Camden, N.J. office during the trials via a shoreside telephone in a white Chrysler convertible.
Behind Knecht, Rosenberg put the Amlongs, and back of them, at No. 4, he put Boyce Budd, the biggest (207 pounds) and most intense oar in the Vesper boat. A former Yale oarsman, Budd later set a record in pair-oars at Henley while studying at Cambridge. "His style," says Rosenberg, "is classic."
Emory Clark, No. 3, a former Yale and Groton oarsman now working in the trucking business, came to Vesper with Budd. "He caught a bad crab in one race," says Rosenberg, "and he's never made another mistake since."
In back of Clark sit the two babies of the Vesper crew, Hugo Foley and Stanley Cwiklinski, both under 21. Rosenberg forgives Hugo his youth because "even though his experience isn't as great as the others, he's one of the strongest rowers I've ever seen." Cwiklinski, he says, "has the best bladework in the boat, next to Budd."
Facing them all at the stern of the boat, steering and calling the cadences, sits the oldest—and almost certainly the toughest—U.S. Olympic contestant of all time: 47-year-old Robert Zimonyi, who defected to America in Melbourne in 1956 after steering more than 180 Hungarian crews to victory. "We had several good coxswains to choose from," said Rosenberg, "but rowing in lanes marked off by buoys can be unnerving. It takes experience." That was what Coxswain Zimonyi, like the rest of the Vesper men, had in abundance.
The Europeans have for some time been selecting eight-oared crews on the basis of ability to move smaller craft: fours, pair-oars, sculls. Unlike most U.S. college oarsmen, the Vespers have spent years practicing in boats like these. When not pulling oars, they are pulling, squeezing, pushing and straining against isometric bars with a fanaticism that would make a football coach ill with envy. "They've been on the weights for years," says Rosenberg. "Just look at them." Upon looking, one's first impression is that the Vesper Boat Club is the naval arm of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite their awesome appearance, however, the Vespers got little more than curious looks from rowing experts, who were convinced that Harvard and California had the fastest boats and that one of them was sure to win.
The early heats at Orchard Beach gave the experts no reason to alter their opinions. With its short, quick stroke, California covered the Olympic distance a length faster than three opponents, and Harvard's exquisite precision gave it an easy victory over three others. Then the Harvard boys in their sleek, cigarette-thin Pocock boat went up against Vesper in that ridiculous, high-sided Italian-built shell whose designer must have been inspired by a Spanish galleon. "She's tippy, all right," said the Vesper's Budd apologetically as he took his seat, "but I swear she goes faster."
She went so fast that within 300 meters in the semifinal race Vesper's crew had left Harvard far behind, and nothing about this boatload of funny old men could be considered funny anymore.
Harvard had something of an alibi in this race. Geoffrey Gratwick's back, injured a month before, was acting up. But Coach Harry Parker would as soon have his fingernails yanked out one by one as use an injury to excuse a losing Harvard effort. "We'll be all right tomorrow," he promised, departing for the crew's motel in Larchmont. But, injury or not, Harvard was badly outclassed by a Vesper crew desperately eager to prove its worth in its first tough race. California also had reason for worry, despite an apparently easy victory over Yale in the other semifinal. "You could see signs of fatigue in the Cal boat despite their length lead," said one expert. "It's hard to explain if you haven't rowed yourself. It's like a runner when he's laboring. You know how he looks—it's as if he were trying to climb up a rope."
The night before the finals the men of Vesper went to bed full of optimism, an attitude that put Rosenberg in the same worrier's class with Harvard's Parker and California's Jim Lemmon. "I told them that I'd had good crews who had managed to blow it before," Rosenberg said later. But Vesper didn't blow it, although for a while it seemed a near thing. Harvard got off to what Parker said was its best start all year and continued to row as if there weren't a bad back in the boat. As for Vesper, Stroke Bill Stowe explained it best: "I hate to say our start was bad. But it was. In fact, it was terrible." One third of the way down the course, Harvard was leading, with California and Vesper a good deck length behind.
"When they got that jump on us," Budd said, "most of my thoughts were obscene. I thought they were out to shake us by getting the quick lead. They got the lead all right, but we don't shake so easy."
About 300 meters farther on, Vesper's superior strength and experience began to tell. The John B. Kelly came even with Harvard, which was rowing just as beautifully as ever and at a higher stroke than ever before—35. "I called for 15 right when we got even," said Stowe, "hoping we'd get open water on them. But all we got was three-quarters of a length. After that we couldn't risk going for a record time with things so tight, so we played it cool."
Near the end Harvard made one more magnificent bid, but Stowe simply upped the count of his own boat to nearly 40 to regain control, settled back to a steady 39 and swept on to victory. And that was that.
After the race Coxswain Zimonyi, who knows what it is to win boat races, patiently allowed himself to be tossed into Orchard Beach Lagoon three times, once for tradition's sake, twice more for the benefit of photographers. On the third immersion Tom Amlong called an abrupt halt to the game. "You guys better get it this time," he told the newsmen. "He's got rheumatism, you know." After all, you can't treat an old man like he was just a boy.