A great day of rowing was winding up on Mission Bay in San Diego last weekend when a spectator stopped a Harvard oarsman and pointed at the Crimson's borrowed eight-oared shell, which was about to be put into the water for the main event of the afternoon. "Did you notice the name on the bow?" he asked. "Yes," the Harvard replied. "Audacious. Appropriate, isn't it?"
It would have been, once. But a short time later the Harvard eight limped across the finish line in fourth place and an era of intercollegiate rowing seemed to have ended. Harvard had not been audacious, either on the water or off it, and the all-conquering Crimson had been beaten not only by a fine Washington crew, but by Pennsylvania and California as well.
The regatta was the sixth annual San Diego Crew Classic, which this year drew Washington, Harvard, Penn, Wisconsin, Cal and Cornell in a field of a dozen—all in all, the most impressive aggregation of collegiate crew powers ever to race on one body of water. Harvard arrived with a four-year intercollegiate record of 28-1 and an indefinable flair that seemed to transcend normal physical laws-. Washington had always been bigger and stronger, but for three straight years at San Diego the Huskies had not won, finishing second and sixth behind Harvard and last year second to Penn. Penn had followed its 1977 victory over Washington with a stunning win over Harvard five weeks later at Cambridge. Cornell was no slouch, either; the Big Red had won last year's IRA at Syracuse, N.Y. with a stirring come-from-behind finish. And, most notable of all, Washington had gone on to win the Grand Challenge Cup at England's Henley Royal Regatta last summer, while Harvard and Cornell had failed to make the finals. So the word at San Diego was showdown, with qualifications—winter and ice.
That is what the Eastern schools had been contending with. Harvard had no water until mid-March and was able to get out on the Charles only after Coach Harry Parker and his oarsmen put a launch in the river and spent three days butting the floes aside to clear a rowable lane. The Crimson shivered upstream and down for four days, then flew to San Diego a week early to train. The new Ice Age reached south to Pennsylvania, but the Quakers went to Florida in January, which helped. Up in Ithaca, Cornell was as icebound as Harvard, and Wisconsin Coach Randy Jablonic had his annual litany of arctic horrors to relate—30 inches of ice on Lake Mendota, brutal wind-chill factors. So Jablonic ran his men a couple of thousand miles a week, had them lift three or four tons of weights a day and terrorized them in the rowing tanks. But there is more than one way to win a crew race, and Harvard had faced icy springs before, including the two that preceded wins at San Diego.
April 10, 1978
As things turned out, neither Cornell nor Wisconsin survived their heats leading up to the heavyweight finals, which were rowed with a neutral breeze putting a slight chop on Mission Bay. After five strokes, Penn was a half seat up on Washington. One stroke later, Washington Coxswain John Stillings shouted, "Wind it up!" and his boat shot ahead. At 700 meters, Washington led by almost a length, despite the entreaties of the Penn coxswain, John Chatzky, who repeated at least 10 times, "Jack it up." At 850 meters, Chatzky called out, "Take a big 20," and Penn started moving, sprinting unusually early. Stillings didn't like that, but at 1,500 meters he still had Washington rowing at 36 strokes per minute, about normal for that stage of a 2,000-meter race. With 200 meters to go, the Huskies' lead had dwindled to only three seats, but Washington held on and won by five seats in 6:03.1 to Penn's 6:05.2. Cal was half a deck behind Penn, and two seats ahead of Harvard. Harvard in fourth place? No Harvard varsity eight had finished that poorly since forever.
As the shells moved slowly down the shore, Stillings rose on his tiny perch and did a mad, precarious, celebratory dance. When he came ashore he went straight to his coach. "I hate to tell you this," Stillings said, "but we were disqualified."
"Oh?" said Dick Erickson.
"April Fool, you son of a gun," said Stillings.
Earlier in the week, Erickson had said about the forthcoming race, "We've got a bunch of inexperienced, naive, scared, excited little boys, but we're racing on April Fool's Day, so you never can tell what will happen." Erickson, a slim 42-year-old, tends to be deprecatory about both himself and his crew, and the assortment of adjectives in no way reflected the Huskies' actual state of mind. They were ready to race. In the past they had had trouble getting off the line fast enough, and they had spent much of the spring working on starts as well as on another weakness, the 500-to-1,500-meter section of races. Erickson would call for a 4½-mile grind one day, and on the next for successive sprints of 500 meters each. After three or four of these, he would announce, "O.K., this is the last one." It never was. After four or five more, when the crew finally got ashore, he would order a run up 30 flights of stadium steps. "We worked harder this spring than ever before," says Stillings, "and the confidence we got from winning at Henley sure didn't hurt."
In San Diego, after checking into the Naval Training Center where most of the crews stayed, Erickson listened to the rigid military regulations they would have to observe and said, "That's not as tough as what these guys are used to." And practicing on Mission Bay on a windy, rainy day, he shouted through his megaphone, "Come on, now, get tired, get tired!" and, "Get wheezing, come on, get wheezing!" As the oarsmen stopped and pressed their forefingers to their carotid arteries to test their pulse rates, it seemed about time for eight cardiac emergencies. But Erickson told them, "I know you don't want to work so hard this close to the race, but you have to. It's gonna be dog eat dog out there."
Erickson is now in his 11th year as varsity coach and can get away with playing the ogre. The Washington crew has a Spartan tradition. Captain and stroke Mike Hess likes to sleep outside on the open porch of the crew house, where the temperature occasionally drops into the 30s. Four Oar Kris Schonberg swims all winter in 42° Puget Sound. And if Erickson's' training regimen gets a little tedious, his swings in mood and wild stunts—his men call him Erratickson—provide welcome diversion. He regularly heaves megaphones at lazy crews, and one day not long ago he got so impatient with a faulty workout that he bit a chunk from the windshield of his coaching launch. That got him a gift of a polished wooden block, fitted with a miniature windshield and a pair of false teeth biting down on it.
The relationship between a crew coach and his oarsmen is apt to be strange in any case. No matter how much pain the oarsmen experience, they always respond with respect and affection, though this takes odd forms. As Harvard Six Oar George Aitken said of Coach Harry Parker at San Diego, "I guess we're really close to him, or we wouldn't call him the Weird One." Erickson, who is not the Pierre Cardin of Seattle, is known as Doubleknit Dick.
Penn Coach Ted Nash, 45, is known simply as Ted, perhaps because he has a black belt in judo, weighs 200 pounds, has completed six marathons, ran a guerrilla warfare camp and won a gold medal at Rome in a four-man shell, a bronze at Tokyo and 14 national rowing titles. Or perhaps it is because, as one of his oarsmen puts it, "He can total any one of us." After the loss to Washington, Nash approached Mike Hess and said, "Great race. We got you last year, and you got us this." And as the boats were being loaded on the trailers, Nash was saying of his oarsmen, "I want them to leave crew feeling as if some of the most spectacular moments of their lives were spent racing against their peers. And if I can create a memory for them that makes them smile for the next 40 years, then all my work will have been worthwhile."
"Is winning necessary for that?" he was asked.
"Hell, no," Nash said. "A crew races maybe seven times a year, for about six minutes per race. We practice for nine months, six days a week, two hours a day. That's 432 hours of practice and 42 minutes of competition. So winning is a part of it, yes, but obviously not the major part.
"Look over there. Half of my varsity is smiling now. The biggest thrill of all is that they gave it their best shot, and the racing was superb."
There is a real East-West rivalry in the sport, a clear clash of styles, off the water and on. Said a member of a California junior college crew to a group of Washington oarsmen, "It's great that you buried the Ivy League." But a California girl, watching the Huskies on the victory platform, complained about their hair. "If they just had some more hair it wouldn't be too bad." Most of the Huskies got crew cuts three weeks before the regatta, "to psych out our opponents." It is not likely that young men with nicknames like Big Bird and The Goog would cause hearts to flutter around Radcliffe, or kick around the Critique of Pure Reason. But having concluded that, so what? As a Washington booster said, "They went down that course with the best crews in the country, and today, at least, they reached the finish line first."