The tall men, in shirts with the colors from a dozen different clubs and schools, trooped down the fir-clad hillside behind Dartmouth's Fuller Boat-house in twos and threes. Most of them, late survivors of the U.S. Olympic selection camp, put on their best faces to hide the tension within. At any moment Harry Parker, Harvard's firm-willed crew coach whose experience and antipathy for losing made him an obvious choice to coach the 1972 Olympic rowing team, would softly but firmly announce which oarsmen would represent the U.S. at Munich.
"Same today, same yesterday, same the day before," sighed Coxswain Bob Jaugstetter, who for weeks had felt the screw turn down tighter and tighter as the final chop day approached.
But it wasn't the same. This time Parker said, "O.K., everyone come inside." He spoke lightly, the way he had at all the camp meetings from the start, yet his voice carried a flicker of distant lightning, an imperceptible edginess.
When the oarsmen reappeared from the boathouse they looked like miners surfacing into bright daylight after a cave-in. They were white, strained. Few said anything. "What happened in there?" someone asked.
July 9, 1972
"They began backing up the truck," replied Coxswain Stu MacDonald tightly. Parker, MacDonald meant to say, was getting closer to the final scratching out of names. The able and the lucky would soon become Olympians. They would be known forever as the first national team in U.S. rowing history.
For three weeks Parker and his assistant coaches—Pete Gardner of Dartmouth, Dick Erickson of Washington, Hugh Foley of Boston University—had motored endlessly up and down the mirrorlike Connecticut River searching for the strong-cat oarsmen, those who were psychologically attuned to the pain and the pleasure of winning races and who believed, man for man, they were better than any American, or East German, or Russian or New Zealander.
"In our sport it's like dominoes," explained ex-MIT Coach Jack Frailey. "If there's a weak link, when he unloads, seven other guys must pick up the load. Then the next weakest link, who might have made it if he didn't have to pick up for anybody, pulls a little extra and he collapses and six guys get it. Boom! Boom! Boom! There go the dominoes."
When the initial group of 53 candidates arrived in camp early in June, the coaches felt that filtering the serious oarsmen from the wishful would be a fairly speedy process. First, they would use the ergometer, a cruel rowing machine built of ugly arms and legs and handles and wheels. If a man could do a respectable six-minute session on the ergo, not to be confused with such civilized machines as Exercycles, he at least would show he had done his training homework. "You can make a high score on the ergo and not move a boat," one coach explained, "but you can't score low on the ergo and make a boat move."
After the ergos came the seat races. Candidates rowed in four-oared shells, two boats to a race, at least four races to a session with precious little time in between. The idea was to shift candidates around until the individual winners became obvious. When an oarsman regularly appeared in winning boats, it was assumed that he was a good one.
But the weeding process turned out to be tougher than anyone had bargained for; blooming oarsmen far outnumbered weeds. In the end the coaches found themselves cutting the squad by half a dozen at a time rather than the 12 or 18 they had envisioned. They stayed up long into the night reviewing each day's results and trying to plan the next day's combinations. By the third week of June the number of empty rooms at Dartmouth's Woodbury Hall, where the oarsmen bunked, was mounting.
Routinely, Parker hung a roster listing the next day's crews at the Fuller Boathouse. Its meaning was clear; if a man's name was missing he got a bus ticket out of town; if he was listed he rowed another day. Cuts continued, and the tension grew as restless oarsmen began to beg Parker to make a final decision. But Parker would not be hurried.
The permutations inherent in selecting the best rowers to fit eight positions, each with its own requirement, were almost endless. In particular, as the trials went on, the coaches searched for an Olympic-caliber stroke. None emerged. Superb strokes, like maestros, are long remembered in rowing circles. Parker described the attributes his committee of coaches sought. "He must establish the kind of rhythm the crew will be able to row in comfort, and be able to sustain power under pressure in a hard race without always worrying about the crew's swing, so they're able to race at ease and concentrate on rowing hard." In other words the stroke must know his and the crew's limitations.
The coaches soon found their own limitations. Although they had several stroke candidates in view, the best of all might be overseas. He was Calvin Coffey, who was stroking Northeastern's eight to second place at Henley in England. Going into the Fourth of July weekend, this was the one position undecided.
The No. 1 man, who rows in the bow at the opposite end of the boat from the stroke, requires almost the same qualities as the stroke, but instead of leading he follows. He should be tough enough to come through with everything the stroke demands. Between the two of them sit the men in the boiler room, the middle-of-the-boat oarsmen. What the two do. the boiler room must do, and what speed the boat can make depends on the middlemen's power.
There are nuances of differences in the requirements among the middlemen, but like the stroke and bowman all must know they can row the last 500 meters of a 2,000-meter Olympic course as hard as they rowed the first 500. All eight men, particularly in the Olympics, must be willing to watch their legs turn blue from strain, and accept the tortured breathing of a devastating race.
Last Saturday turned out to be C Day, final cut day, and the oarsmen who had survived the weeks of elimination dribbled in from the practice course on the Connecticut, seemingly aware of their fate. Some carried the shells on their shoulders lightly, others sagged beneath the load. One despondent rower sat down outside the boathouse and stared accusingly at his right hand as if all his troubles lay in its palm. Much later, after everyone had gone, he was still there.
Parker's list made it official; although four last-ditch cuts remained, 17 oarsmen and three coxswains had been picked. All but one have international rowing experience. Apart from Coxswains MacDonald, Paul Hoffman and Dwight Phillips, one of whom will still have to be cut the team averages 6'2" in height, weighs 190 pounds and is 23 years old. Remarkably, it includes two sets of brothers, Fritz Hobbs from Concord, Mass., a 1969 graduate in American history from Harvard and veteran of Harvard's 1968 Olympic eight, and his younger brother Bill, who graduated from Harvard with a cum laude degree in applied math and who was in a small boat at Mexico. The other brothers were Cleve and Mike Livingston, also Harvard, also Mexico Olympians. In all nine Harvard men made the team, a fact that does not embarrass Parker, who had coached them. "When I first got into this thing," he said, "I decided that while I was going to make every effort not to be prejudiced in their favor, I also wasn't going to hurt them just because I happened to coach them once. There was no reason they had to be penalized. They earned their way here."
The others chosen range from a tree surgeon, Pete Raymond of Princeton, to some graduate students, an admissions director at Middlesex School, a teacher and several who list themselves as unemployed, Olympic rowing being considerable employment in itself. The University of Pennsylvania, which won the IRA, is represented only by Gene Clapp. Washington placed five men on the squad, Princeton and Wisconsin two each, Georgetown one.
Because the rowers are strangers and will have so little time to train as a unit, there is a question as to whether the national team system will work; in the past the U.S. simply sent its fastest college or club crew intact. Only the Olympic performances will answer the question. After a couple of weeks of practice in this country, Parker plans to take the team overseas for seasoning in selected European regattas. After that he may give the crew members a taste of high-altitude training in Switzerland to build their stamina.
"In my more optimistic moments I think we're going to be real fast," says Parker. "But when I'm not feeling so good, I think we'll struggle to do anything. In the end I suppose it comes down to what Larry Gluckman [an international oarsman] once said. 'If you believe in rowing you have to believe in the U.S. team.' "