The University of California coxswain is a 23-year-old senior named Zembsch, Mark Zembsch, which rhymes with, with...well, skip it. Ponder now the equally distinctive oarsmen he leads. Forget about their official nickname, the Golden Bears. Think of them as the Mystic Knights of the Sea, with apologies to the lodge Amos 'n' Andy made famous, and pick them up last Saturday on San Diego's Mission Bay. They have just won that city's ninth annual Crew Classic, the odd early-season regatta that is the only occasion all year in which the big crews from the East and West face each other. Drifting beyond the finish line, the air filled with moans and shouts of joy, Zembsch looks dazed. Suddenly his attention is drawn to something in the water beside his boat, to a pair of human eyes gazing up at him from just beneath the surface of the bay. A plastic bag enclosing a camera emerges, followed by two hands and the wet-suited body of a photographer with a new approach to the subject of crew. For Cal, clearly, no other kind would do.
Ashore, Cal's 21-year-old stroke oar, Dan Louis, is asked, "At what point of the race did you think you had it won?"
"Last Thursday night," Louis replies, and he seems serious. He usually does. At 6'4" and 190 pounds he's one of the country's most gifted oarsmen, a national junior sculling champion in high school and the Cal stroke as a freshman. Freshman strokes are very rare, and now Louis is a junior, someone for underclassmen to emulate. He does tend to be serious.
Louis was talking on Saturday afternoon, and Cal hadn't appeared to have the race won until about 10 minutes earlier. On the Thursday night in question, the situation was somewhat different. Cal Coach Mike Livingston was worried about inadequate preparation. Weather had been a problem for Cal, though it hadn't suffered the chilling cold Harvard had endured in the Northeast, nor snow and high winds, like Washington. And Cal didn't have flu in the boat, as Yale did. What had hampered Cal were freakish hailstorms, and before those a week of final exams. How could the Mystic Knights win? Well, to start with, there was Louis' "Thursday night."
Louis had called a meeting, not attended by Livingston, and asked, "Why do you guys want to win?"
Junior Four Oar Chris Huntington, a rhetoric major, replied with something on the order of, "Win? Not just win. Dominate! When you row, your body is pushed to incredible limits. The pain starts to affect your brain and your willpower. You think that winning isn't everything. But if you think of domination, then, when the willpower starts to fade...." Domination became a key word for Cal as race day approached.
Zembsch said, "It started out as a technical meeting, but we wound up discovering how much we had in common."
"We attained unity, and confidence in one another," said Huntington.
"A synthesis of minds and attitudes developed," said senior Six Oar Chris Clark, who has developed nearly religious feelings for Cal. He had rowed two years at Orange Coast Community College, then transferred to Stanford in 1979, but he was so moved by the sight of Cal beating Washington in a dual meet that he transferred again, to Cal. He knew that as a transfer he would be ineligible to row last year, but, as he says, "I had to race again, and for Cal."
Said senior George Livingston, the coach's younger brother and the five oar, "Suddenly we felt that this boat had a destiny."
At San Diego they were sure of it. One of the race posters included an excerpt from a speech given at the Yale commencement of 1886 by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The speech used crew as a metaphor and ended with two questions: "Is life less than a boat race? If a man will give all the blood in his body to win the one, will he not spend all the might of his soul to prevail in the other?"
Many crews read the excerpt, but it seemed to speak only to Cal. As George Livingston would say, "That outlook extends far beyond rowing. But believe me, we know it will help over 2,000 meters."
And before Holmes, in the hearts and minds of Cal, there was the coach, 33-year-old Mike Livingston. Zembsch refers to Livingston's "Eastern philosophies." "Mike leads by example," he says. "He happens to be a vegetarian, but he doesn't tell us what to eat. Still, now we all eat less meat, and what meat we do eat is power food, not steak from a cow that stood around in a stall."
Cal rowed all winter in the Oakland Estuary, starting off at 7 a.m., and there always seemed to be colds in the boat. Those colds vanished after Livingston's wife, Arlina, began greeting the crews, coming off the water at 9 a.m., with steaming bowls of miso soup.
Livingston produces food for thought, too, with technical advice and with the "example" of his unusual life. He rowed four years at Harvard. He and his brother Cleve, now 34, were the bow pair in the eight-oared shell that won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics. But mere rowing didn't seem to qualify him to coach Cal. Neither, certainly, did his earning a law degree, or his working for the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado. And when he resigned from the ACLU, in 1978, and went to live for two years in a remote Indian village in Guatemala, he didn't seem to be preparing for anything like his current job.
What was he doing in Guatemala? In his coaching launch at San Diego the day before the race, he was asked, "Are you an anthropologist?"
"In a free-form way," he said.
"Were you studying?"
Back in the U.S., Livingston heard of the opening at Cal. He had no formal coaching experience, but, as he says, "In four years of rowing under Harry Parker at Harvard I saw coaching at the highest level, and from an intimate perspective. I kept journals, too." The people at Cal were sufficiently impressed.
On Friday night, the eve of the big race, Livingston, his oarsman brother and their mother, Ethel, decided to dedicate the race to their father and husband, Jack, a professor of political science and government at Cal State-Sacramento, who died last summer. In the last Cal race he had seen, Cal had lost to Washington in the Pac-10 championships.
On Saturday morning the Mystic Knights of the Sea won a preliminary heat. Later the Cal JV, behind by half a deck to Orange Coast with only 10 strokes remaining, won its race. And after that the Cal freshmen, six seats down with 500 meters to go, pulled past Orange Coast to win theirs. Cal was two-thirds of the way toward its first sweep ever at San Diego.
And now the varsity was in Lane 1, Washington in Lane 2. The Huskies' reputation was larger than life, as always. Literally. Mike Livingston had said, "Our heaviest guy is lighter than their average weight—209." He was wrong, by one pound. Huntington weighs 210.
As the race was about to begin, Zembsch was saying, "Remember Thursday night." And then Washington went ahead by two seats at the start. But soon Zembsch was calling, "We're even," and then, "We're one seat up." At 500 meters Cal was two seats up, and between 500 and 1,000 Washington fell a boat length back, to third. Yale, in Lane 3, was challenging in second place, and at 1,250, Zembsch announced, "Yale's coming on." At 1,600 the Elis were only four seats back. But Cal had beaten Yale in the morning heat, and as Huntington said later, "Domination. Domination. I had absolute confidence. I knew when we got to that last 500 that everyone would reach down to their guts."
Everyone did, and Cal led Yale home by half a boat length, followed by Washington, UCLA, Harvard and Cornell.
Later, with the boats ashore, and after many tears of joy had been shed, an old friend of the Livingston family turned to Mike and George's mother and said, "Momma, Poppa would have been proud today, wouldn't he?"
"I'm sure he already knows," she answered confidently, and he may well have. After all, Cal had been working the mystic side of the Bay.