A group of Washington oarsmen stood in front of a TV set last Saturday following the Pac 8 rowing championships in Seattle, cheering as they watched Affirmed win the Preakness. They were as excited about that as they had been all day, which seemed odd, because they had just beaten California in a thrilling race, the Huskies' 24th win in 27 meetings with their archrivals over the past 11 years and a victory that capped their first undefeated season since back in 1973. The reason for the comparative lack of exuberance over their own triumph, as stroke oar Mike Hess said, was that "We were expected to win."
Crew will never challenge the Preakness for network time, which in this case is in some ways unfortunate. Had the media paid a little more attention to rowing earlier in the day, Hess might have been less excited by the horse race and more by Washington's rowing feat. A few thousand miles east of Seattle, on Lake Onondaga in Syracuse that morning, Dartmouth had beaten Yale in the second biggest surprise of the 1978 collegiate rowing season. And that left Washington the only undefeated college crew in the country.
Once, Dartmouth over Yale would have drawn a ho and a hum. But that was before 1978, the season of Washington's dominance in the West and chaos in the East. The story is complicated, and full of unexpected twists and turns. Early in April, Harvard, perennially a rowing colossus, had come West and finished fourth at San Diego in a race won by Washington. But because of the tough winter, the Crimson had trained hardly at all, and they went on to leave Syracuse, Brown, Princeton and Penn in their wakes, seemingly the Harvard of old. As always, the Crimson were peaking for the big one, the Eastern Sprints of two weeks ago, at which they were looking for their fifth straight victory. Fourteen other crews were waiting on Lake Quinsigamond at Worcester, Mass.; second place would be a prize for any of them. Harvard, of course, was in the six-boat finals. But so was Yale, making it that far for only the second time in its last 10 tries.
When the race was 20 strokes old, Yale was even with Syracuse and ahead of everyone else. At 400 meters the Yale boat had five seats on Harvard, and at 500 meters Eli coxswain Andrew Fisher called, "Take a concentration 10," a Yale term which means: for 10 strokes clear your mind. Fisher glanced anxiously to starboard, momentarily expecting to catch a glimpse of crimson shirts, but he saw none. At 1,000 meters, a crucial point in the race—Fisher had said, "That's when Harvard blew my freshman boat off the water"—he saw Harvard edging up. "Oh God, here they come," he kept thinking. But they didn't. A sudden gust of wind scudded into the Yale boat, and its rhythm faltered for a moment. Fisher, his eyes flickering sideward, called, "Relax," and at 1,300 meters there was again open water between his stern and Harvard's bow.
The next 90 seconds, Fisher knew, might be worth recalling 50 years from now, if only he could keep his concentration. Yet it was impossible for him not to think of Harvard-Yale—and all that meant—and rowing, the oldest of American intercollegiate sports. The Elis had not beaten the Crimson in a heavyweight race for 15 years.
The stroke watch read 35 at 1,500 meters. Fisher called, "Take it up one," and at 1,750, "Harvard's coming on, take it to 37." But Harvard was a length back, and then three-quarters back as Yale crossed the finish line. There was some "fierce hugging," as the Yalies put it, in the boat. Few college oarsmen ever felt better about themselves. As Washington was tops in the West, Yale was No. 1 in the East.
The euphoria around New Haven lasted just one week.
Was overconfidence responsible for the disaster that overtook the Elis at Syracuse last weekend?
"I don't think it can be explained," said Yale crew manager Steve Seifert. Dartmouth, which had failed to make the finals of the Eastern Sprints and had beaten only Wisconsin this year, left Yale two lengths behind in the morning race. In the afternoon the Eastern crew season continued true to form. Morning giant killer, Dartmouth, went out against Syracuse and lost. So, you figure out Eastern precedence.
Back in Seattle, the Huskies were attending to business: covering phone receivers with shaving cream, treating visitors to their docks to unexpected swims in Lake Washington—"Lake shots," they call it—and winning races: three of the five Pac 8 women's events and all six of the men's that they entered. The Cal race was thrilling because it was so closely contested and because it could be watched from the two best places in the world to view a crew race, a bridge spanning the 200-foot-wide Montlake Cut 70 feet above the 1,700-meter mark, and from the Cut's high banks.
The shells start on Lake Washington against the backdrop of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains 50 miles to the east, and then enter the Cut for the last 750 meters. From the bridge, they appear to be exquisitely wrought toys.
Cal, the lighter crew, got off to its usual fast start, rowing 40 strokes a minute for the first 500 meters. Entering the Cut, at 1,250 meters, Washington was five seats down. Approaching the bridge, with Cal barely ahead, Washington cox John Stillings suddenly seemed to go berserk, calling out, "Sprint now...up two...open it up...pull the cork...," all in rapid succession. As the Huskies emerged from under the bridge they had taken the lead, by a foot or so. Stillings let them know, yelling, "Half a seat...a seat...half a seat...a seat," subtracting a little from the actual lead, afraid his crew might let up, even for an instant. Washington crossed the line four feet and [3/10] of a second ahead of Cal and eight seconds in front of Oregon State. Mike Hess gasped, "Did we win?" "Yes," Stillings replied, and Hess fell backwards. He spent most of the next 20 minutes there, holding a wet towel to his head. "Everything was hurting," he said later. "I was never so close to running on empty."
Washington Coach Dick Erickson, who is being called the Admiral these days, was puffing his ubiquitous pipe, drinking his endless stream of coffee and saying, "I'm under a lot of strain. When you're on top, you've got to keep picking winning boats."
In July he will take his men back to England's Henley Royal Regatta, where the Huskies are defending champions. California will go to next month's IRA in Syracuse, which it won in 1976. Wisconsin, which almost beat Harvard in the qualifying heats of the Eastern Sprints, could be tough there, too. As Erickson is fond of saying, "You never know in this sport. You just never know."