Tucking his hand in his blazer pocket with David Nivenish aplomb, Daniel Topolski looks like a British colonial gent ready for a gin and tonic after a hard day of trying to prevent the sun from setting on the Empire. But this spring the crew coach of Oxford University may have felt like doubling the gin and skipping the tonic. He had come 5,500 miles to see his shell finish last behind the University of California and UCLA in the third UCLA Crew Classic at Marina del Rey.
The Dark Blues had left the Thames in order to row in a glorified drainage ditch called La Ballona Creek. Oxford brought 157 years of rowing tradition to Southern California, though its image had been slightly tarnished two weeks earlier when the eight lost to Cambridge in an event the English call, with typical insularity, the Boat Race. So Oxford, which hadn't been beaten by Cambridge in 11 years, sought solace in the States. Unfortunately, the UCLA Classic is a 2,000-meter sprint, and the Brits had trained for the 4-mile Boat Race.
The Dark Blues arrived in Los Angeles as if they were a squad of district commissioners inspecting a remote outpost of the Khyber Rifles. They visited a mock British pub, had dinner at the British consul general's and were escorted around town by Hollywood-British actresses. They also visited Disneyland, but a planned junket to the Playboy mansion went bust. "Hey now," muttered one Oxonian rower, Donald Macdonald, "that would have gotten a lot of street credit back in England."
Happily, the women of the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority at UCLA hopped in and threw the Brits a formal dinner party. "I didn't see one acne pimple amongst them," marveled Bruce Philp, Oxford's five oar. Philp had picked up a bottle of Rebel Yell the week before in Augusta, where the Blues rowed in a regatta that included heavyweight eights from Temple, Tulane and Georgetown. Rebel Yell, Philp had read, is the whiskey Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones drinks.
June 15, 1986
The Dark Blues were quite taken with the Thetas. "They were actually extremely charming and even astute," said Macdonald, who at 30 is the oldest oarsman ever to row in the Boat Race. "The meal, however, was a cultural eye-opener." He was amused by the sorority sisters' custom of standing and tapping their glasses with spoons whenever they wished to make an announcement. "And after dinner," he said, "they all started to sing some sort of jingly, Walt Disney tune about how they'd always be Theta girls, even if they lived to be a hundred."
George Livingston, formerly a Cal oarsman and one of two Americans on the Oxford squad, had inoculated his mates against culture shock by showing them videos of National Lampoon's Vacation and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and teaching them to prefix all sentences with the expression "Hey now!" But Livingston disclaims credit for the prank the Dark Blues pulled in an Augusta inn. They dumped 30 pounds of detergent into a hot tub hoping it would foam over into a distant swimming pool.
The suds merely slurped blob-like over a 50-foot area. "It all just sort of foamed out," reported Macdonald.
A bit of cleansing foam might have helped La Ballona Creek, the concrete-lined canal where the race was rowed. It appeared that if the winning coxswain were to be ceremonially dunked after victory, he would have to be disinfected upon withdrawal. Not that the Thames is always such a placid stream. When the weather is especially grim, pulling through the rough chop is like bicycling through molasses.
UCLA rowing alumni launched the Classic to save their sinking crew program, which was in danger of being scuttled. School administrators were reluctant to subsidize a small, nonrevenue sport in which athletes sit on their butts and go backward. So the old crew boys brought Oxford over and enlisted the help of a flotilla of celebrities. Confided former Bruin Walter Brennan (no, not the Real McCoy), "Basically, we blackmailed the university into keeping crew."
The event turned out to be about one-fifth festival, one-fifth stand-up comedy and three-fifths rowing. Actor Dudley Moore, the master of ceremonies, holds two degrees in music from Oxford. He took a fancy to the university at an early age. "I thought dark blue a delightful color," he explained. "I used to shout rather mindlessly for Oxford, and I remain close to the water...every time I shave. There's a certain feeling as you go around the chin the second time, swirling the water with your razor, seeing the foam."
Moore recalled that he turned down a chance to cox for Magdalen College: "If you win you get tossed in the water. If you lose you get beaten up at 3 a.m. by eight burly blokes."
The Classic unfolded under ominous clouds, pushed along by a stiff tail wind. Cal, coming off a second-place finish to Penn in the San Diego Crew Classic, was the favorite. Oxford was the second choice and host UCLA was the outsider.
In the boathouse locker room, the Dark Blue crew gazed in wonder at an exhortation chalked on a blackboard: This is your energy—your power. It flows from the center of your body and forms an envelope around the boat. You are one with the boat. There is nothing else but you/boat, so how could you not flow with everyone else, because they are part of you.
After a long pause, Macdonald said, "Hey now! A horrid piece of logic, that."
"Hey now!" seconded Philp. "What a load of rubbish."
At the race's start, Oxford's you/boat bolted to a two-seat lead. But Cal's shell overtook it at 600 meters and moved sharply away from the Brits. "Start the outboards, boys," shouted Topolski from atop the boathouse. The Bears had all the energy-power, though, and won by two lengths. UCLA, coming from seven seats back, caught Oxford by the width of a teabag at the finish.
Oxford's fans took the loss gracefully. "It's been so long since I've been humiliated, it's almost refreshing," said Moore. "I shall now retreat into a small hole with my Union Jack for a couple of years and think about life and crew, though not necessarily in that order."