The college oarsman leads an odd existence. He labors to exhaustion, training for nine months in order to compete in maybe half a dozen races that hardly anyone sees. Nobody outside a tiny circle of enthusiasts knows his name. His rewards are deeply personal. His boat may win all its races, but he never really knows how good it is. There is no true national championship. His season is a muddle of ambiguities, of icy eastern Aprils or balmy western ones, of schools that never row each other, of shouts like the one from the California crew last weekend, "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!"
Cal's varsity heavyweight eight-oared shell had just beaten Washington at the Pac-10 championships, and a Cal oarsman explained the boat's exultant outburst: "We haven't rowed Yale yet, but at San Diego in April we beat everyone else except Harvard—Washington, Syracuse, Northeastern, Penn, all of them. And last week Harvard got creamed by Yale."
"If you're No. 1, then what about Yale?" he was asked. "They're still undefeated."
"We'll beat them at Henley in July," he replied. "That'll decide it, the national championship."
So once more, as in 1977, the so-called national championship will likely be settled in England. But what of Harvard? On Mother's Day, the Crimson had finished second to Yale in the Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass. It was Harvard's first loss of the season. But on June 9 the two old rivals meet again in the 101st rowing of their great four-mile race on the Thames River at New London, Conn. Yale has not won that one in 16 years, and the Elis still must survive a 2½ mile go with Navy next week. And who in New Haven can forget last year? Yale came into the Eastern Sprints undefeated, and won, but lost to Dartmouth the following week, and to Harvard in the four-miler in June.
So who's No. 1 at this point? Or, better still, who will be No. 1 on, say, June 9? For rowing people, the drama of the past couple of weeks has been marvelous to contemplate.
It began, to be purely arbitrary, on the dock at Harvard's Newell Boathouse the week preceding the Eastern Sprints. Pete Raymond, the editor of The Oarsman magazine, was saying, "I think everything is stacked in Yale's favor, except that they'll be rowing against people who are going to die before being beaten."
Harvard was still undefeated; two weeks earlier, in fact, it had set a Charles River course record, 5:44.8, in beating Princeton and MIT. Nevertheless, every coach entered in the Sprints had seeded Yale No. 1, except the Elis' Tony Johnson, who couldn't vote for his own crew and therefore named Harvard. Yale averaged 199 pounds a man to Harvard's 183, 6'4" in height to Harvard's 6'2". Also, in the Yale boat there was a little matter of redemption.
Last year's Yale freshman heavyweights were rowing their Harvard counterparts in a two-mile race, and were leading by more than three lengths with a quarter of a mile to go, when they hit a buoy and lost. A strong wind had caused the buoys to drift, but Yale's request for a rerow was denied, and there was some resentment over the customary presentation of the losers' racing shirts to the winners. Now three of those oarsmen were in Yale's varsity boat—Andy Messer and Matt Labine among them, weighing 215 pounds each—and they had waited a whole year for this day. With enemies like those, you need friends. The third, Karl Zinsmeister, a mere 193-pounder, was saying, "I had thought last year's race would be the biggest competition of my life, but this one is bigger. I had a vision this week of what it would be like to have Harvard cross the finish line first. I saw it over and over again, and I swore to myself that I wouldn't let it happen."
Now, with the 2,000-meter race less than an hour away, the three sophomores sat quietly together, and one of them said, "Let's not forget about those shirts." They didn't.
At 1,500 meters Zinsmeister was screaming, "Aaaaaagh!" Yale was six seats in front at that point, having led from approximately 200 meters, though Harvard had gained a seat at 1,100 meters. But Yale Coxswain Andy Fisher shouted, "Hold 'em off!" and they did. It was the first time this year that a crew was anywhere near Yale at 1,000 meters, and Yale's victory margin was less than a boat length. But still, one Yalie couldn't contain his glee. He pointed to the Harvard boat and called out, "Oh, you gods!" a mocking allusion to the line a euphoric Harvard man had used after his crew's victory in San Diego in April. But a Yale teammate snapped, "Shut up." The taunting oarsman later apologized to Harvard. "It was an ugly thing," he said, "the kind of thing that happens in the heat of a race. But I must admit that I hated Harvard going into this race. At the end, though, I realized what incredible oarsmen they are. They've just been winning too long to be humble."
Down the shore, the Harvard five-oar, Hap Porter, was saying, "I've been rowing nine years, and I've lost a few, but this is the, first time I've been outraced. So I don't feel too badly. They beat us, but we rowed our best."
Charles Altekruse Jr., the four man, at 200 pounds the heaviest member of the Crimson crew, said, "They got us today, but we're a good crew and I know we'll push them every bit of that four miles. We've got a lot of work to do, though."
"Oh, maybe we'll put on some weight," he said.
Last week at the Pac 10s, held in a man-made lagoon south of San Francisco, in a housing development called Redwood Shores, Cal might well have had a similar concern. The varsity eight's competition came down to Cal vs. Washington, as expected, and at 204 pounds per man, to 192 for Cal, the Huskies were even more intimidating physically than Yale. But this seems to be a rare year for Cal. It started with the second-place finish to Harvard at San Diego, where Washington, afflicted with bronchitis, failed to reach the finals. Then, early this month at Seattle, Cal accomplished the notable feat of beating the Huskies there for the first time since 1965. And along the way Cal seemed to have developed a flair for the colorful and outrageous to go with its winning ways.
At Seattle, the Bears loaded a tape deck aboard their shell and, when they had won, assailed an unappreciative home crowd with Cal fight songs, blared out through the coxswain's megaphone. And the coxswain happens to be a lady, Val McClain, a physiology major and also a licensed respiratory therapist, which would appear to be the right sort of sideline for one accustomed to sharing a boat with eight gasping males.
The mightiest mouth in the Cal boat belongs to Craig Amerkhanian, the two man, and as last Saturday's race approached he was saying, "If we're even with 20 strokes to go, I'd bet my life and everything I own that we'd win. I don't care who we're racing—East Germany, Russia, anyone."
Of the Huskies, he said, "We're ready to munch and lunch. The table is set for a doggie dinner."
The Washington response to such banter was a literal interpretation of the orders from their coaching staff: "We're Huskies. Be humble." And when a member of the Washington party was asked if the boat was healthy, he replied that they were. "But up here," he said, pointing to his head, "I'm not so sure. I know how losing at San Diego and Seattle has affected a few of them and I don't know if they really believe they can win."
The members of the Cal crew betrayed no self-doubts, and pulled out unheard-of stops. They brought jump ropes to the launching areas, and used them for warming up. Nobody could remember a crew doing that. They had a well-thought-out race plan, too, and they managed to blend it with a bit of high-spirited anarchy.
In their seats at the starting line, they suddenly joined hands and called out a Cal cheer: "One-two-three Bears!" To offset that, Washington had no tactic in its arsenal of humility. Six-oar Paul Prioleau, Cal's answer to Yale's Zinsmeister, let out a "Wheeeeeeeoop!" as his boat survived a ragged start. He let go with another at 400 meters as Cal edged ahead. "That's security," Amerkhanian said later. "It tells me everything is under control." At 750 meters McClain announced, "We're going now. Leave 'em in the dust." For the next 20 strokes the Cal oarsmen rowed to their physical limits, stopping just before their coxswain's therapy was required. It was part of the race plan, what Cal terms its "burst," and it got Cal open water over Washington. Although the Huskies countered with their own power sequence, it did them little good. Cal went on to win by a length, though both crews broke the course record, Cal with a 5:53.62, Washington with a 5:56.56. Arms shot up from the Cal boat, each with a forefinger extended, and the chanting grew. Who, indeed, was No. 1?
A 10-piece brass band from Berkeley greeted the winners ashore. Brass was perfect for this crew, and the band played all the Cal fight songs. Bears Coach Steve Gladstone stood off to the side. He had spoken to his crew before the race, telling them, "I have a lot of faith in you. You're mature fighters." Now he said, "Let them enjoy it. It's their day, but I must admit I'm very moved."
A bottle of California wine was passed around, some of it to be used as hair rinse, some for a toast. A Cal man held up a glass and said, "To Henley."
No Cal crew has gone to Henley since 1948, an Olympic year. The Cal eight was the U.S. entry, and it brought home a gold medal. This year it will cost Cal $23,000 to make the trip, and $16,000 has already been raised. The question arose as to whether the rest of the money would be forthcoming.
"After today?" replied a Cal man. "Are you kidding?"
Washington crew Coach Dick Erickson had said before the race, "We've got no more sickness in this boat. We've got one of our best crews ever now, and if Cal wins they deserve a lot of credit." Erickson appeared to be right on all counts, judging from the speed of both crews. Of course Amerkhanian didn't quite see it that way. "I just wish we'd been pushed a little more," he said. "I guess we'll have to wait for Yale."
Or perhaps for Harvard, he might have added.