The challenge was one that Craig Thrasher, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1963, couldn't resist: to reunite his old plebe crew to race one more time together. At age 50, Thrasher had only recently rediscovered rowing, after an inspirational viewing of the movie Field of Dreams.
"While the credits were scrolling up," says Thrasher, "I saw myself sitting behind [former crewmate] Hugh [Schall] during a hot spring day, pulling an oar. There was a message for me there. My dream was to row competitively again."
Now, after two years of masters rowing, Thrasher decided to see whether he could persuade his former Navy oarsmen to share his dream.
It wasn't entirely his own idea. In taking up his oar again, Thrasher found himself competing against some of the same rowers he had faced 30 years ago. Last August, Thrasher sat hunched in a four-man shell, awaiting the start of his race at the U.S. Rowing Masters National Championships, near Key Biscayne, Fla., when a voice from a rival crew called out, "Thrasher, you took shirts from me for four years. This time I get yours." The voice belonged to Frank Benson, a former Syracuse oarsman.
It's a crew tradition for the losers to give their shirts to the winners. But Benson and his Orange crew members had plenty of company back in the spring of 1960—nearly every freshman crew in the country was undressed by Thrasher and his Middie mates that season.
The result of that 1990 masters race was much the same for Benson, as Thrasher's four finished a half-length ahead of his shell even though it was beaten for the championship by the Cambridge Boat Club. Benson asked for one more shot: He was putting together a masters regatta of his own, the Capitol Classic, on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and wondered if the Middies could reassemble their plebe boat.
Thrasher responded to the challenge. He wrote to his boatmates, figuring he might get four or five guys to commit and then he could fill out the rest of the eight with some younger Navy oarsmen.
"When I got the letter I thought, This is crazy, insane," says seven man Larry Graham. "Then I asked, 'When do I show up?' "
Graham's response was duplicated by the rest of the boat, including coxswain Dick Omohundro and coach Paul Quinn. "As a plebe crew, they were phenomenal," says Quinn, who at 66 is a regional representative for U.S. Rowing. He travels the South from his home in Titusville, Fla., conducting rowing clinics and assisting colleges in getting programs started. "They were the smoothest I ever had."
Also the winningest. In 1960, Thrasher's freshman eight at the Naval Academy went through its regular schedule of regattas undefeated, taking its most prestigious titles at the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships. The Middies' only loss for the season came in the semifinals of the Olympic trials, where they finished one-quarter length behind Navy's varsity, a boat that went on to place fifth at the Olympics that fall in Rome.