There is a point at which joy, deeply felt, can verge on mania, but there are far better places for one to experience that transcendent emotion than in an exquisitely unstable eight-oared racing shell. But Harvard varsity's oarsmen were beyond all reason last week. One stood swaying on his seat at the San Diego Crew Classic after the 2,000-meter Copley Cup for varsity heavyweight eights rolling his eyes, waving his arms and screaming at his teammates, over and over, "Oh, you gods! Oh, you gods!" Others were smashing wildly at the waters of Mission Bay with clenched fists, emitting glad wordless cries, possibly convinced, in the grip of their mania, that they could influence the current. This did not seem farfetched, because the shell gave no signs of capsizing.
But before the Harvards stepped overboard, to walk across the water to shore, they calmed down enough to row there. Later they were able to explain their reaction to winning the day's big race, the season's first major test of transcontinental rowing power.
To fully appreciate Harvard's outburst, one has to know a bit of Harvard history, how a rowing dynasty fell on bad times last year, with a loss here at San Diego, then two more later in the season. Now the Harvard four oar, Charlie Altekruse Jr., was saying, "We were really hungry today. You don't know what it's like to lose, until you've lost for Harvard. Everyone always talks about the winner of a race. But if Harvard loses, then everyone talks about that. So we had a score to settle."
"We won in an old, borrowed boat," said Gordie Gardiner, the stroke. "Don't forget about that. We didn't even have a theme, like some other Harvard crews. No Year of the Crab, no Year of the Snake, no Smooth and Rude. We just went out and worked hard and won."
April 16, 1979
And it was a boat full of friends, six of them, now seniors. "A together boat," one called it, "technically and emotionally, and we wanted to win so badly."
They did it by open water over California, with Wisconsin another three quarters of a length back, Penn the same distance behind Wisconsin, and Brown and Navy bringing up the rear. Harvard had started moving strongly at 400 meters, with Coxswain Harry You shouting, "O.K., no one's moving on us now." They passed Wisconsin at 650 to go, Cal at about 750 and inexorably moved away. Two Oar Tim McGee said later, "I said to myself, 'This crew's so damned solid and strong I can't believe it.' I've been with fast crews before, but I've never felt anything like that."
"A little sweet revenge," said a grinning Warren Perkins, the six oar, summing it all up. But that did not fully explain the wild demonstration Harvard put on when the race was over, which couldn't be separated from the atmosphere of the most colorful and zany crew classic in the seven-year history of the event. Simply put, there were four crews everyone at San Diego was talking about before the race, and Harvard was not one of them; to lose was one thing, but to be ignored....
Brown, for example, was called "the dark horse" at least 96 times by TV and newspaper reporters, and when Brown Coach Vic Michalson, a World War II PT-boat skipper, took his old commanding officer along during a workout, the CO "saw something," as he put it, a flaw in the Brown boat. Asked about it, Michalson replied, "Ha, ha, I'd rather not comment." Brown, a dark horse?
And then there was Cal. Word got out that its crew had higher ergometer scores than the U.S. national team, and Cal Coach Steve Gladstone, no braggart, was calling his bunch "the best crew I've ever had." His orders, as they headed south, were, "Think of yourself as hunters, not prey." Crew is a sport of considerable gentility, but the day before racing began, a 6'4" Cal man—that was Cal's average height—was announcing, "The hunters are here, and the prey is on the run."
For intrigue and suspense there were Wisconsin and Penn. Each would be accepting delivery at San Diego of a radically designed new shell, made of DuPont Kevlar and costing $7,800. The new boats, built by California mechanical engineer Merritt Robinson, weighed an astonishingly light 180 pounds, contrasted with 265 to 325 pounds for the other boats at the crew classic. Only one Robinson had ever been rowed in a race—by a Harvard crew that finished seventh at last fall's Head of the Charles Regatta. Harvard owns that shell, though it has used it little since the Head, and it does not bring its own boats to San Diego, anyway. And on the eve of the regatta Harvard had no reason to regret that policy. The new boats seemed to be falling apart; foot stretchers in each one had fractured under the strain of prerace workouts, and the Penn boat had a crack in one gunwale. But Robinson was making emergency repairs with stainless-steel tubing purchased at a local hardware store, and that night a friend, feeling badly for him, asked, "Would you have any serious objection to Penn or Wisconsin winning its heat tomorrow?"
Robinson replied, "I'm looking forward to it." The next morning, when Wisconsin won and Penn finished second in their six-boat heat, Robinson was beaming and Penn Coach Ted Nash was saying, "You're looking at a whole new generation of boats. This is like a baby being born."
How had Wisconsin and Penn done it? Wisconsin was undeniably out of shape, its lake back home still frozen, its campus under snow; the Badgers, famous for conditioning, had rowed a few miles among ice floes and had not run 20 miles since November. Randy Jablonic, Wisconsin's irrepressible coach, said, "Every morning we get up and make offerings to Bimbo the Polar Bear." And Penn had lost seven seniors from last year's crew, enabling Nash to call this a "typical rebuilding year." Were the new boats that good? Would the face of the sport be changed overnight?
Brown, becoming a darker horse by the hour, beat out Washington, the colossus of West Coast rowing, for third in that heat, producing an even bigger shocker. Beforehand, Washington Coach Dick Erickson had said unconcernedly, "We'll be in the finals." Now, slightly bewildered, he croaked, "We crashed."
For its own part, Harvard went on to win its heat, with Cal second and Navy third, and the stage was set for the big race that afternoon. There would be two space-age boats, a group of 6'4" hunters searching for prey, a horse (now jet black and under the tutelage of two PT-boat skippers) and Navy—all vs. Harvard, the smallest crew in the competition, racing in a borrowed, old boat.
Two days earlier, Harvard Coach Harry Parker had told a reporter, "We're not ready to race. A couple of weeks from now I'd be sure, but we haven't done enough work at racing cadences, so it will be touch and go. We may have a good race and we may not." It seemed a startling admission; after all, Parker had brought his crew all the way to San Diego. Now, before the race, he spoke briefly to his men. "Go out as hard as you can, right after you settle down, and freeze the momentum of the other crews." And, of course, they did.
Parker is famous for making a few words go a long way. Last year, after his oarsmen had finished second at the Eastern Sprints and later lost to Navy, he spoke to them as they got ready for Yale. "He didn't dwell on our failures," said Altekruse. "He simply said, 'Just dare to do your best,' and those words stayed with me. I was waiting to hear them again this year, but they didn't come. And I guess I didn't need them."
Altekruse said, "Harry lets you go through all the thinking processes on your own. He's rarely explicit. The information is never pushed on you, but somehow he still imparts what you need for a good hard race. He plants it in your mind and it starts to grow. He makes you think, or maybe he lets you think, and you come out a better oarsman for it, and a better person, too."
In February, as a new school term began, Parker called a meeting. He told everyone that all the crews on the schedule would be tough and that his men would have to work very hard, because they would not be overpowering this year. "They'll be out to get us," he said, "but we're going to row right through them and freeze their momentum." Mercifully, the Year of the Frozen Momentum never caught on as a theme.
Two days before the San Diego race Parker was conducting a workout on Mission Bay. Earlier in the week, on the plane west, Stroke Gordie Gardiner had spoken to him about his form at the starts of races; Gardiner said he felt he was doing something wrong. Now on the Bay, Parker responded. "Gordie," he called out, "shoulders all the way back." Now Parker said, "O.K., 10 strokes, let's go. Be quick and solid now. Gordie, keep your length. You've got to be careful of those high strokes."
Throughout the workout Parker hardly spoke to anyone but Gardiner, though he delivered no speeches. Once he said, "Gordie, you tend to be too quick with the legs." The next night, when he came off the water, Gardiner said, "I've suddenly discovered what I was doing wrong. I wasn't laying back enough. I think a lot of it was tightness in the shoulders. Now I've started getting a little more length, and it's just great."
The next afternoon he got into his stroke seat and helped freeze the momentum of Cal, Wisconsin, Penn, Brown and Navy. Later, after Gardiner had beat away at Mission Bay with his fists, he was asked, "Would Harry have criticized your starts today?" and the stroke replied, "I very much doubt it." Then he went off to do what young Harvard oarsmen are supposed to do after such days—drink beer, talk about Harry Parker and dream of dynasties.