R is for Rowing

The Old Man of the Sea, Pierre on Lake Geneva. Photo from heartheboatsing.com.

Let us export rowers, runners, and fencers; there is the free trade of the future, and on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new mighty stay.

Pierre de Coubertin, quoted on heartheboatsing.com

I just read that Pierre de Coubertin was an avid rower; of course, he was. He was a French aristocrat mesmerized by the English public (for Americans, that means wealthy private) school system. I’m kind of surprised the modern pentathlon didn’t end up with rowing rather than swimming.

The Boat Races

If you think the Olympics are old, dating back to 776 BC, consider that the earliest boats from Finland and the Netherlands go back much further, to 5800 and 8000 BC, respectively. If there were boats, there were races. The Egyptians and Phoenicians established civilizations with cultures trading across the Mediterranean, and, of course, the Vikings dominated with their plundering er … trading in the north. Don’t forget the Polynesians, Chinese, and Indonesians; obviously, there have been lots of seafaring cultures around the globe. (I wrote about such sailing history when I was crossing the Atlantic last year.)

Regattas developed formally in Venice, another great water-based society, and they still hold races today. As does Cambodia, whose Water & Moon Festival is centuries old. Today, they still race 44-men crews. That’s Boys in the Boat times five!

Bon Om Touk water races in Cambodia. Photo from xinhua.net.

De Coubertin did manage to get his beloved Rowing inserted into the 1896 Games, although bad weather forced cancellation due to choppy seas. Apparently, the breezes were so strong that dust clouds blew through the city, and some of the launch spots were thrown up on to the shore.

Even so, a pair of German scullers said they entered the race, though no one else showed up. The Germans rowed; they won; they got medals from the Prince of Greece. Or so Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jaeger later claimed in 1936, the year of the Berlin Games, and there isn’t enough evidence to prove them otherwise. The official history of 1896 says the rowing was cancelled, but Küttner wrote a detailed account, including how the prince’s entourage laughed at his modest clothing. Someone took a picture of them in Greece. Whether it was during the Games or not, who’s to dispute?

Kuttner and Jaeger “proving” they raced for a medal in 1896. Photo from heartheboatsing.com.

That wasn’t the only crazy occurrence in the rowing contests. Going in to 1920 Antwerp, Jack Kelly (USA) had won 126 races straight, when he was barred from competing at the famous London Diamond Sculls at Henley over a dispute with his famous Vespers Boat Club. He went on to take revenge on his British rival, Jack Beresford, in the Olympic race. At the end, the two men were so exhausted, they couldn’t shake hands. Or refused, hard to say. Still, Kelly went on to win another gold in the double sculls a half hour later. His son, John Jr., was also a winning Olympic and Henley rower, although it was his daughter who became even more famous: Grace Kelly.

Sabotage, Heart Attacks, and Kids Off the Street

All Olympic events are fraught with unusual incidents, but rowing seems to take more than its share. In Los Angeles 1984, for example, one of the oars in the French eight broke during the repechage (redemption round). Closer inspection found that the oar had been intentionally weakened. A spectator named S. Nidely Whiplash was questioned.

Rob Waddell, a New Zealand sculler, had to switch out of coxless fours in 1995 because he developed a heart condition that caused him to lag mid-race. He didn’t want to bring down the team. But medication two years later helped him back into contention, and he won the gold in single sculling in Sydney 2000. I’ve heard of athletes with asthma, but rowing with a heart condition seems kind of crazy.

Then, there was the Unknown Coxswain. In the first official Olympic contest of 1900–never mind what Kuttner and Jaeger claim–one event was a paired shell with a coxswain. Three Men in a Boat! The Dutchmen Brandt and Klein expected to win but were upset in their heat by the French. They realized that while their cox was 132 lb. Dr. Hermanus Brockmann, the French were using children, getting away with much less weight. The Dutchmen then brought in a local Parisian kid whose 72 pounds was apparently so light that they had to add weight to the rudder in order to keep the cox’s end in the water. After winning the race, the young unnamed cox disappeared, after posing for a photo. Speculation for years suggested he might have been the youngest Olympic competitor, though he looks older than a ten-year-old gymnast from the Greek team in 1896.

Gold-medalists Brandt and Klein and unknown Parisian boy, 1900. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Elf With a Truck-Driver’s Vocabulary

The cox plays an interesting role in the rowing competitions. In theory, the cox isn’t an athlete in the sense that they don’t do any rowing. But this is like claiming that an equestrian rider doesn’t do any of the work. As we’ve seen, in fact, the rider is considered an athlete and actually gets more credit than the horse. Similarly, the cox will get credit or blame for the results of the race because the cox runs the boat.

On the water, the cox is captain, manager, coach, play-caller, and motivational speaker all rolled together. Since the cox faces forward, the cox is the only one who sees where their boat, and everyone else’s boat, is going. A five percent degree error can cost a race, so directing the steering–and setting the pace–is the difference between winning and losing.

Since the cox needs to motivate, coxes over the years have become infamous for using colorful turns of phrase. In 1928 Amsterdam, correspondent Wythe Williams described US cox Don Blessing as follows:

[It was] one of the greatest performances of demonical howling ever heard on a terrestrial planet…He gave the impression of a terrier suddenly gone mad. But such language and what a vocabulary!…One closed his eyes and waited for the crack of a cruel whip across the backs of the galley slaves.

In the Olympic replays from London 2012, the cox for the women’s eight was Mary Whipple, a 5’3″ double medalist from the University of Washington, one of America’s great college rowing powers. Whipple’s force of personality and language causes half of her comments to be deleted, although if you listened to them live, she was a dead ringer for Sam Jackson.

Cox Mary Whipple at her motivational best. Photo from Seattle Times.

The Most Dominant Rivalry You’ve Never Heard Of

Whipple helped the American women’s eight rise to be one of the most dominant athletic teams in the U.S., although they hardly got the credit. While the men’s eight have had rough times since their early winning Olympic years, the women’s eight rose out of nowhere to win four consecutive medals, three-peating with gold in Rio 2016. In fact, by the time they were racing in Rio, they hadn’t lost a race in 11 years.

Under coach Tom Terhaar and cox Mary Whipple, they went from a whisper of a loss in Athens 2004 to preeminence in the following decades under what Terhaar called the “Beijing plan.” Their loss in Athens dethroned the team who also hadn’t lost much in their reign of the women’s eight, from 1980 through 2004. The great rivals? Romania.

Romania won eight consecutive medals between 1980 and 2008, including their own three golds from Atlanta to Athens. Nicolae Gioga, their famous coach, had developed a unique style of rowing that others called “deadly effective,” and some of his winning athletes remained on the team for decades. Like their better-known gymnastic counterparts, the Romanian team had grown out of state-sponsored sports, but unlike the gymnasts and coaches, the rowing team kept going even after the fall of communism. Still, by 2012, turnover in the coaching and team staff had put them on hard times, and they fell off the podium entirely in London.

Just as the US completed their continued sovereignty in Rio 2016, with a third consecutive gold medal, guess which team had crawled their way back into the medals? Romania came in a surprising third, a suggestion of what may be things to come. In the Championships in 2017, the Romanians displaced the Americans at last, winning Worlds. By 2018, however, the USA took their revenge and reclaimed the title. The Romanians were contenders but mismanaged their race into fifth place. In 2019, the New Zealanders finally managed to take out both USA and Romania, though the Americans edged to a third place.

Back and forth, like a contest of sluggers, the American and Romanian teams have continued the punch and counter-punch. The 2020 races have been cancelled, although both these teams have qualified for Tokyo based on their 2019 finish. Of all the sports rivalries, I can’t remember one that has gone on for over two decades. Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-49ers? those were hardly a decade of head-to-head contests. Maybe the Yankees-Red Sox. Except that these two teams don’t hate each other, and the crowds don’t throw beer bottles.

Romania taking the gold at the 2017 World Championships. An enduring rivalry. Photo by Adobe.

They just want to row and win.

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