Somewhere along the way to winning the national championship last year, Harvard's crew picked up an epithet, The Smooth and The Rude—smooth because they were all of that on the water, rude because their exuberance ashore sometimes slopped close to the limits of taste. This year, apparently, a metamorphosis has taken place. As one Harvard oarsman explained last week, "Protecting a great achievement can provoke anxiety, and the success of this crew will depend on how we handle it. Harvard is a little more professional this year, a little quieter, and a lot less rude."
Last week The Smooth put its prestige on the line in an odd newcomer among major crew races. Back in Cambridge, the Charles River had been ice-free for only a month, yet here Harvard oarsmen were, at the third annual San Diego Crew Classic, taking part for the first time in a race that falls preposterously early in the season. On the starting line on Mission Bay, Harvard waited alongside its major victims of last year—Wisconsin and Washington. Each was all but salivating—the battle cry at the SDCC in the days before the race had been "Get Harvard!" Ten seconds after the start Wisconsin and Washington were all but dead.
Harvard had been practicing starts, and after six strokes it was up by six seats. At 450 meters it was about to open water over second-place Washington. At 700 meters Harvard led by a length and a quarter, and at 1,200 meters it was Harvard by almost two lengths. The crew went on to beat Washington by five seconds—1¾ lengths—in 6:14.6 for the 2,000-meter course against a stiff headwind. Stroke Alan Shealy said, "Not real smooth, but powerful as hell."
He added, "When we can race like that, and not have rowed as a group until three days before, it's obvious we're going to get a lot faster. A month from now we'll be unbeatable."
That was the soul of Harvard speaking. A reporter from the Harvard Crimson had put it this way, "There's this tradition at Harvard: you're a winner. That's why you're here, and if you don't win you're just wasting your time."
So call it a victory for tradition—and also maybe for the timing of vacations and for money. Washington had more impressive muscles than Harvard, and since crew cuts appear to be making a comeback in Seattle, less wind resistance. Wisconsin had done more running and lifted more weights. And California had the ice-free Oakland Estuary. But the Harvard oarsmen were on spring recess, and they had rich alumni in San Diego to put them up in a motel for a week. So Harvard, not quite certain it was the right thing to do, went West and made up for lost time. Blair Brooks, the No. 2 oar, said afterward,' 'The five days here, beating hell out of ourselves, did wonders. That's where I think we got most of our speed."
But before the race Brooks, a senior who plans to go to medical school, had different ideas. "It's unbelievable," he said. "We've always had a warmup race. I don't see how we're going to make it through 2,000 meters this early in the season. People always say Harvard's the team to beat, but there's no telling how fast we are. I don't believe for a minute we're going to be fast until we are fast."
Dick Cashin, the No. 6 oar, a senior and a Chinese major, was saying, "Any way you cut the cake it's going to be hard racing again. It's always tough when everyone is saying, 'The highly touted Crimson,' and stuff like that. But I think we will be faster than last year. I know I'm moving better."
Harvard Coach Harry Parker was his typical low-keyed self. He said, "We won't get our boat working perfectly here. Washington and Cal will come a lot closer. They started hard training in January, but we didn't start until the third of February."
Each crew was an unknown quantity, and no one wanted to go overboard with predictions. Washington had an ice-free lake, but it also had a lot of 40° days when no one wanted to row on it and no indoor tanks. Berkeley had wind and rain and no tanks. And though Wisconsin "rowed like crazy in the tanks," according to Coach Randy Jablonic, it also had Lake Mendota, which even today is covered with ice.
Washington Coach Dick Erickson said, "What we have is kind of exciting: crews getting here by different means, with different emphases in training. But as for my crew, I've got no illusions. I don't think we're where we ought to be."
Washington Stroke Jim Brinsfield relaxed by semi-seriously lowering his expectations on the eve of the race. "We had a fairly long airplane ride this morning," he said, "and only one quick workout. We're tired and we'll be lucky to get through 1,000 meters."
Berkeley's Steve Gladstone told his men, "You're rowing against a lot of very great crews tomorrow, but don't be swayed by reputations, by names, by the colors of their shirts." He did not emphasize that one of the colors was crimson. His men were high enough as it was. The day before the race one of them was asked, "What kind of an image would you like your crew to convey?"
"You mean animosity?"
"No, I mean animonity."
The pressure was getting to everyone.
And then came race morning. Harvard's Shealy, a veteran of many big regattas, said at 7:30, "My stomach is turning inside out." The varsity eights were scheduled for noon, and there were 16 other races before then. Washington won two of them, the freshman eights and the junior varsity eights, beating Harvard in the latter. But still no one wanted to make predictions about the big one. Besides Harvard and Washington the powerhouses were Wisconsin and Cal. There was little talk of such dark horses as UCal at Irvine and Navy, and they finished fifth and sixth.
Harvard quickly eliminated the suspense. Considering the stage of the season, and of its preparations, the performance was overwhelming. But all had known Harvard possessed at least the core of a great crew. Both Cashin and Shealy were members of last year's varsity and of the U.S. national team that went to Lucerne in September, unheralded, and won the world championship. And Blair Brooks and Tiff Wood, the three oar, were also on last year's boat. But all the rest were newcomers.
Seven oar is Ronnie Shaw, a senior, whose twin brother Robert plays football at Harvard. Shaw rowed on the junior varsity last year but worked in construction over the summer, came back pulling harder and made the big boat. John Brock, at five oar, is a 6'5", 215-pound sophomore, and only Cashin beats him on the ergometer. Junior Hovey Kemp is at four oar, and senior Gregg Stone at bow.
Based on his sacrifices alone, Coxswain Bruce Larson, a junior, seems to be just what a defending national champion needs. Larson is a big small man, or maybe he is a small big man. At 5'6" he is tall for a coxswain, but come crew season you can almost see through him. His racing weight is 114 pounds, his off-season weight well into the 140s and greater love hath no man.
After Harvard won, Larson said, "That was the most enjoyable race I've ever been in. We were so much under control. We could have put out much more if we had to."
So prospects look grim for a lot of college crews this season. Later this month, on the Charles, Harvard takes on Brown and Massachusetts on one Saturday and Princeton and MIT on the next. In May, out of town, it will be Navy again and Penn, then the Eastern Sprints, where Wisconsin will get another chance. On two Saturdays in June, at New London, Conn., Harvard will go four miles against Yale, and four against Washington, the first time the two powers will have met over that distance.
Before Harvard's win at San Diego, Erickson was saying, "We're going to see who did their homework this winter. I predict the winner will wind up the best in the country." And when it was all over he said, "The die is cast. There's Harvard, go get 'em."