Onward like the swallow going,
roused is every nerve and sense;
Oh the wild delight of knowing,
'tis our pow'r that does the rowing....
—THE CORNELL CREW SONG
The 75th Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship was ending last Saturday in Syracuse, and the voices of Cornell's varsity eight were lifted in song. No one knew how old the song was—from the 1890s, said one amateur historian—or when it had last been heard at a race. But now the time seemed right because Cornell had just won the Varsity Challenge Cup for the 20th time, beating second-place Penn by 2.5 seconds on Lake Onondaga.
It was the Big Red's second victory in two weeks over Penn, a crew that is coached—some prefer the word "terrorized"—by Ted Nash, a man of military dedication and demeanor. After losing to Cornell at Ithaca the previous weekend, Nash had his men out running the stairs of Schoellkopf Stadium the next morning.
"My guys would never do that," said Findley Meislahn, 35, Cornell's first-year varsity coach.
June 12, 1977
"Well, just tell 'em to," he was urged.
"Know how to spell 'fat chance'?" he replied. "I'm not Ted Nash, and this isn't Penn. These guys are highly independent. I don't think they need me for very much."
"Findley gives us our jelly beans," said Frank Garry, Cornell's senior seven oar, a 6'3" farm boy who says "You betcha" about nine times a day and is headed for veterinary school.
Findley Meislahn? What kind of name is that for a crew coach? Findley Meislahn belongs in a Thomas Hardy novel, striding across some stormy moor. But now Meislahn stood on the victory dock. For 1,700 meters, as Cornell trailed Penn, he had paced the shoreline, wringing his hands and smacking his head. Then Cornell took a power 10 and pulled ahead, and when the Big Red's victory was certain Meislahn began jumping up and down, waving his hat and shouting wordless cries. It was strictly a Cornell-Penn race, with California coming in seven seconds behind Penn, followed by Yale, Oregon State and Wisconsin.
Cornell's strong finish captured the fancy of the sun-soaked, beer-drinking crowd. One raucous voice sang out, "Don't send my boy to Harvard, the dying mother said...." The song raced through the Ivy League, and finished, "...and as for Penn-syl-van-i-a I'd see him first in hell."
Some consider the IRA the national championship, and in one way it is. No other sizable regatta is open to all the rowing schools in the country. But among the missing crews were Harvard, considered by many the nation's best, and Washington, perhaps the best in the West. "Is the winner here the national champion?" IRA officials were asked. "Well...," they replied.
In any event, the 75th IRA was typical of most regattas, just another chapter in the age-old, futile search for perfect racing conditions. The accommodations at the Syracuse dorms were fine though the food was awful, but the winds were ruinous on two of the three days. Ernie Arlett, who is retiring this year as coach at Northeastern, said flatly, "They should hold the IRA someplace else."
To beat the wind, Thursday's opening heats were scheduled to begin at 6:15 a.m., and they did, all but one—the last of three for the varsity eights. Cornell won the first and Penn the second, but then the wind came up, quartering across the course from the west, and the shells were ankle deep in water. When Oregon State's shell collided with Cal's, the officials decided to wait. By 8:30 that night it was still no go, and the next target was 6:30 a.m. Friday.
That meant five crews had to breakfast by 3:30 a.m., and only Ted Nash does that. At 6:30 it was 44° on the lake, and a film of mist hung on the water. It looked like dry ice, and from a distance the heads of the oarsmen seemed to hang above it. Just the heads, no bodies. But the lake was calm enough, and the heads of Wisconsin crossed the finish line first. So Wisconsin, Cornell and Penn would row in the finals, against the winners of three repechages.
Wisconsin Coach Randy Jablonic immediately went to work. "I saw something," he said, sounding like Max Schmeling before his first fight against Joe Louis. What Jablonic saw was his boat slipping back with each surge forward, checking. He had the buttons that hold the oars in the oarlocks adjusted for improved leverage, and now he was confident. Certainly no other crew could have been better prepared physically. Jablonic, accustomed to fickle wind back home at Madison, is famous for the rigors of his off-the-water training, particularly his "End of the World" runs in winter, when the wind-chill factor frequently reaches 50° below. Even in late May Jablonic's crew runs regularly, lifts weights and climbs stadium steps, and on the water he puts the Badgers through his infamous "Blue Vomit" workouts. As he says, "We ask them to pull until they feel they're going to vomit blue, with dry heaves and bile."
So that is how it stood before the repechages—Jablonic scurrying around, testing, watching, pulling, poking; Nash apparently preparing for World War III. Reporters who approached Nash's varsity eight at 3:30 p.m. Friday were turned back with "Sorry, buddy, but my men need their sleep." Meanwhile, Meislahn lounged with his oarsmen in the dorm, grinning as always and discussing Cornell's secret weapon—Clem Cakes.
At the San Diego Regatta in April a local paper referred to Cornell stroke oar Glen Chapman as Clem, and a famous Chapman pancake recipe got part of its name. The Big Red ate Clem Cakes before every race after San Diego, and beat Rutgers, Syracuse, Navy and Yale. A horrendous crab caused a third-place finish at the Eastern Sprints on Lake Carnegie four weeks ago, but the Cornellians ate their Clem Cakes the Saturday before the IRA and beat Penn by seven seconds. "What's in 'em?" Clem was asked. "Can't say," he replied, strumming on his guitar. And Meislahn was not about to give away the secret.
Perhaps more than any other coach at the IRA, Meislahn was a friend—not a wily mentor—to his athletes. His five seniors rowed on the Cornell freshman eight that won the Eastern Sprints and the IRA in 1974, and Meislahn was freshman coach at the time. He stayed in that job until this year, while his champions went on to row for Varsity Coach Doug Neil. "We rowed for Findley freshman year, got to be good friends, and when he became varsity coach we held on to that." says bow oar Jim Farrell. "He's really sensitive to the psychology of the boat. Penn is coached twice as hard as we are. We haven't worked too hard these last few weeks, and we haven't even run since April."
Said Meislahn, "There is a point beyond which the expenditure of energy—lifting weights, running—no longer helps. Maybe it even hurts."
The three repechages had been set for 6 a.m. Friday, but the delayed early-morning heat botched that. The boats behind Wisconsin were given until 6 p.m. to recover, but by then the wind was blowing 10 to 25 knots. Finally, with daylight fading, the wind died and the reps went off. The winners—Yale, OSU, and defending champion Cal—would row in the finals with Cornell, Wisconsin and Penn. But they would have fewer than 24 hours to recover from the reps. On the other hand. Wisconsin had a day and a half to get ready, Cornell and Penn two and a half days. Perhaps the rest factor had some bearing on the outcome.
Cornell had a late-morning breakfast of Clem Cakes, five to seven per crew member, topped with butter and maple syrup. Clem Chapman even broke down and revealed the ingredients: Maypo and Maltex cereals, whole wheat and regular flours, milk and baking powder. Then, properly nourished, the Big Red won the race.
Before leaving Syracuse Saturday night, two oar Craig Drake, another of Meislahn's freshmen four years ago, sat back and analyzed the Big Red's tactical approach to the race. "Findley's very easygoing, the way he coaches," Drake said. "Look at how we rowed today. After driving the oar, we're trained—unlike Penn—to relax, to get our energy back, so that on the next stroke we can compose ourselves. Penn wasn't as efficient that way in their middle thousand, so they were more fatigued toward the end, when we passed them."
Meislahn then raised the question of going to England's Henley Regatta at the end of this month. The funds would be available, he said, and Washington would be there, and probably Harvard. No objections were raised. Someone observed that Henley would be a more authentic U.S. national championship than the IRA. But is England ready for Clem Cakes?