It was a bouncy enough send-off for the U.S. heavyweight crew last Saturday. "Grab that gold!" roared an ebullient gentleman in a yellow blazer as the defending champions headed out on an easy paddle up to the starting line of the final of the men's eights, the last and prime event of the World Rowing Championships at Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham, England. "All the way!" added one of the last crew cuts in the West.
Stepping delicately through rain puddles, U.S. Coach Allen Rosenberg (SI, Sept. 1) was already 50 feet away. A nod and pucker of the lips was all he had permitted himself as his crew rowed off. Now he was looking for a quiet vantage point from which to watch the finish of the race alone. "I feel so frustrated watching when I can't help," he had said. "There's a point at which coaches have to stop being competitors. From now on, all I can be is philosophical."
The consolations of philosophy, given yet another failure by the U.S. men, were about all that Rosenberg had left to lean on. Through two nightmare sessions at Holme Pierrepont, from the semifinals on, he had witnessed the virtual destruction of his team. Aside from the eights, who did not have to weather a semifinal, by Saturday only one U.S. crew, the coxed pair, had survived. And it had only qualified on a photo-finish decision for third place. For Rosenberg, Holme Pierrepont had long since stopped being even a pretty name.
A week earlier things had looked much brighter. The men's lightweight team, though competing in races the powerful East Europeans had disdained to enter, picked up a silver and a bronze medal in the eights and in the single sculls. And the women, against the Amazons of Russia and East Germany, had done splendidly. At Lucerne in 1974 only one of the U.S. women's boats had reached the finals. This time, four of six qualified, and the eights was a roaring epic.
September 7, 1975
The race had been postponed until 6:30 in the evening of a wet and windy Sunday, but with red roses tucked into their rowing shoes the American girls found themselves in Lane Five, which afforded some protection from the crosswind. The East Germans slipped easily into the lead, but the Americans, stroking at 36, held tight in second place. They made their bid near the finish, closed on the G.D.R. and beat up the stroke to 40. It wasn't quite enough. The U.S. finished in 3:16.21, just a nose behind the Germans, for an astonishing second.
Almost a week later, living off their own resources ("some of us eat nuts for dinner") at a university residence hall in Nottingham and bedecked with such English souvenirs as Sherlock Holmes caps and rugby jerseys, the U.S. women were inclined to be a little patronizing about their male teammates. "Now all we're doing is praying we get to Montreal," said Pam Behrens of Ardmore, Pa., stroke of the coxed fours. "We're coming up from nowhere. They are coming down from the top."
They, the men, certainly were. In the semifinals of the double sculls, the U.S. pair was last, more than 15 seconds astern of the winning Norwegians. The coxless pair was last in its semifinal, finishing more than 21 seconds behind the East Germans. In the single sculls, James Dietz, the schoolteacher from the Bronx who had been strongly favored for a medal, failed even to qualify. And there were other failures—in the coxless fours and coxless quadruple sculls. In the whole day's rowing, only the Monster and his teammate placed.
The Monster is what John Mathews, a gangling, 6'4", 205-pound civil engineer from Southington, Conn., amiably invites one to call him. He was teamed with Darrell Vreugdenhil from Seattle in the coxed pairs. At the 1,500-meter mark, 500 meters from the finish, they were lying in fifth place—of six competing boats in the semis, the first three qualify. Ahead of Hungary and trailing the East Germans, the Poles, the Yugoslavs and the Danes, Mathews and Vreugdenhil had started to move 500 meters from home. "I've never dug my oars so deep," Mathews said. "I'm still all pain from the thighs down. When we were coming up to the Yugoslavs, just like it says in the stories, everything went black in front of me. Like that." He pointed down to the tarred road shimmering and melting in the day's heat. In retrospect, a third place in a semifinal, awarded after a photo finish, does not seem a compelling achievement; but as the broadly grinning Mathews walked back to the boathouse, euphoria was like a halo around him.
On Saturday afternoon, though, on a different day, with a mean crosswind in the morning and rain and the promise of thunder, the happiness had gone. In the finals Mathews and Vreugdenhil were able to manage only a fifth. A dejected Monster indicated that it was not his day. He trailed off, only brightening a bit when an East German offered to trade shirts.
It was more than shirts that the rest of the world needed to change with East Germany. Each morning all 55 of them arrived for workouts like a disciplined army—rowers who had been recruited at 12 and trained in more than 100 centers. On finals day they started slowly—for them—with a silver in the coxed fours, won by Russia. Then they had—for them—something of a setback in the double sculls when the Norwegian brothers, Frank and Alf Hansen, second in last year's world championships, barely headed them at the line after trailing for three quarters of the race. But other results came as expected for the East Germans. By the final of the eights, out of seven races they had stacked up four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze.
Amongst the casualties of Saturday morning was Sean Drea, a dark, dour Irishman from County Carlow, now studying in Philadelphia. In the 1974 championships he had had to withdraw because of kidney trouble after appearing to have a lock on the gold. This time, 250 Irish fans had come to watch him in the single sculls, hoping for Ireland's first world rowing champion, but Drea faded in mid-course and came in second to West Germany's Peter-Michael Kolbe. A girl in a dripping yellow slicker embraced Drea tearfully, and a fan consoled him with the nation's special logic: "If you'd won today, you'd be in a more vulnerable position next July in Montreal, now wouldn't you, Sean?"
But for most fans, all these were sideshows. The eights were what they were waiting for, and early that morning Rosenberg had put his thoughts together on the prospects. "It's not like football, where you have a second half to come back," he said. "Here you have no second half. The East Germans are physically awesome. They never seem to have a drop-off, they row evenly all the way. If you take the lead they whittle away at you, they catch you when you're tired. And the Russians haven't shown what they've got. They're deceptive devils. They've never won a world title in this event, but they are very determined and sure. And disciplined, which is unlike what we have seen in the past. And the New Zealanders are as fast as hell. The Czechs, too. The Australians? I think we can beat the Australians. They aren't quick starters, though they're strong."
Rosenberg should be a betting man. By race time, or teatime, as they say in Nottingham, the sky had darkened though the north wind had dropped, and Rosenberg had slipped away after what turned out to have been his most noteworthy achievement. As he had named the teams, so they finished.
The magnificent East Germans took the lead at once and held it through the race. "After 200 meters, we commenced to dominate," said Herr Quolke, their coach, adding, more humanly, "I'm sorry. My legs are still shaking." New Zealand had gone forward early, too, but by 1,500 meters had dropped behind the Russians and the Czechs. The U.S. eight was never better than fourth, and in the second half of the race fell back to fifth. As Rosenberg had predicted, though, they beat the Australians. In the finish it was East Germany, with 5:39.01, over Russia, with the New Zealanders getting into third just ahead of the Czechs. America's time was 5:46.62.
Rosenberg walked back slowly. "He didn't expect this," somebody in the U.S. camp muttered. "Nobody did." The U.S.A. would not appear in the medals table for the first time in rowing history.
As the storm that had threatened all day burst over Holme Pierrepont and lightning competed with the fireworks display marking the end of the championships, there were few explanations or plans that Rosenberg could offer. "Our problem for Montreal now is time and training," he said. "I don't know if we have the time. I thought we might have got a place. Third, even second. There's Mexico in a month, the Pan-American Games. That might help...."
For Herr Quolke, the problem was different. Would the same East German eight row at Montreal? "We will have to see," he said, "whether this team or one of the two others that we have prepared will appear." It is the only problem he seems to have.