Robinson replied, "I'm looking forward to it." The next morning, when Wisconsin won and Penn finished second in their six-boat heat, Robinson was beaming and Penn Coach Ted Nash was saying, "You're looking at a whole new generation of boats. This is like a baby being born."
How had Wisconsin and Penn done it? Wisconsin was undeniably out of shape, its lake back home still frozen, its campus under snow; the Badgers, famous for conditioning, had rowed a few miles among ice floes and had not run 20 miles since November. Randy Jablonic, Wisconsin's irrepressible coach, said, "Every morning we get up and make offerings to Bimbo the Polar Bear." And Penn had lost seven seniors from last year's crew, enabling Nash to call this a "typical rebuilding year." Were the new boats that good? Would the face of the sport be changed overnight?
Brown, becoming a darker horse by the hour, beat out Washington, the colossus of West Coast rowing, for third in that heat, producing an even bigger shocker. Beforehand, Washington Coach Dick Erickson had said unconcernedly, "We'll be in the finals." Now, slightly bewildered, he croaked, "We crashed."
For its own part, Harvard went on to win its heat, with Cal second and Navy third, and the stage was set for the big race that afternoon. There would be two space-age boats, a group of 6'4" hunters searching for prey, a horse (now jet black and under the tutelage of two PT-boat skippers) and Navy—all vs. Harvard, the smallest crew in the competition, racing in a borrowed, old boat.
Two days earlier, Harvard Coach Harry Parker had told a reporter, "We're not ready to race. A couple of weeks from now I'd be sure, but we haven't done enough work at racing cadences, so it will be touch and go. We may have a good race and we may not." It seemed a startling admission; after all, Parker had brought his crew all the way to San Diego. Now, before the race, he spoke briefly to his men. "Go out as hard as you can, right after you settle down, and freeze the momentum of the other crews." And, of course, they did.
Parker is famous for making a few words go a long way. Last year, after his oarsmen had finished second at the Eastern Sprints and later lost to Navy, he spoke to them as they got ready for Yale. "He didn't dwell on our failures," said Altekruse. "He simply said, 'Just dare to do your best,' and those words stayed with me. I was waiting to hear them again this year, but they didn't come. And I guess I didn't need them."
Altekruse said, "Harry lets you go through all the thinking processes on your own. He's rarely explicit. The information is never pushed on you, but somehow he still imparts what you need for a good hard race. He plants it in your mind and it starts to grow. He makes you think, or maybe he lets you think, and you come out a better oarsman for it, and a better person, too."
In February, as a new school term began, Parker called a meeting. He told everyone that all the crews on the schedule would be tough and that his men would have to work very hard, because they would not be overpowering this year. "They'll be out to get us," he said, "but we're going to row right through them and freeze their momentum." Mercifully, the Year of the Frozen Momentum never caught on as a theme.
Two days before the San Diego race Parker was conducting a workout on Mission Bay. Earlier in the week, on the plane west, Stroke Gordie Gardiner had spoken to him about his form at the starts of races; Gardiner said he felt he was doing something wrong. Now on the Bay, Parker responded. "Gordie," he called out, "shoulders all the way back." Now Parker said, "O.K., 10 strokes, let's go. Be quick and solid now. Gordie, keep your length. You've got to be careful of those high strokes."
Throughout the workout Parker hardly spoke to anyone but Gardiner, though he delivered no speeches. Once he said, "Gordie, you tend to be too quick with the legs." The next night, when he came off the water, Gardiner said, "I've suddenly discovered what I was doing wrong. I wasn't laying back enough. I think a lot of it was tightness in the shoulders. Now I've started getting a little more length, and it's just great."