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The college oarsman leads an odd existence. He labors to exhaustion, training for nine months in order to compete in maybe half a dozen races that hardly anyone sees. Nobody outside a tiny circle of enthusiasts knows his name. His rewards are deeply personal. His boat may win all its races, but he never really knows how good it is. There is no true national championship. His season is a muddle of ambiguities, of icy eastern Aprils or balmy western ones, of schools that never row each other, of shouts like the one from the California crew last weekend, "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!"
Cal's varsity heavyweight eight-oared shell had just beaten Washington at the Pac-10 championships, and a Cal oarsman explained the boat's exultant outburst: "We haven't rowed Yale yet, but at San Diego in April we beat everyone else except Harvard—Washington, Syracuse, Northeastern, Penn, all of them. And last week Harvard got creamed by Yale."
"If you're No. 1, then what about Yale?" he was asked. "They're still undefeated."
"We'll beat them at Henley in July," he replied. "That'll decide it, the national championship."
So once more, as in 1977, the so-called national championship will likely be settled in England. But what of Harvard? On Mother's Day, the Crimson had finished second to Yale in the Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass. It was Harvard's first loss of the season. But on June 9 the two old rivals meet again in the 101st rowing of their great four-mile race on the Thames River at New London, Conn. Yale has not won that one in 16 years, and the Elis still must survive a 2� mile go with Navy next week. And who in New Haven can forget last year? Yale came into the Eastern Sprints undefeated, and won, but lost to Dartmouth the following week, and to Harvard in the four-miler in June.
So who's No. 1 at this point? Or, better still, who will be No. 1 on, say, June 9? For rowing people, the drama of the past couple of weeks has been marvelous to contemplate.
It began, to be purely arbitrary, on the dock at Harvard's Newell Boathouse the week preceding the Eastern Sprints. Pete Raymond, the editor of The Oarsman magazine, was saying, "I think everything is stacked in Yale's favor, except that they'll be rowing against people who are going to die before being beaten."
Harvard was still undefeated; two weeks earlier, in fact, it had set a Charles River course record, 5:44.8, in beating Princeton and MIT. Nevertheless, every coach entered in the Sprints had seeded Yale No. 1, except the Elis' Tony Johnson, who couldn't vote for his own crew and therefore named Harvard. Yale averaged 199 pounds a man to Harvard's 183, 6'4" in height to Harvard's 6'2". Also, in the Yale boat there was a little matter of redemption.
Last year's Yale freshman heavyweights were rowing their Harvard counterparts in a two-mile race, and were leading by more than three lengths with a quarter of a mile to go, when they hit a buoy and lost. A strong wind had caused the buoys to drift, but Yale's request for a rerow was denied, and there was some resentment over the customary presentation of the losers' racing shirts to the winners. Now three of those oarsmen were in Yale's varsity boat—Andy Messer and Matt Labine among them, weighing 215 pounds each—and they had waited a whole year for this day. With enemies like those, you need friends. The third, Karl Zinsmeister, a mere 193-pounder, was saying, "I had thought last year's race would be the biggest competition of my life, but this one is bigger. I had a vision this week of what it would be like to have Harvard cross the finish line first. I saw it over and over again, and I swore to myself that I wouldn't let it happen."
Now, with the 2,000-meter race less than an hour away, the three sophomores sat quietly together, and one of them said, "Let's not forget about those shirts." They didn't.