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Paul Gallico
September 25, 1967
Fifty years after, a famous sportswriter looks back to his days as a collegiate oarsman in an era when rowing was the big sport on campus and sometimes even front-page news
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September 25, 1967

Tale Of An Ancient Mariner

Fifty years after, a famous sportswriter looks back to his days as a collegiate oarsman in an era when rowing was the big sport on campus and sometimes even front-page news

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Daydreaming out of my picture window overlooking the port of Antibes when I ought to be working, I see the four- and eight-legged water spiders of the local rowing club skittering out of the harbor, the Mediterranean sun glinting from their oars, and I cannot shut out the flood of memories of my rowing days at Columbia University half a century ago.

I watch the progress of the crews over the flat calm of the Baie des Anges and wonder whether I could still sit up properly in a boat, keep my slide under me, lay my back into the oar, whip out the blade with a sharp snap of the wrist and keep the shell running smoothly under me by pulling up on my toes. And how would it feel? And how long would I last?

How ancient the history seems at the time of my freshman crew in 1916. Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and Jess Willard heavyweight champion of the world. As we took to our shells in the spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox were on their way to pennants, and in the subsequent World Series, which Boston won, a pitcher by the name of George Herman Ruth chalked up a victory. A horse called, believe it or not, George Smith won the Kentucky Derby that year. Dick Williams and Molla Bjurstedt were to become the tennis champions at Forest Hills, and there was also to be a considerable stir in golf. For the first time in the history of the game an amateur, Charles Evans Jr., would win both the U.S. Open and Amateur championships, or just one-half of the unrivaled Grand Slam scored by Bob Jones 14 years later. The world's record for the mile run was 4:16.2. It was held by Norman Taber.

Of course, World War I was in full spate, though we were not yet in it. That was to come in 1917. I made the varsity that year, but when we entered the war in April intercollegiate rowing was canceled. Thus my years of varsity competition were 1920 and 1921, with, in the meantime, a hitch in the Navy as a gunner's mate. The Navy, naturally. Where else would an oarsman go?

Unfathomable are the quirks of memory. Certain names, faces and events are with me as clearly as though they had happened yesterday; others present a complete puzzle. In 1920 the Intercollegiate Regatta was held on Cayuga Lake at Cornell University, at two miles. I remember nothing of it whatsoever; not where we trained or what the race was like, though the record book tells me we finished third to Syracuse and Cornell, beating only Pennsylvania.

Yet the hell of the 1921 Regatta (which was returned to its traditional locale on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie) is inextinguishable, for we thought we would win. It was my senior year, and I was acting captain. During the night before the race the entire crew was up, trudging back and forth, to and from the latrine, with diarrhea so severe that a Mickey Finn was suspected, though in all probability it was just plain, ordinary food poisoning. None of the eight oarsmen escaped. When we boated our shell the next day we were as weak as mice, and in the race that day we finished a harrowing last.

We probably would never have won anyway, for Navy was at Poughkeepsie that year. In practice they rowed at a constant clip of 40 strokes a minute. Our own racing tempo was to start at 36, drop to 28 for the long pull and sprint at the finish. Navy was proposing to row the three miles (the distance to which the race had been changed) at 40 all the way. We weren't worried, because we knew they were crazy and that it couldn't be done. But they weren't. And it could. And they did.

I had never meant to be an oarsman. I wanted to play football. But the first day that I strode the campus as a freshman, pure chance led me to encounter Jim Rice, the rowing coach, before the football coach saw me. Both were on the prowl for big, rangy fellows.

Rice was a famous character, and I nearly died of excitement when he stopped me, asked my name, age and weight and whether I had ever rowed before and then ordered me to report to the gymnasium that night for initial crew practice on the machines. Thrilled and flattered, it never occurred to me that I had any choice but to obey. At that, it was fortunate for me, for I was always a rotten football player, inclined to flinch. But I was able to carry out Rice's axiom for an oarsman: "You've got to be able to punish yourself." I could inflict endless brutalities upon myself; I just didn't like others to do it.

The Columbia boathouse then was a tumbledown, waterfront shack on the west bank of the Hudson, beneath what is now Palisades Park, and to get there after the day's classes we crossed by the old 135th Street ferry. The George Washington Bridge wasn't even on the planner's board. Fred Plaisted was the freshman coach. The boathouse keeper and rigger was an old, bad-tempered curmudgeon by the name of Pete, who used to chew on his teeth and make life as difficult as he could for the freshmen. He despised us, and we hated him.

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