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Never since Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club first won the eight-oared event in the 1900 Olympics has the U.S. been represented in eight-oared crew by anything but college boys. Last week, in the unlikely setting of Orchard Beach in The Bronx, two of the best college crews of all time—Harvard and California—came together to settle the question of who would row for the U.S. at Tokyo. They should have stayed at their books. A crusty bunch of adults from Vesper—what, again?—in a dilapidated old shell straight out of a Pogo comic strip left both Harvard and California wallowing in their wake. With a notable lack of inspiration they had named the winning shell John B. Kelly after Vesper's millionaire-bricklayer patron instead of after his daughter Princess Grace, but this was the only thing the Vespers did wrong all week. "A boatload of men will beat a boatload of boys every time," explained Coach Allen Rosenberg, and Bull Halsey could not have said it any better.
Rosenberg is a 32-year-old attorney of jockey size who has been coxing club crews for years. Like the Europeans they will face in Tokyo, the time-tested husbands, fathers, war veterans, political refugees and successful businessmen he has combined in the Vesper boat have all grown up with sweeps in their hands and are not particularly awed by the sight of a burly college boy. "We've seen college rowers before," said one of the club crew last week when an eager reporter pointed to their formidable opposition: unbeaten Harvard, unbeaten University of California, and only twice-beaten Yale.
Getting the Vesper boat together was slow work; it did not take effective shape until early summer, when Lieutenants Joe (Air Force) and Tom (Army) Amlong rejoined the crew and Bill Stowe, a onetime Cornell stroke, now a lieutenant (j.g.) in the Navy, returned from Vietnam. With the Amlongs and Stowe as his principal pieces, Rosenberg began rearranging his boat like a manic housewife moving furniture in spring.
He put Stowe ("the best in the country," he says) in at stroke. Right behind him, at No. 7, he put Bill Knecht, 34, the father of six and a dynamically successful sheet-metal contractor who kept in touch with his Camden, N.J. office during the trials via a shoreside telephone in a white Chrysler convertible.
Behind Knecht, Rosenberg put the Amlongs, and back of them, at No. 4, he put Boyce Budd, the biggest (207 pounds) and most intense oar in the Vesper boat. A former Yale oarsman, Budd later set a record in pair-oars at Henley while studying at Cambridge. "His style," says Rosenberg, "is classic."
Emory Clark, No. 3, a former Yale and Groton oarsman now working in the trucking business, came to Vesper with Budd. "He caught a bad crab in one race," says Rosenberg, "and he's never made another mistake since."
In back of Clark sit the two babies of the Vesper crew, Hugo Foley and Stanley Cwiklinski, both under 21. Rosenberg forgives Hugo his youth because "even though his experience isn't as great as the others, he's one of the strongest rowers I've ever seen." Cwiklinski, he says, "has the best bladework in the boat, next to Budd."
Facing them all at the stern of the boat, steering and calling the cadences, sits the oldest—and almost certainly the toughest—U.S. Olympic contestant of all time: 47-year-old Robert Zimonyi, who defected to America in Melbourne in 1956 after steering more than 180 Hungarian crews to victory. "We had several good coxswains to choose from," said Rosenberg, "but rowing in lanes marked off by buoys can be unnerving. It takes experience." That was what Coxswain Zimonyi, like the rest of the Vesper men, had in abundance.
The Europeans have for some time been selecting eight-oared crews on the basis of ability to move smaller craft: fours, pair-oars, sculls. Unlike most U.S. college oarsmen, the Vespers have spent years practicing in boats like these. When not pulling oars, they are pulling, squeezing, pushing and straining against isometric bars with a fanaticism that would make a football coach ill with envy. "They've been on the weights for years," says Rosenberg. "Just look at them." Upon looking, one's first impression is that the Vesper Boat Club is the naval arm of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite their awesome appearance, however, the Vespers got little more than curious looks from rowing experts, who were convinced that Harvard and California had the fastest boats and that one of them was sure to win.