The tall men, in shirts with the colors from a dozen different clubs and schools, trooped down the fir-clad hillside behind Dartmouth's Fuller Boat-house in twos and threes. Most of them, late survivors of the U.S. Olympic selection camp, put on their best faces to hide the tension within. At any moment Harry Parker, Harvard's firm-willed crew coach whose experience and antipathy for losing made him an obvious choice to coach the 1972 Olympic rowing team, would softly but firmly announce which oarsmen would represent the U.S. at Munich.
"Same today, same yesterday, same the day before," sighed Coxswain Bob Jaugstetter, who for weeks had felt the screw turn down tighter and tighter as the final chop day approached.
But it wasn't the same. This time Parker said, "O.K., everyone come inside." He spoke lightly, the way he had at all the camp meetings from the start, yet his voice carried a flicker of distant lightning, an imperceptible edginess.
When the oarsmen reappeared from the boathouse they looked like miners surfacing into bright daylight after a cave-in. They were white, strained. Few said anything. "What happened in there?" someone asked.
"They began backing up the truck," replied Coxswain Stu MacDonald tightly. Parker, MacDonald meant to say, was getting closer to the final scratching out of names. The able and the lucky would soon become Olympians. They would be known forever as the first national team in U.S. rowing history.
For three weeks Parker and his assistant coaches—Pete Gardner of Dartmouth, Dick Erickson of Washington, Hugh Foley of Boston University—had motored endlessly up and down the mirrorlike Connecticut River searching for the strong-cat oarsmen, those who were psychologically attuned to the pain and the pleasure of winning races and who believed, man for man, they were better than any American, or East German, or Russian or New Zealander.
"In our sport it's like dominoes," explained ex-MIT Coach Jack Frailey. "If there's a weak link, when he unloads, seven other guys must pick up the load. Then the next weakest link, who might have made it if he didn't have to pick up for anybody, pulls a little extra and he collapses and six guys get it. Boom! Boom! Boom! There go the dominoes."
When the initial group of 53 candidates arrived in camp early in June, the coaches felt that filtering the serious oarsmen from the wishful would be a fairly speedy process. First, they would use the ergometer, a cruel rowing machine built of ugly arms and legs and handles and wheels. If a man could do a respectable six-minute session on the ergo, not to be confused with such civilized machines as Exercycles, he at least would show he had done his training homework. "You can make a high score on the ergo and not move a boat," one coach explained, "but you can't score low on the ergo and make a boat move."
After the ergos came the seat races. Candidates rowed in four-oared shells, two boats to a race, at least four races to a session with precious little time in between. The idea was to shift candidates around until the individual winners became obvious. When an oarsman regularly appeared in winning boats, it was assumed that he was a good one.
But the weeding process turned out to be tougher than anyone had bargained for; blooming oarsmen far outnumbered weeds. In the end the coaches found themselves cutting the squad by half a dozen at a time rather than the 12 or 18 they had envisioned. They stayed up long into the night reviewing each day's results and trying to plan the next day's combinations. By the third week of June the number of empty rooms at Dartmouth's Woodbury Hall, where the oarsmen bunked, was mounting.