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The crew to beat: Jim's cultured Yales
Don Parker
May 05, 1958
The periscopes are all trained on Yale's varsity eight and it may take a real torpedo to stop Jim Rathschmidt's oarsmen
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May 05, 1958

The Crew To Beat: Jim's Cultured Yales

The periscopes are all trained on Yale's varsity eight and it may take a real torpedo to stop Jim Rathschmidt's oarsmen

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Cold needlepoints of April slant down on the Housatonic River and drip from the eaves of the Yale boat-house. The thermometer stands at about 40�—in short, a first-class sit-by-the-fire afternoon, but the crew squad do not seem to recognize this fact. Inside the boathouse 60 of them—varsity, juniors and freshmen—are making the transition from student to athlete, shedding Shetland sweaters and gray flannel slacks, donning blue rowing trunks and heavy sweat shirts. There is a buzz of easy talk but none of the horseplay of a football locker room. In one corner a freshman coach strums a ukulele.

That was the scene at New Haven the other day as the Yales got ready for two full hours of wet, punishing drill on the river. The opening of their season was just a week away. They had been picked by most of the experts as the best crew in the land, and they meant to prove it. But until they got on the river they meant to be as agreeably relaxed as if they were indeed spending an afternoon by the fire.

This is part of the tradition of the Yale boathouse, where well over a century's worth of old crew heroes look down, a bit stiffly as well as proudly, in rows of pictures on the wall. It is also part of the method of Coach Jim Rathschmidt, a tactical philosopher with ideas of his own about when to up the beat and when to lower it. As men got into their rowing gear, Rathschmidt occupied himself with a game of shove-halfpenny—an innocent diversion learned at Henley in which coppers are skittered across polished wood toward a pair of target lines. His opponent was Jerry Romano, rigger and caretaker of the Yale shells. Romano won, whooped gently and announced, "I always beat him. He must owe me a million."

"O.K.," said Jim, "I owe you."

In Rathschmidt's tight program, his daily game of shove-halfpenny should last just long enough to give his oarsmen time to relax and joke with each other. "It's the only time they have to get to know each other," he said. "I can't have a bunch of strangers rowing together."

Then it was time to up the beat. The varsity shell was lowered into the water. "Time trial today," Rathschmidt called to Bill Becklean, the cox. "Mile and five-sixteenths—Henley distance." Romano started the coaching launch, and as soon as Jim was aboard he pulled out into the wake of the varsity shell which was moving upstream.

In a manner of speaking, Rathschmidt has been moving upstream all his life. He never attended college. "Wasn't bright enough to get into Princeton," he says. His rowing experience was confined to a schoolboy crew at The Hun School in New Jersey. But rowing has been in his blood since he was 8 years old and big enough to wrap his hands around a pair of sculling oars.

"When I was at prep school, I lived with my uncle, John Schultz," he recalled one night recently during dinner at Mory's. "Uncle John was the rigger at Princeton. A grand guy. There wasn't a thing he didn't know about boats. Even built a scull once. He always had rowing people around the house at night. Huge oarsmen. I remember listening to their talk and watching them, filled with admiration for the kind of men they were—big, strong and quietly self-possessed. I always wanted to be one of them." He smiled, sheepishly, as though caught in involuntary confession, and shoved his empty plate across the scarred table. The worn surface was covered with carvings by members of the 1924 Yale crew.

"Those were good years," he said. "Some nights Uncle John would get restless and he'd say, 'Come on, kid, let's take a drive.' We'd go down to a tavern on Nassau Street where the rowing buffs used to hang out. He'd talk and I'd listen. I never got bored. When he died in 1936 I sort of took over his job. It wasn't anything I had ever planned." Except for time out during World War II as an infantry officer, Jim stayed at Princeton for 14 years as coach of the freshman, lightweight and then heavyweight crews. In 1950 he was offered the head coaching job at Yale, and he said yes.

Yale went through its first season under Rathschmidt undefeated in sprint competition, but the highlight of his career came in 1956 when the Eli crew won the Olympic eight-oared event in Australia.

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