Is too bad," grinned the big, blond Russian who pulled the No. 5 oar in the Soviet boat, "dot on big American holiday Soviet crews got to win." Too bad or not, the Russians had just made the American Fourth inglorious by winning, not once, but three times on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia's annual Independence Day Regatta.
The first victory was not unexpected. It pitted Russia's tireless, stolid and apparently indestructible Vyacheslav Ivanov, current European single sculls champion, against a field of Americans led by a man he had already beaten handily. Having finished third to Ivanov's first at Prague last summer, ex-Princeton oar Seymour Cromwell had been practicing day and night on Boston's Charles River in an effort to even the score. But against a man whose muscles seemed tireless as pistons, the effort proved futile. After getting away fast in the first event, Ivanov simply kept on increasing the distance between his boat and Cromwell's until the race was over. He swept across the finish line hardly out of breath, and was cooling his legs overside when Cromwell crossed the line and slumped exhausted over his oars (below).
As if that single scull defeat weren't enough, Ivanov, who almost never rows a double scull in serious competition, next proceeded to take a sick teammate's place in the doubles and do the same thing all over again.
These Russian victories, however, were only mildly galling in comparison to the massive dose of wormwood dealt out to the U.S. by the Russian eight-oared shell. Only once before had a Soviet eight beaten an American one. That was at England's Henley in 1958, when a Russian crew beat the University of Washington. Last week another Washington crew was on the Schuylkill to avenge the defeat, and with it a powerful, low-stroking eight from Cornell, a crew from Philadelphia's Vesper Rowing Club, one from Buffalo and one from Canada.
The crew officially designated by the Soviet Union to oppose this gleaming armada was composed of two Russians and seven Lithuanians, ranging in age from 22 to 29. Dumped on the town in Philadelphia, they proved to be a genial, smiling lot, whose cheer was not dampened even by the news that their oars had been lost in transit from London, but in their borrowed shell (a bulbous old Penn Athletic Club antique with wide outriggers well suited to the choppy European style of rowing) they were all business.
Because the race course on the Schuylkill includes a curve located at about the 700-meter mark, the crews started on a slanted line like quarter milers in a track meet. The placing of the shells, with Cornell in the lane on the outside of the curve, made it appear that the Ithacans held an early lead. Actually, from the moment the starting gun sounded, the Soviets led all the way. "The Reds always slam out of there in a hurry," said Tom Amlong, No. 2 in the Vesper boat, "but we expected them to fade at the 1,500-meter mark. At least that's where they always pooped out before." But instead of fading when they hit the poop-out mark, the Soviets simply upped their already high (36) beat and rowed even faster. As the Russian shell leaped past the orange finish-line buoys a length ahead of the Vespers and far, far ahead of the rest, Soviet Stroke Ryshard Vaitkevichus reached back to exchange a firm handshake with his No. 7 man, Antanas Bagdonavichus. Then, in the curious tradition of his country, he planted a firm kiss smack on Antanas' mouth.
To most knowledgeable U.S. rowing experts, Russia's victory over the American rowers came as no surprise. What did surprise them—though it shouldn't have—was the dramatic victory of the Vesper Boat Club boat over the rest of the American entries. Rowing clubs were once the main support of rowing in this country, as they always have been in Europe. But though the emphasis today, particularly in the big boats, is on college rowing, only the mature and seasoned masochists of the rowing clubs, who find a lifelong delight in torturing themselves on a river, can make crews of the caliber of the Russian eight. Last week's debacle on the Schuylkill may well open U.S. coaches' eyes to a new club-oriented approach to rowing come the next Olympics. Meanwhile, for the Vespers, the defeat brought some satisfaction. "At least," said one of them, "we beat those blasted college boys."