Utah and rowing are about as synonymous as Illinois and mountain climbing. And Curtis Canning, who hails from Salt Lake City, had never dipped an oar until he arrived at Cambridge, Mass. in the fall of 1964, after dropping plans to attend the University of Utah, where his father is a professor of sociology. "When I went home for Christmas vacation my freshman year," Canning says, "I had to do a lot of talking to get any of my friends to believe that the sport was taken seriously back east." Canning's relatives and friends in Utah have learned a good deal about rowing since Curt found a seat on the Harvard varsity crew last year.
One very close friend heard more than any of them about the sport. A 21-year-old former high school classmate of Canning's, she has just completed her junior year at the University of Utah and also has just changed her name from Becky Petersen to Becky Canning. Last Saturday night on the flight home for his marriage, Canning carried with him what he termed "a good wedding present." The gift? A Harvard victory of nearly two lengths over Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia in the U.S. Pan American Games rowing trials on New York's Orchard Beach Lagoon early Saturday evening. Thus the new Mrs. Canning's honeymoon was a trip back to Cambridge in time for the resumption of workouts for the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Man. early next month.
Only four crews took part in the trials for eight-oared boats with coxswain, but Harvard, which has lost only three races in more than four years, had its hands full. Pennsylvania's 1967 Intercollegiate Rowing Association champions were out to avenge earlier losses to the Crimson. And while Penn and Harvard were the known quantities in the race, the two crews entered by Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia were the mystery.
Vesper's A crew was not the combination that had brought home an Olympic gold medal from Tokyo in 1964. Only remnants of that boat were evident. The ageless coxswain, Robert Zimonyi, who steered three Hungarian Olympic crews as well as the 1964 U.S. Olympic representative, was once again wearing the Vesper colors, as were Bill Stowe, the stroke of the 1964 Olympians, and Hugh Foley, the No. 2 man on that crew. To help his three veterans, Vesper Coach Dietrich Rose had filled his first boat with a complement of small-college rowing products. Together only since the second week in May, the boat had competed in one regatta—the American Henley—and finished first against less-than-stiff competition. But Harvard Coach Harry Parker was far from being overconfident. The numbing experience of two losses to Vesper in 1964 and one in 1965 (Harvard's only rowing defeats since 1963) were more than enough to keep the Crimson on edge.
When the eight-oared shells got away from the starting line in the approaching dusk, Vesper set off at a torrid cadence of 50, and Harvard seemed to wallow behind. Over the first 500 meters the Philadelphia club led by as much as three-quarters of a length. Parker's crew started to settle down in the second 500 meters and, moving into a 36-stroke beat, began to eat away at the Vesper lead. Harvard took the lead at about the 1,000-meter mark to hold it to the finish. Near the end the Vesper boat put on a sprint, but Harvard stuck to a 36 count to win in 6:15.4 with Vesper just nipping Penn by half a length for second place.
"We've been taking good starts," Canning noted after the race, "but we really handicapped ourselves with this one." It was the first time Harvard had trailed any crew since a come-from-behind victory over Northeastern in early April.
The performance of Vesper's A entry over the first 1,000 meters pleased the usually expressionless Rose. "Everything worked out up to 1,000, and then.... Harvard was better, so we have to get better."
Not all is lost for Rose. And everything is not roses for Parker. For, as Rose himself says, "The war is still on" between Vesper and Harvard. The next battle will come when the two meet in late August in the nationals in Philadelphia. By that time Becky Canning should have a few more wedding presents from the Harvard crew.