Devin Mahony, as spunky and freckled as a trout, has spent the last seven years of her life screaming at men nearly twice her size. Harry Parker, who is always intimidating, has spent the last 31 of his with the same sort of men, but his methods run more toward baleful glares. Mahony (MAY-oh-knee) is the demanding coxswain of the Harvard varsity heavyweight eight-oared shell, and Parker is her commanding coach. At last Saturday's fourth annual National Intercollegiate Men's Rowing Championship at Harsha Lake near Cincinnati, they fashioned a suspenseful masterpiece.
Six varsity eights came to Cincinnati. Three were guests of the race committee: Harvard, by winning this year's Eastern Sprints and its annual four-mile classic with Yale; Washington, winner of the Pacific Coast championship; and Princeton, which had won its first Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta. Coming off less successful seasons and paying their own way were Wisconsin, Cornell and the University of California-Berkeley. But all six schools have been rowing powers, and as coach Dick Erickson of defending champion Washington said, "This could be one of the great ones."
Erickson didn't seem worried, though, and, indeed, he had no reason to be just after the start of the 2,000-meter race. His Kevlar/carbon fiber shell, creaking like an old house, jumped out to a boat-length lead after only 20 strokes. In the adjoining lane, Harvard had been distracted by the creaking at the start, but the Crimson oarsmen weren't concerned when Washington pulled away because they were convinced that the Huskies had gone too fast. At 500 meters, Harvard trailed Wisconsin and Cal, as well as Washington. Princeton was three seats behind, in fifth. But at 750, Wisconsin and Cal were fading and Harvard and Princeton were gaining on the Huskies. At 1,200 Harvard was in second place, tuned in again to Washington's squeaky symphony. But Princeton was only five seats back and rowing furiously. Harvard stroke Andrew Sudduth, two man in last year's U.S. Olympic silver-medal eight, began to worry that he and his crew would pass Washington, relax and lose the race to Princeton.
He knew his crew wasn't invincible, having opened its season with a rough-water loss to Brown, only the second time Harvard had been defeated in the 21-year rivalry. The following week Harvard beat Princeton by a length, setting a collegiate record of 5:42.8 for the Charles River course. But then the Crimson went out and lost to Navy, a crew Harvard should have beaten handily. Three oar Arthur Hollingsworth says, "It was our worst defeat in years, but our best one, too." Two days later, Parker called a meeting in the tank room of the boat house. He walked in, checked to see if everyone was there, then left without saying a word, closing the door behind him. Someone said, "Do I smell gas?" and everyone broke up. That reduced the tension—temporarily. Then Parker came back. Hollingsworth recalls: "His eyes were burning! He said, 'Only three times in my career have I had a crew that was outraced by an inferior one.' He let that sink in.
June 23, 1985
"It became a turning point for us," Hollingsworth continued. "Every race since then we've reminded ourselves of what happened at Navy. We've been extremely aggressive, afraid of repeating that loss."
The following week Sudduth took over the stroke seat for the first time since Harvard's win at Cincinnati two years ago (he took last year off to prepare for the Olympics) and helped the Crimson beat Northeastern. Parker says, "He alone probably didn't change our boat speed significantly. But the crew has so much faith in him that its confidence was restored." The next week Harvard, won the Sprints for the 14th time, and one month later ended its regular season by breaking a string of four Yale victories with its 69th win in the 120th running of the four-miler.
Confidence is obviously an old tradition in Harvard crew, and there are many reasons for it. For example, Harvard's crew draws from all over—six states and two foreign countries. The Princeton lineup may have been only slightly less cosmopolitan, but five of its men had never rowed before college. In contrast, all nine Harvard oarsmen had rowed for three or more years at their respective prep schools, and that level of experience is a Harvard constant. Sudduth started rowing in the ninth grade at Exeter. Mahony started coxing her freshman year at Andover. But four oar George Hunnewell says, "I think Harry could take a coordinated beginner and make him good in a few years."
Perhaps, but at 1,500 meters in Cincinnati, it was comforting for Harvard to have a seven-year veteran calling the shots. Mahony shouted, "It's grim reaper time! It's our last 500, and we're going to win!" Harvard, its rate suddenly up from 36 to 38 strokes per minute, was edging past Washington but now trailed Princeton by two seats. The Tigers held the lead at 1,600, Harvard drew even at 1,700 and Mahony was at it again: "We're even with Princeton...we're one seat up...we're two seats up with 200 to go." (Later, Princeton coxswain Joe Dougherty said, "No, we were even then. It was a big psych.") Then Mahony called: "Big 10!" for 10 even more powerful strokes. Seconds later, Harvard had won its second national championship in three years, with a course-record time of 5:44.4. Princeton, a half-second back, followed by Washington, Cornell and Wisconsin, all beat the old record of 5:50.8. Erickson was correct; it had been one of the great ones.
Princeton lodged a protest after the race. The Harvard boat had to carry a 17-pound bag of sand because its coxswain weighed 103 pounds and the minimum is 120. The weigh-in referee, Dr. Warren Harding, allowed Mahony to put the bag where she wanted, and she put it between the six and seven seats. Tiger coach Larry Gluckman contended that she should have had to put the bag at her feet, as specified in international rules. "My cox doesn't have the option to take off his left leg and put it in the six seat," Gluckman said, worried that having the weight in the center of the shell may have given Harvard an advantage. The protest was disallowed because the rules for the nationals don't specify the location for the extra weight, and Harvard was still national champion.
Hollingsworth, a seven-year crew veteran, said, "I've never felt a boat move like ours did so late in a race. The after-burners just turned on."
Someone said to Mahony, "The tension in those last seconds must have been unbearable."
"Yes," she answered, "but we were all in the same boat."