The night before collegiate rowing's IRA championship race last Saturday in Syracuse, the University of Pennsylvania's varsity heavyweights ran into what they like to think was just another bit of bad luck: they broke a rigger. A rigger looks like a metal wishbone, acts like an oarlock and, when maimed, is about as useful as a rimless tire. When it goes, the oarsman relying on it immediately becomes a piece of supercargo, his sweep an anchor.
What, Penn worry? Hardly. This was the crew that earlier this spring foundered in the Adams Cup when its experimental Pocock shell, the Joseph W. Burk, came apart at the seams, the same gang that had broken four other riggers before important regattas this year and the day before the Eastern Sprints had found itself forced to take final exams. By contrast the IRA was a ho-hummer, said the Quakers, who had just heard their coach, Ted Nash, announce that, "In all my years of rowing I've never seen a more evenly matched field of crews." Nash also said that this was the best crew he had ever boated.
The Quakers did have a lot going for them—including more adversity. For one thing, this would be the last IRA for six of the eight oarsmen in the boat. Only 20-year-old sophomores Walter Updegrave and Gunter Quast will return next fall. For another, of the 50 oarsmen selected to compete for Olympic berths at the Dartmouth training camp beginning this week, just one is from Penn. The Pennsylvanians were hot to prove how unjust the selectors had been, particularly since one of the crews they would face, Washington, had an entire boatload of oarsmen going to Hanover.
If the other five crews in the finals had less bad news to chew on, they were just as keen about winning. Washington, for instance, was the only major racing school still undefeated (although the Huskies lost in their trial heat on Thursday and had to win their way to the final in a repechage), and the Westerners were not about to lose to a bunch of effete Easterners. Indeed, they were smarting at the adjective "huge" that was slapped on them wherever they went, as if their size—they averaged well over 6' and 200 pounds—could explain away their lovely style, that long, low swing into each catch that was so much nicer to watch than the choppier Eastern stroke.
Cornell had its own terrible itch to win, with a promised trip to Brazil dangling like a sugarplum over the bow of the Big Red. They'd only won the Carnegie Cup all year to merit the tour, and that victory had been almost meaningless since it was at the expense of Princeton and Yale, who have known better times. Last year Cornell became the first crew ever to emerge from the repechages and win the IRA.
Coach Vic Michalson's men from Brown felt their time finally had come. Improving all season, Brown's oarsmen locked into a grueling match race with Northeastern in the Eastern Sprints and, while everybody else was glued to a similar match race between Penn and Harvard, stole second place. They wanted to become Brown's first IRA winner ever.
A sentimental favorite in the finals was Wisconsin. Forced to compete in a league that can hardly be called testing, Randy Jablonic's crews ship east each year where, unfortunately, their lack of competition generally shows. Maybe this would be the year it didn't.
Finally, there was Northeastern, which, said its English Coach Ernie Arlett, "on form should be favored with Penn and Cornell." Arlett was feeling good. His boys had passed into the finals on the first day of trials with the best time and under wet and rough conditions that were supposed to daunt them. Northeastern, too, had yet to win an IRA, and it was trying to live down the whispers that its victories in this highly successful season had been fluky, the Eastern Sprints victory the flukiest of all. Northeastern had been all but promised that regardless of the outcome, it was going to England for the Henley Regatta. It would admire to go there as IRA champion.
The morning of the finals, Penn's Nash was walking around on the balls of his feet, and with his dark-blue cap raked forward on his head just a touch farther than usual, sure signs of optimism. When things aren't going so well, Nash walks flat-footed. The coaches had predicted in a poll that Penn would come first, and that broken rigger in practice the evening before, rather than frightening him, showed Nash how strongly his hungry team paddled. Tinkering with his shell, he acted like a headsman testing the ax with his thumb.
A little after 5 p.m. all the hopes and speculations of the previous two days suddenly evaporated. At the command, "Ready all. Row," student oarsmen found the animal in themselves. Curtis Kaufmann, 200 pounds and 6'3½", leaned into his oar and the rigger Penn had borrowed from Cornell to replace the one Kaufmann had destroyed the day before held solidly. Was the crew nervous about the remaining riggers? "No way," said Coxswain Louis DeLosso later. "We used to get nervous about them but this one we joked about. It didn't phase us at all."
DeLosso was nervous about the race itself, however, though he did not let on to his crew. "We had a light paddle to warm up this morning and I began to feel very edgy," he said afterward, with the shirts of five other defeated schools draped over his arm, "but I wasn't telling anyone." He was telling his rowers to get the boat off fast, and they did, at 46 strokes per minute. It was as pretty a start as anyone could remember.
Moving in lane two, Penn rowed with Washington to starboard in the first lane, the one closest to 11,000 screaming, beer-guzzling, girl-nuzzling rowing fans. Brown lay close at hand to port. The plan called for Penn to watch the field to about the 1,500-meter mark, then to match-race the strongest boat for the remaining 500 meters. So much for that plan.
The crew was so hyped up that DeLosso found shifting down to a slower, safer rate difficult. With the possible exception of Brown, which came on to take second place in a surge of smooth, eye-pleasing power, there was no boat to match-race with. Washington labored with Penn for a few meters at the beginning, and Wisconsin showed signs of making a run at the Quakers, but no one was going to catch them. Stroke Updegrave never doubted that. Later he said he knew that the crew would survive the high rate he was stroking. "The adrenalin was really flowing," he said, "and when that happens you begin doing weird things, like the strokes go up when you don't expect them to."
Broken riggers, vengeance, rivalry, a controversial boat, they were all forgotten. Penn, which was champion again for the seventh time since 1898—its last previous win was 1969—could have rowed with lifeboat oars and spotted the field, as fine as it was, a length or two and still won.
Said a jubilant Nash, "I think we've proved we've got a good crew. I would hope the Olympic committee will reconsider and my boat will be invited to go to the Olympic camp."
One more item remained. There's a new complete set of riggers on its way from Pocock's shop on the West Coast to replace the experimental ones the Penn crew demolished. And Nash has plans for the faulty ones. "I am presenting one to each of my oarsmen as a trophy," he said. "They have instructions to turn them into hat racks."
The spray flies and so does the big Penn crew high-stroking its way to victory at Syracuse.