Last Saturday, as the six best collegiate eights in the U.S. edged toward the starting line on Harsha Lake, 25 miles east of Cincinnati, things were decidedly different. That's because each crew felt it had a chance to win the 2,000-meter race and become the national champion, and several had even come to expect victory. Usually that's not the case, because Harvard not only acts like it invented rowing—Crimson crews never leave home without their arrogance—but also rows like it. Harvard came to the '89 Cincinnati Regatta having won the last two national titles and four in the last six years. "It's a serious mistake to come here expecting to win," said Harvard coach Harry Parker a couple of days before the race—but Parker couldn't help himself.
True, the Harvard eight was loaded with talent, including U.S. Olympian Jack Rusher. But before the Cincinnati race, the Crimson had done little to signal that its rivals would be competing for second place. About the Crimson mystique, Wisconsin oarsman Nick Donovan said last Friday, "They can't do anything miraculous—and they haven't." Indeed, the Crimson had nipped Penn by only .20 of a second to win the Adams Cup in April and had lost to Northeastern by 3.4 seconds in a dual regatta the following month.
Meanwhile, among the other contenders, Wisconsin had recently shown considerable improvement, and after a blazing practice performance on Thursday, coach Randy Jablonic flatly predicted that his crew would win. There was also UCLA, which had made quantum leaps under coach Zenon Babraj, who defected from Poland in 1984; and Washington, which had finished only .17 behind UCLA in the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships in May.
But, as it turned out, life—and rowing—went on as usual: Harvard whipped its challengers. In a sport in which races routinely are won by hundredths of a second (in 1987. for example. Harvard beat Brown in this same event by .46 of a second), the Crimson finished in 5:36.5, 2.43 ahead of its closest challenger, Washington. Northeastern was third, .68 behind the Huskies. Then came Penn, Wisconsin and UCLA. "I'd say rowing is 85 percent mental, so being smart helps." said Rusher, the only collegian on the U.S. Olympic eight that had brought home the bronze medal from Seoul. Added Parker, "Intelligence does not get in the way." Harvard never forgets its place.
It certainly didn't on Saturday. The Crimson eight had been slow starting all season, but this time it jumped out at a furious 42-stroke-per-minute pace, determined to stay with the leaders. At 500 meters, Harvard was there; nearing 1.000 meters. Harvard was there, perhaps two seats behind the lead boat, Washington. Had Harvard spent itself too early? Hah. At 1,050 meters, coxswain Travis Metz called for a Power 20. a series of 20 gut-wrenching, all-out strokes, and the Harvard shell nearly leaped out of the water and took a boat-length lead on the Huskies. Then the Crimson settled into a 36-stroke-per-minute pace to keep the other crews at bay.
Crimson captain Joe Harvey said it was obvious why his team had won: "People at Harvard are pretty driven." The Harvard oarsmen are an internationally eclectic group that includes Curt Pieckenhagen, the bowman from Toronto who has been periodically absent from the team over the years while trying (and failing) to make the Canadian national team; seven man Phil Schuller from Berlin. West Germany; and stroke John Amory from Mercer Island. Wash., who went to Harvard because he wanted a cross-country change of scenery.
"I knew we were able," said Parker, "but being able and executing are two different things." With that, the Harvards hoisted him above their heads and performed a perfectly executed coach toss into Harsha Lake.