If a Rolls-Royce could row, it would row like the 1964-model Harvard University crew. That, anyway, was what all the experts lining the shore of Massachusetts' Lake Quinsigamond were telling each other as the Crimson varsity swept across the line with seemingly effortless precision last week to win the Eastern Sprint Championships going away. "They are flawless," said an envious and unbelieving coach from rival Navy. "Every move they make is perfection." "They just snap their fingers at the rest of the field," said a frustrated rower in one of the other boats. And a Japanese from far-off Tokyo blinked behind his large horn-rimmed spectacles and announced in a tone of Oriental fatalism: "Will doubtless be American delegate in Olympics."
What made the seeming certainty of Harvard's being chosen our Olympic standard-bearer the more remarkable is the fact that seldom in the history of U.S. rowing has there been a stronger field of contenders. Harvard's ancient nemesis, Yale, went up to Worcester for the Sprints with an undefeated crew that only two weeks earlier had beaten defending IRA champion Cornell over the 2,000-meter Olympic distance in the astonishing time of 5 minutes 5.53 seconds.
Cornell itself finished that race just 1.2 seconds later and, with most of its varsity boat back in their old seats again, the 1963 champions looked every bit as good as, if not better than, before. "Losing to Yale might be just what Cornell needed," said one expert before the Sprints began last week. "They were beginning to feel invincible." But Coach Stork Sanford was less complacent than determined as his Big Red took the water against Harvard. "We want this race," he said at Worcester, "and we want it badly." Then, of course, there were Navy, Princeton, Wisconsin and a flotilla of other fine crews.
Unlike most of the bronzed and strapping rowers who came to Worcester, Harvard's boatload was not impressive to look at—not until they began rowing. Mostly pale by comparison with the ruddy oarsmen from New Haven and Ithaca, the Harvards looked like scholars more accustomed to the stacks of Widener Library than a boathouse. Horn-rimmed glasses adorned the nose of their bow oar, and none of them had anything resembling a crew cut. But how they did row! "We even surprised ourselves," said Harvard Coach Harry Parker.
Last year when Parker turned up at the Sprints with a boatload of raw sophomores, his varsity failed even to qualify. "It took Harry a half a season to teach them which way to sit in the shell," moaned one ex-Harvard oar. But by the time the 1963 season was over, the recruits had sharpened up considerably and, in their final, telling race against Yale on the Thames River at New London, Parker's crew crossed the line first by seven lengths.
"We had a pleasant feeling that we wouldn't be so bad in '64," said Parker soon afterward, but the Harvard coach had no intention of letting things go at that. During the ensuing months he worked himself and his crew unremittingly to turn the augury into actuality. With his eyes even then on the Olympics, he borrowed ideas on training and equipment from abroad. First he ordered from England a set of the squatty "shovel" oars made famous by Germany's world champion Ratzeburg Rowing Club in its tour of the U.S. Then, as soon as he could get his crew on the Charles River, he began to drill them in the routine known as "interval training," a system long put to good use by distance runners and European crews. Every day Parker would race his crews in a series of sprints alternated with stretches at a more casual pace—with no stops or rests permitted. As the seven juniors and one senior manning the varsity shell became used to the stubby blades, they began to move with gratifying speed. "The boys seemed to like the new oars," said Parker. "They said they could get a better bite in the water with them."
But though their form was beautiful to look at, the Harvard varsity boat still had trouble outdistancing the jayvees. As one expert put it, discussing Harvard last week, "When that happens you don't have two varsities, you have two jayvees." At last, and reluctantly, Parker made a change. He pulled the lone senior in the varsity boat out of the No. 5 seat and replaced him with another raw sophomore, named James D. Tew. "Quite frankly, I thought I was headed for the third boat," said Tew last week. But if Tew was unaware of his special potential, the other rowers were not. "You could see at a glance that he had it," said one. With Tew as catalyst, the whole boatload suddenly jelled into a homogeneous unit and the legend of Harvard 1964 was begun.
As the legend grew and the day of the sprints drew near, rival coaches and experts set up a cacophony of whistles in the dark to discount the Crimson. Pointing hopefully to the big, wide blades on Harvard's new oars, they told each other happily that Harvard would be a dead duck in any kind of a head wind. "All that blade!" they said. "Why, the Harvard boat will probably get blown backward if the wind is good and stiff."
A good stiff breeze, on the other hand, was just what Cornell and Yale wanted most, since they both figured to win on power rather than form. "A good blow from the south won't hurt us," Stork Sanford said before the race and, sure enough, on Saturday morning a lively, 15-knot breeze blew down the lake, whipping its wavelets into whitecaps. "Perfect," murmured one of the rival rowers serenely as he watched a flag stream straight out from the staff on a committee boat, "but not for Harvard." By race time even Harry Parker looked a little like a 20-year-old who had just received a letter from the President starting, "Greetings." But, in the happy phrase of the draftee and the collegian, there was no sweat.
At the signal the Harvard shell, like a gunned Rolls, shot away at a starting beat of 40 strokes a minute, its oars dipping in and out with the machined precision of a set of eight pistons. At the end of 10 strokes Harvard was in the lead, and from then on, for all it mattered, the race was over. At one point an observer on shore shouted, "Good Lord, Yale's caught them." But Yale hadn't. It started to, but Harvard's superb stroke, Jeff Picard, merely upped his beat and pulled away.
With 200 meters to go, Cornell, rowing desperately in second place, began the powerful stretch run that has made it invincible in recent years, but this time it failed. Harvard just rowed a little harder.
"We shake a lot of crews by coming on at them at the finish," said one of the Cornell rowers when the race was done. "But Harvard doesn't shake." If it is still unshakable at the final Olympic trials in July, as seems likely, Harvard's crew may shake the world.
Not even the ticking of the coxswain's raised wristwatch was smoother than the synchronized sweep of Harvard blades as the boat moved away from a starting dinghy on Lake Quinsigamond, oars aligned precisely as pickets in a fence.