I don't believe it," croaked the voice on the public-address system at Lake Onondaga one summery day last year, "I just don't believe it."
What the announcer understandably couldn't believe was that a raggle-taggle crew from Brown University, a crew which had come to Syracuse without even a coach, had just finished fourth in the punishing three-mile race of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association—and done it a mere six seconds behind the winner.
By last week the almost universal surprise in the world of rowing at the prowess of the oarsmen from Providence had abated somewhat. The newly respectable crew had won the first two races of the current season with ease. Last Saturday it crossed the finish line ahead of Syracuse and only a length behind Harvard in its third race, a mile-and-three-quarter sprint across the waters of the Charles River. In the immediate environs of Brown's own Seekonk River, however, the wonder of the sudden respectability that cloaked the crew was certain to last for a long, long time.
Few if any sports can boast a history of rejection and failure comparable to that of rowing at Brown. The Brown crew that rowed at Syracuse last year was not even officially recognized by the college. It was merely an undergraduate club, its status roughly that of a campus ham radio society. It was coached by an amateur named Gordon Helander, most of whose time was devoted to studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was forced to support itself on charity and puny ($400 a year) handouts from the student activity fund. Moreover, it was the heir to a century-old tradition of penury, misery, despair, defeat and humiliation.
Brown got its first taste of intercollegiate racing in 1859 in a race against Harvard and Yale on Lake Quinsigamond near Worcester, Mass. Local historians curtly report that Brown finished third, but fuller accounts reveal that the Brown crew had scarcely gotten under way when the race, for them, was over. Fine for slogging through the winter ice on Providence's Seekonk River, Brown's six-oared shell outweighed the other boats by at least 150 pounds, and was by no stretch equipped for racing. Worse still, its name was Atalanta, after a mythical goddess famous principally for losing a foot race and her maidenly bloom in the bargain.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the student paper of the day reported that "boating interest continues unabated." The next year, accordingly, a refurbished Brown crew, full of confident high spirits and boasting "the lightest best-trained crew with the lightest boat," returned to Worcester, where "all admired the beauty" of their brand-new craft. Light and beautiful the new shell was to be sure, weighing a feathery 112 pounds and fragile as a magnolia blossom-so much so that halfway through the race this delicate vessel quietly fell to pieces and sank, leaving Brown the loser once more.
The Civil War put a full stop to rowing at Brown for some years after that but, by 1868, says a history of Brown, "the river was again awakened by the boatmen's merry laughter." The laughter faded to a brave smile a year later when a gale helped itself to part of the boathouse, but in 1870 jollity was rampant on the Seekonk when a Brown boat, manned by freshmen, beat Amherst, Harvard and Yale at one sitting despite a collision with the Amherst boat. During the next five years, however, Brown lost every race it entered, lost all its shells and its boathouse in a fire and, finally—in 1875—lost its stomach for the sport of rowing and all that it represented.
Crew languished on the Seekonk River thereafter, until 1949, when nine students—just enough to fill a modern shell—pooled their resources ($50) to buy a 28-year-old third-hand boat from a Delaware prep school. Kindhearted crewmen at Harvard and Princeton donated a set of eight castoff oars, and an ex-Princeton oarsman, by then a retired Providence businessman, volunteered as coach. The crew had no coaching launch, so the volunteer had to bellow instructions through an open window while his wife steered the family car up and down the Seekonk's west shore road. Thus braced, the new crew wangled an invitation to Derby Day at Yale. "The distance was a mile," remembers one of the Bruins, now a Connecticut lawyer, "and I think Yale won by—oh, say, half a mile. I bet there were 30,000 Elis and their dates on the shore and they all threw beer cans at us." Predictably, the Brown crew completed the 1949 season with its venerable 1875 losing streak intact.
The following year the crew achieved a measure of respectability with the formation of the Brown Rowing Association, made up of undergraduates and Providence businessmen interested in helping to raise money. Encouraged by this show of confidence, Brown won eight races in the next five years while losing only 15. And in the five years after that the crew won 12 races, losing only nine, and went on to surprise the announcer and the world at large in the race on Lake Onondaga.