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No theme, a lot of steam
Dan Levin
April 16, 1979
It wasn't the Year of the Crab or the Snake or even, thank Heaven, the Frozen Momentum, but textless Harvard rowed fiercely to beat everybody at San Diego
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April 16, 1979

No Theme, A Lot Of Steam

It wasn't the Year of the Crab or the Snake or even, thank Heaven, the Frozen Momentum, but textless Harvard rowed fiercely to beat everybody at San Diego

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There is a point at which joy, deeply felt, can verge on mania, but there are far better places for one to experience that transcendent emotion than in an exquisitely unstable eight-oared racing shell. But Harvard varsity's oarsmen were beyond all reason last week. One stood swaying on his seat at the San Diego Crew Classic after the 2,000-meter Copley Cup for varsity heavyweight eights rolling his eyes, waving his arms and screaming at his teammates, over and over, "Oh, you gods! Oh, you gods!" Others were smashing wildly at the waters of Mission Bay with clenched fists, emitting glad wordless cries, possibly convinced, in the grip of their mania, that they could influence the current. This did not seem farfetched, because the shell gave no signs of capsizing.

But before the Harvards stepped overboard, to walk across the water to shore, they calmed down enough to row there. Later they were able to explain their reaction to winning the day's big race, the season's first major test of transcontinental rowing power.

To fully appreciate Harvard's outburst, one has to know a bit of Harvard history, how a rowing dynasty fell on bad times last year, with a loss here at San Diego, then two more later in the season. Now the Harvard four oar, Charlie Altekruse Jr., was saying, "We were really hungry today. You don't know what it's like to lose, until you've lost for Harvard. Everyone always talks about the winner of a race. But if Harvard loses, then everyone talks about that. So we had a score to settle."

"We won in an old, borrowed boat," said Gordie Gardiner, the stroke. "Don't forget about that. We didn't even have a theme, like some other Harvard crews. No Year of the Crab, no Year of the Snake, no Smooth and Rude. We just went out and worked hard and won."

And it was a boat full of friends, six of them, now seniors. "A together boat," one called it, "technically and emotionally, and we wanted to win so badly."

They did it by open water over California, with Wisconsin another three quarters of a length back, Penn the same distance behind Wisconsin, and Brown and Navy bringing up the rear. Harvard had started moving strongly at 400 meters, with Coxswain Harry You shouting, "O.K., no one's moving on us now." They passed Wisconsin at 650 to go, Cal at about 750 and inexorably moved away. Two Oar Tim McGee said later, "I said to myself, 'This crew's so damned solid and strong I can't believe it.' I've been with fast crews before, but I've never felt anything like that."

"A little sweet revenge," said a grinning Warren Perkins, the six oar, summing it all up. But that did not fully explain the wild demonstration Harvard put on when the race was over, which couldn't be separated from the atmosphere of the most colorful and zany crew classic in the seven-year history of the event. Simply put, there were four crews everyone at San Diego was talking about before the race, and Harvard was not one of them; to lose was one thing, but to be ignored....

Brown, for example, was called "the dark horse" at least 96 times by TV and newspaper reporters, and when Brown Coach Vic Michalson, a World War II PT-boat skipper, took his old commanding officer along during a workout, the CO "saw something," as he put it, a flaw in the Brown boat. Asked about it, Michalson replied, "Ha, ha, I'd rather not comment." Brown, a dark horse?

And then there was Cal. Word got out that its crew had higher ergometer scores than the U.S. national team, and Cal Coach Steve Gladstone, no braggart, was calling his bunch "the best crew I've ever had." His orders, as they headed south, were, "Think of yourself as hunters, not prey." Crew is a sport of considerable gentility, but the day before racing began, a 6'4" Cal man—that was Cal's average height—was announcing, "The hunters are here, and the prey is on the run."

For intrigue and suspense there were Wisconsin and Penn. Each would be accepting delivery at San Diego of a radically designed new shell, made of DuPont Kevlar and costing $7,800. The new boats, built by California mechanical engineer Merritt Robinson, weighed an astonishingly light 180 pounds, contrasted with 265 to 325 pounds for the other boats at the crew classic. Only one Robinson had ever been rowed in a race—by a Harvard crew that finished seventh at last fall's Head of the Charles Regatta. Harvard owns that shell, though it has used it little since the Head, and it does not bring its own boats to San Diego, anyway. And on the eve of the regatta Harvard had no reason to regret that policy. The new boats seemed to be falling apart; foot stretchers in each one had fractured under the strain of prerace workouts, and the Penn boat had a crack in one gunwale. But Robinson was making emergency repairs with stainless-steel tubing purchased at a local hardware store, and that night a friend, feeling badly for him, asked, "Would you have any serious objection to Penn or Wisconsin winning its heat tomorrow?"

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