The ultimate test in rowing: that is what both Harvard and Washington had called it, a rare four miles of searing lungs and faces contorted with pain, matching the two best college crews in America. The Huskies had come to Connecticut's Thames River for a rematch with the Crimson, and for revenge. They had lost at home last year over 2,000 meters, outdone by smooth Harvard oars and loud Harvard mouths, and lost again earlier this year to a more subdued Harvard in San Diego. So by race time last week the Huskies were seething. If pent-up resentment were to be decisive, they would win by a mile.
But off the line, Harvard shot ahead—by a few seats immediately, by a length at the mile marker, by two lengths at two and by three at the end. In 20 minutes and 14 seconds, Washington's fierce hope had ended. It would be another frustrating summer in Seattle, with the memory of a happy Harvard voice yelling, "Awesome, Shealy, awesome," and of an all-too-familiar one crowing back, "No, decisive."
The happy voice wore a blazer and club tie and was at the postrace party in the striped tent beside the river, where great platters of steaks were being consumed. And the familiar cocky voice was that of Harvard's Alan Shealy—brilliant at stroke, profane (though less so than last year) and Washington's pet hate. To the forlorn Huskies, the posh trappings of Harvard rowing and the abrasive Shealy were symbols of decadence that had been fuel for the fire that possessed them. All week they had taken turns stoking the blaze.
And Shealy, enjoying himself, played them like a puppet master. Two days before the big race, during a coxswains' race, he sat aboard a moving launch and manned Harvard's funnelator, a powerful sling devised for launching water balloons, and one of them squarely hit a Husky cox.
June 29, 1975
"A shoddy performance, only one direct hit," said Washington coach Dick Erickson, who seemed much less concerned with vendettas than his crew.
On the following day Shealy referred to the Huskies as "barbarians," and they were boiling. "It isn't just Shealy's guts I hate," said bow-oar Chris Allsopp. "They're all a bunch of elitist prep school types. We go back to our summer jobs, and they go back to their clubs. They're proud of their arrogance, and it goes against the way we've been brought up.
"It'll be so nice to win. I don't think I'll resist the temptation to say, 'How does humiliation feel, Al baby?' "
"It's become personal," said Husky Captain Dwight (Ike) Roesch, the quietest man in the boat.
"Don't you just hate a winner?" seven-oar Fred Fox ground out. And that seemed to be the Huskies' real gripe with Harvard—that pervading sense of rock-ribbed self-assurance. The Huskies talked of winning just as often, but the Harvards acted like winners, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, but the attitude was at their core, and Washington was uncomfortable with it. As five-oar Mark Umlauf said, "The Harvard ethic seems to be that if you can't be the best, then you better not be."
It did not occur to Washington that this outlook could have something to do with the winning of crew races, especially those of four miles. By way of contrast was Dick Erickson's mild-sounding call to battle before the race: "I like to think we're good enough to race Harvard."
Harvard Coach Harry Parker wasn't saying much, as usual, but he had prescribed a killing pace for the first mile. And he said, with utter confidence, that the Washington oarsmen would not be able to keep up.
Harvard Captain Blair Brooks bought that analysis before the race. "It's a little disconcerting knowing you're going to be pushed four miles," he said. "You've got to live with your fatigue for 15 minutes. But it's nice to be able to prove again, unequivocally, that we're national champions."
Both crews were as much concerned with the distance as with each other. Washington had never raced that far, and though Harvard has an annual four-mile race with Yale, the two crews have not been competitive recently. Harvard's winning margin this year of 11 lengths over Yale was typical. Shealy said, "We've never had a four-mile race, just a four-mile row."
"I guess the distance was my idea," Harry Parker said.
"I could have been the one to suggest it," Dick Erickson also said. He observed that prior to 1963 most college rowing in this country was at distances of two, three and four miles and that the change to the 2,000-meter Olympic distance had begun only after 1960 in Rome, where the U.S. failed to win a gold medal in the eight-oared event for the first time since 1912. "When that happened, rowing went paranoid," Erickson said. "I don't believe it was in the best interests of college rowing. Long rowing requires an efficiency and a discipline that has tremendous carry-over to shorter distances.
"It's the ultimate test in eight-oar rowing. It adds a new dimension, the ability to endure over a long period of time. Watching my guys train, I could read their minds by who had fire in his eye, who looked scared and who was looking for the finish."
At shorter distances earlier in the day Washington gained some satisfaction by winning both the freshman and second varsity events. But in the big race the pressures of four miles were just what Erickson had seen them to be.
Later, on the dock, Al Shealy was waving his arms in jubilation, and Fred Fox, who still did not like a winner, was saying, "We know they're the best, but he doesn't have to let us know."