Early Saturday morning, dark forebodings fluttered into Steve Gladstone's brain like crows landing on a wire. Gladstone is the crew coach at Brown, and his heavyweight eight was the hottest shell at the Cincinnati Regatta, the collegiate nationals. Earlier this season Brown had won the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta, which is something like winning the first few games of the World Series. No crew had won both the sprints and the IRA in 24 years.
"I woke up with a feeling of malaise from the tip of my toes to the top of my head," Gladstone moaned before the race. "I envisioned every possible coaching nightmare: cracked oars, jump-slides, broken riggers...."
Well, not every one. What he didn't foresee was Harvard's contempt. Contempt was a kind of engine that propelled the Crimson crew. "We're the most contemptuous crew out there today," said Harvard captain Steve Wayne. "We have a ruthless contempt for the opposition. It's very important to have contempt when you're ahead, and settling into your basic cadence."
"Contempt is like hatred, only worse," added crewmate Rich Kennelly. "You're saying the other team is just too low to come back." Brown may not have been too low, but that afternoon on the 2,000-meter Harsha Lake course, the Bruin eight lost to the Crimson by a scant five feet after a throbbing duel. Harvard's victory earned it the right to represent the United States next month at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, with a stop-off at Henley.
The man who instilled that quality of supreme confidence in the Crimson crew is coach Harry Parker. He's the laconic, somewhat aloof demigod of college crew, someone who owns one of those rare mouths—to borrow a phrase from Brown alumnus S.J. Perelman—in which butter has never melted. Perhaps because he's a distant, detached man, certain mystical properties have been ascribed to him. "The Charles River can be solid ice," says Dan Bakinowski, president of the U.S. Rowing Association, "and Harry will look at it and say, 'The river will be open in three days.' And it will!"
The Parker mystique began when he became Harvard's varsity coach in 1963. His crews were immediately dominant in a way that no college may ever be again. From 1964 through '68, Harvard was undefeated. Parker's current varsity eight, stocked with talent from last year's undefeated freshman and junior varsity squads, looked as strong as the Crimson crews that had won the Cincinnati Regatta in 1983 and '85.
The '87 crew is so cocky that it has named itself the Sultans of Swing. Swing, for oarsmen, is a kind of nirvana achieved when the stroke is so rhythmically perfect that the shell practically hydroplanes.
The Sultans swung into the season by winning the San Diego Crew Classic on April 4 and then by thrashing Brown in a dual meet a week later. But by May they were puddling along, finishing behind Penn and Navy in the three-school Adams Cup and coming in a disheartening fourth in the Eastern Sprints at Worcester, Mass., on May 10. Whenever the Crimson eight stroked into a headwind, they won. Whenever they were pushed along by a tail wind, they lost.
So Parker decided to bring the crew out of its shell, so to speak. He changed the rigging. He replaced three varsity rowers with three from the jayvee. He drilled the crew to newer and faster cadences. Parker launched his new varsity less than a week before Harvard's annual four-mile race against Yale on June 6. The Crimson swamped the Elis by eight lengths.
Harvard came to Cincinnati dragging along Bruno, a tattered old teddy bear named after Brown's offical mascot. The Crimson had taunted the Bruins with Bruno all during the '86 campaign. "We used to tie him to the back of whatever vehicle we were in," says Wayne. "By the time we got to last year's Cincinnati Regatta, Bruno was pretty mutilated. He had no footpads, no nose, no ears. His entire face had been rubbed off."
Brown retaliated by beating Harvard by a length in the '86 varsity final. (Unfortunately for Brown, Wisconsin won the race by four seats.) Harvard returned the Bruin insult by leaving them a bag of chocolate turtles (brown and slow) and a can of Seven-Up (for the crew that never had it, never will).
Four of the five varsity eights at this year's regatta had a shot at winning the big event. Wisconsin, which failed to win a qualifying race, had to pay its own way to Cincinnati. "Cohesiveness has evaded us all year," lamented Badger coach Randy Jablonic. Before the season, Jablonic claimed his crew would be the fastest in his 27 years at Wisconsin. But bad weather froze several weeks out of the Badgers' training schedule, and Wisconsin finished second to Brown in three races—the Redwood Shores regatta in California, the Eastern Sprints and last week's IRA in Syracuse, N.Y. In desperation, Jablonic switched to a bow-loaded boat, tinkered with the rigging and played musical seats with his crew. "We're pitching stones into a dark hole," he said grimly, "waiting for a splash."
UCLA was this year's Kopcuszek crew. Kopcuszek, as UCLA coach Zenon Babraj explained, is the Slavic version of Cinderella: "She lived with sisters on farm, stayed home to clean while sisters going to ball. Then magic person shows up, gives horses, cars, clothes—American Dream: something for nothing."
Babraj, who in style is the courtly Polish counterpart to Parker's American patrician, coached Warsaw's Skra club to three elite, two national and seven junior national titles before defecting in 1984 with $50 and a valise. He coached Brown's freshman squad to the '86 IRA title, then went to UCLA to revive its comatose program. With Babraj at the helm, the Bruins of the West Coast won the Pacific Coast championship. At Cincinnati the UCLA eight practiced in T-shirts that read WARSAW TRAINING CAMP on the front and SOLIDARITY on the back.
Temple, winner of the Dad Vail Regatta, was the odd crew out. "Temple isn't even in the same league with the others," said Dick Erickson, Washington's great coach and handicapper. "They won't finish higher than fifth, if at all."
The race unfolded in a stiff tail wind. UCLA pulled to an early lead, but after 300 meters the Kocuszek shell turned back into a dynia—that's Polish for pumpkin. From then on it was all Harvard and Brown, scurrying across Harsha Lake like distraught water striders.
At the 600-meter mark, Harvard raised its stroke from 35 to 37, like a gambler betting a pat hand. Brown immediately covered the wager. The two crews did everything but trade broadsides, although the energy explosion seemed oddly serene and effortless.
With fewer than 50 meters to go, the Crimson called on the depths of what they call their contempt, pushed their bow ahead and held on. Their winning time, 5:35.17, was more than eight seconds faster than the previous meet record. Back across the open water, Wisconsin placed third and UCLA fourth. Temple may still be rowing.
After 2,000 meters and 5:35.17, the Crimson crew edged Brown by a scant five feet.
UCLA showed solidarity.
In the traditional victory dip, Harvard's crew launched coach Parker into Harsha Lake.