In sport the pursuit of pure excellence is all very well, but nothing endangers records like a good grudge and a desire for vengeance. Last week the normally calm waters of England's Thames River were churned to boiling as three crews from overseas engaged in some of the fastest, hardest rowing in the long history of the Henley Royal Regatta. Before the heavyweight crews from Harvard University, the Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia and the Ratzeburg Rowing Club from West Germany had worked out their grudges in the racing for the Grand Challenge Cup, the world record for the Henley distance (1[5/16] miles) set by the Russians last year had been broken (twice officially and once unofficially) by each of the three crews.
During the first days of the racing, attention was focused on the intense, bitter rivalry between the two American boats, Harvard and Vesper. Harvard, undefeated by any other college crew during the 1964 season, had been smarting for more than a year from its defeat in the Olympic trials by Vesper, which went on to win a gold medal for the U.S. in Tokyo. Vesper, the certified Olympic champion, had been smarting all through the 1965 collegiate rowing season at the acclaim given Harvard by the American press, including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The two crews had not met since they raced in the trials and there were undercover accusations by each side that the other was dodging a contest. At Henley, where the course runs straight down the lovely upper Thames, with its border of gently moving willows, lush meadows and shaded lawns, the challenge was voiced in the open. "Our idea in coming here was to see what we could do against crews of the caliber of Vesper," Harvard's young coach, Harry Parker, explained somewhat tersely. "There is no justification yet for calling us the fastest crew, but we intend to settle that here."
Although the Grand Challenge Cup, as well as other events at Henley, is run like an elimination tennis tournament, there is no seeding of the best entries. The draw pitted Harvard against Vesper in the very first round. The boats sent over in advance by both crews had been damaged in transit, making practice difficult. Harvard's favorite Swiss-built Staempfli shell was crushed in four or five places and had a hole driven through it in one spot. While it was being repaired, the Crimson worked out in a borrowed boat. The Vesper shell was even more badly damaged by a crate which fell on it, necessitating a two-foot-long patch. To compound these disabilities, the coaches of both crews, Harvard's Parker and Vesper's diminutive ex-cox Al Rosenberg, had to adapt themselves to the Henley custom of coaching from the towpaths on bicycles. "I've got a sore tail," Rosenberg complained after one session on a bike two sizes too large.
Unlike the collegians, who arrived after a full season of college rowing, Vesper had rowed only one race (the no-contest American Henley) before coming to England, but what Vesper expected to lose through insufficient conditioning it expected to make up with sheer strength and maturity. "If we had a weight-lifting contest," said Vesper's chief patron, Jack Kelly, "we'd beat the devil out of them." Man for man, the Vespers averaged 12 pounds more than Harvard. "If it's a fight for the finish," said Rosenberg, "I know we'll win."
Parker expected Vesper to strike out for an early lead. "We'll just make sure," he promised, "that our pace over the last two-thirds is faster." But as it turned out, in the fastest preliminary ever rowed at Henley, Harvard took the early lead and held it for a quarter of a mile. Then Vesper marshaled its power, gained half a length at the midway mark and hit the finish line two-thirds of a length ahead, cutting five seconds off the course record, with Harvard a record-breaking three seconds behind. "They moved right through," said Harvard's coxswain, John Unkovic, "and we could never get our boat back in the groove." "We bashed their heads in," crowed Rosenberg.
One man who was impressed but not awed by Vesper's power was Karl Adams, the coach of the former world champion Ratzeburg crew. Still brooding over their Tokyo defeat, Adams' Ratzeburgers were as determined to avenge themselves on Vesper as Vesper had been to beat Harvard. They met, fittingly enough, in the final. "Both crews," said Kelly before the race, "will be banging it out over 40, and one of them will have to blow." As Kelly's royal sister Grace and her husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, watched from the official launch, one of them did. It was Vesper.
The race started in an explosion of energy, with the Germans taking off at an incredible 52 strokes a minute and Vesper at 48. Overconfident Vesper, getting off roughly, gave the Ratzeburgers a third of a length in those first few seconds, and they were never able to get the lost distance back. "If only we'd been afraid of them," mourned Vesper's No. 5, Ed Ferry.
"I thought they would break," said Vesper bow oar Joe Amlong afterward, "but everytime we took 10, they took 10." "This," said Henley's normally unexcitable race commentator over the loudspeakers as Ratzeburg swept over the line a full two seconds inside Vesper's own brand-new course record, "is a terrific race."
After Vesper's victory over Harvard, Jack Kelly cabled SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: HARVARD IS THE GREATEST BUT VESPER IS THE FASTEST.
Right. Except for Ratzeburg.