Harry Parker, the Harvard coach, paced up and down the blacktop parking lot behind the Long Beach, Calif. Marine Stadium's boathouse. To look at him—somber, hands in pockets, head down—anyone would have thought the bottom had dropped out of his crew's shell.
He shuffled to the water's edge, raising binoculars to his eyes, searching for his boat already backing into the starting dock nearly a mile from where he stood. Assuring himself that the shell was there, he sat down on the bumper of a camper and clasped his hands as if in silent prayer. He stared fixedly at his feet.
Everything was still all right—but the problem was still unsolved. The problem was Pennsylvania and Vesper. Next to Harvard in lane five lay the University of Pennsylvania shell and, on the other side, in lane three, the huge boatload of men from the Vesper Club of Philadelphia. They were rowing in a shell borrowed from the New York Athletic Club, the Robert F. Kennedy. Never before in this country had three crews capable of rowing 2,000 meters in under six minutes confronted one another in a single race. And this was the race of all races. Riding on its outcome was a trip to Mexico and the Olympics.
For Harvard this might be the last chance for some time to come. Having dominated college rowing for the past five years—the Crimson has not lost a college race since 1963—there is no place to go but down, and down it promises to be, the miracle-working Parker not-withstanding. Of his eight present oarsmen, five will return next year. But the vital No. 5, 6 and 7 oarsmen will not. Parker is losing the whole middle of his boat, the source of its power. Worse, although Harvard's talent is deep—and it will continue rich as long as Parker is able to somehow spirit all-state players away from the football squad—it is not now up to Penn's caliber. This spring both the Harvard freshman and JV crews lost to Penn. Says Harvard publicist Baaron Pittenger, philosophically, "The end is inevitable."
At a little before the 10:30 a.m. starting time Parker retired to Harvard's white station wagon parked in the crowded lot. As he reemerged just before the start to see whether his crew could win just once more, his mind was still occupied by Penn, his alma mater, and its ascendancy in rowing. In early May the two schools had raced for the Adams Cup. Harvard beat the Quakers convincingly, two solid lengths and eight seconds ahead. But later in the same month Penn had improved to the point where the margin at the Eastern Sprints had shrunk to little more than three seconds.
Parker also had a few nagging worries about Vesper, whose cox was Robert Zimonyi, the 50-year-old refugee from Hungary with a gray hair for every race in which he has coxed. Earlier that week Zimonyi had picked Penn in an upset over favored Harvard, providing, of course, that Vesper did not turn the trick itself. Heavier than either Harvard or Penn, which in turn were the heaviest crews either school had ever boated, the Vesper eight had experienced oarsmen in every seat. One of these was from Harvard's 1967 crew, another came from Pennsylvania. The crew also included three returnees from the 1964 Vesper shell that, although seeded third, had come on strong to take the trials at Orchard Beach, then win a gold medal at Tokyo. Vesper could hardly be ignored
Finally, had Parker trained his boys properly? Ever since they arrived in California the Harvard crewmen had been rowing, rowing, rowing. The eight concentrated on what it did best, sprinting the last 500 meters where other crews frequently crack. Certainly, Parker's oarsmen were experienced. With almost the same crew to work with for two full years, Parker had tried them out against the best crews he could find in Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S. Last year Harvard won the gold medal at the Pan-American Games. "We didn't go campaigning all over Europe by accident," said one Harvard man. "We were damn well aware of what those guys were doing over there. We got the experience we needed, and we are not at all new to tension." Parker would have swallowed his tongue before he made such an admission. Used to tension as his crew was, the Olympic goal it sought obviously was bigger than any other in rowing, and no one knew that better than Harvard's coach.
Parker had other bogeys to think about. Never before had Harvard boated an Olympic eight. Navy had. California had. Vesper went three times. Worse yet, Yale went in 1924 and again to Australia in 1956. In 1948 the Crimson came within a whisker of making the Olympic Games. It did not win, and one excuse was that it admired tradition more than it did victory. Less than a week before the trials the Harvards rowed their annual four-mile race against Yale. That crew did not have enough time to recuperate because, as any oarsman will tell you, it takes more than a week to get over rowing such a marathon. In fact, that Harvard crew rowed five races in eight days before losing to California. Then, in 1964, although the best college crew in the country, Harvard lost to Vesper.
The plan Parker had worked out for the race at Long Beach was based primarily on Harvard's ability to sprint the last 500 meters. "We hoped to stay close to Penn through the first 500, maintain the margin at the second 500, then surge toward the end," said Parker. The point was to lick Penn where it was at its best—in the body of the race. Loser only to Harvard this year, the Penn crew generally won by breaking its opponents' will long before the stretch drive. That at least was Parker's view.
There was nothing that the Harvard coach saw in the previous heats on Friday and Saturday that gave him much reason to alter his approach. On Friday, Penn and Vesper, through the luck of the draw, had met, and the only cause for excitement was a sudden Vesper spurt at the end that gave the Penn crew what its coach, Joe Burk, called a "surprise." Although trailing by a solid length in the last 500 or 600 meters, Vesper had flurried and Penn had had a hard time answering. But Vesper came too late and lost by a good length.