One day last week, Washington Coach Dick Erickson was pedaling his bike beside the Thames, upon which the university's heavyweight eight was practicing for the Henley Grand Challenge Cup, when suddenly he shouted to his crew, "See those stands up ahead? That's the Remenham Club, and it's full of experts. They've got their monocles and spyglasses out and they'll be picking every stroke apart, so let them know you're Washington." Instantly the shell shot ahead at a smooth, muscle-popping 43 strokes a minute. Erickson beamed with pride, as befits the ruler of every rowing course from Seattle to San Diego. "But why show off?" he was asked. "Because this is the Henley Royal Regatta," he said. "They've been racing here for 139 years, and we're the Huskies, the defending champions, and, well...." And off he pedaled.
Although the Remenham cognoscenti seemed impressed by Washington, this feeling was not shared by another onlooker, Nikolai Zdravkov, the coach of the eight-oared crew from the Trakia Club of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. "Hosskees?" he said speculatively, as though he actually had no idea at all what a Hosskee might be. Finally, through an interpreter, he allowed that he was "aware of Washington, that they have good preparation."
The Trakia boat had four men remaining from last year's Bulgarian entry in the world championships at Amsterdam. That crew, the first eight-oared shell ever to compete for Bulgaria, finished seventh. The Henley boat was clearly an improvement, and as a matter of fact had beaten Washington twice the previous weekend in warmup races at Nottingham. Just before Henley began, Zdravkov was asked, "Who will be your biggest competition?" Zdravkov, a single-minded man, replied carefully, "My crew is very young, so who wins is not important. What matters is the experience we gain."
Despite Zdravkov's modesty, when the experts at Henley were asked, "Can the Bulgarians lose?" opinion ranged from "impossible" to "highly unlikely." Their Nottingham performance had been too convincing. But last year at Nottingham, Washington also lost twice, and then came to Henley and beat the British national crew for the Cup. And Britain, silver-medalist at Amsterdam, had not rowed against Bulgaria at Nottingham because several of the crew were ill. At Henley, however, the British were ready. So the mood as the big races drew near was one of suspense, heightened by the presence of two crews, Syracuse and Northeastern, whose credentials were unfamiliar to many members of the Remenham Club.
July 9, 1978
A case of sorts could be made for their being at Henley. After winning four of six races during its collegiate season, Syracuse had triumphed in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta for the first time in 58 years. At Nottingham it had come in third behind Bulgaria and France, but five seconds ahead of mighty Washington, thereby becoming the first U.S. crew to finish ahead of the Huskies this year. Northeastern, whose nickname is also the Huskies, was at Henley for more romantic reasons. These Huskies had not had a good enough season to be sent there, but the oarsmen had a dream—to row and to win at Henley. So the boys raised most of their own expenses, crossed the pond in one of Freddie Laker's planes and entered the competition representing the Northeastern University Rowing Association. At Henley they recited an astounding fact: three times this year they had trailed opponents by open water, and in the space of only 40 strokes had sprinted to victory, also by open water.
"But you haven't raced the Huskies yet," they were told, to which Coxswain Bob Neckes replied, "We're the Huskies. They're only snapping puppies, and their bark is worse than their bite." With that kind of sass, and a sprint to match, indeed anything seemed possible.
Meanwhile, at breakfast in Henley, many of the Bulgarians were learning their fifth word of English—cornflakes. The other four were: "Are you ready? Go!" And how they went, beating the British in the opening race of the Grand by 1¼ lengths. Their coxswain caused much comment, lying feet forward in the bow, with his back to his men. "We only want the coxswain to steer," explained Zdravkov. "Are you happy now?" he was asked. "Not happy," he said, "but very glad. I will be happy if we win at Moscow."
The next morning Washington, being Washington, was on the river at seven, practicing, all but alone. The Huskie dogfight was scheduled for 12:15, and Washington Coxswain John Stillings carefully set his watch a full minute ahead of the clock at the officials' tent, not wanting to be late. But at the start the umpire's clock told a different story. As Washington and Northeastern moved slowly up the course, the umpire decided that both boats were late, awarded each a false start and warned them that another would disqualify them, which would send Bulgaria and Syracuse directly to the finals.
At the gun, the crews started with exceeding caution. After five strokes the Washington boat began veering to the left; Two Oar Mark Sawyer, the strongest man in the boat, was pulling too hard. Stillings quickly got the rudder right, and Northeastern's dream collapsed with each successive stroke. The Washington Huskies won by four lengths, and Neckes said, "I never expected them to be that fast. They deserve to beat Bulgaria."
That afternoon the Bulgarians left Syracuse two lengths behind, and as the Orange oarsmen sat gasping in their shell the Bulgarians were already marching up the dock with their oars. "We didn't row our best race," said Syracuse Coach Bill Sanford, "but if we had we still would have lost."
Strangely, the Bulgarians were dissatisfied with their performance. As Zdravkov explained, "We beat Syracuse two times at Nottingham, so we thought it would be easy to beat them again, and we relaxed too much. That we must never do. But the most important race is tomorrow, the finals with Washington. It is always that way for us, until Moscow, and then there will be no more tomorrows."
At the Washington boat stall, Stroke Mike Hess was asked, "What about Bulgaria?"
"We've got to go fast," he said, "faster than last year, faster than we've ever gone. Every time we've done a practice this week I've been thinking, 'How was it last year? What did we do right then? What about the new men in the boat?' And especially, 'Are we faster?' "
"So what's the plan for tomorrow?"
"To put it to the floor, and see what happens."
On Sunday Stillings and Hess, both seniors, sat facing each other for the last time, and suddenly there was no more waiting. The shells started down the river, past a wooded island, a tiny bright house in a green dell, and Washington led by three feet. The news was relayed down the course, and a stir went through the crowd at the finish. At the quarter mile the boats were even, but Bulgaria was coming on and at the halfway point of the mile-and-5/16ths course led by 1¼ lengths. Then, at the Steward's Enclosure, where the champagne was flowing freely, a shout arose: "The Yanks!" Washington was sprinting, but it was too late. The Huskies lost by three-quarters of a length. Dick Erickson said he had no regrets. "We'll have to reach a long way back to find out what we could have done better," he said.
At the Bulgarian tent, Nikolai Zdravkov was saying, "The boys are tired. The traveling is hard, and they can't get their favorite food, shashlik and schnitzels from Bulgaria."
"What did you learn from racing one-on-one here?" he was asked. "There is no rep‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢chage here," he said. "If you lose a race you are finished. So here we learned to be tough."
Earlier in the week an English society lady was speaking to a Bulgarian official through an interpreter. "I suppose that when the revolution comes you will do away the Steward's Enclosure," she said.
The Bulgarian replied, "It all depends on whether the revolution comes from Bulgaria to Henley, or from Henley to Bulgaria."
It appears that one revolution, in rowing, has already begun. Watch out for the Bulgarian navy.