David Halberstam's foreword to new edition of The Red Rose Crew, by Dan Boyne (available from Lyons Press
HOCR Book Signing - When: October 22, 11am-2pm.
Where: The Durham Boat Company Vendor Booth -
Come meet author Daniel Boyne and rowing legend Carie Graves.
It is the spring of 1997. I am standing there at Lake Quinsigamond in western Massachusetts where the varying high school and prep schools crews are rowing in the regatta that is the culmination of half a year's work and training. My daughter is rowing in her school four. She is in the school's B boat. I have seen her row at earlier races and am impressed. She and the other three members of the boat are smooth if not powerful, and when I watch them I am caught again in the beauty of the sport, a beauty that reflects hours and hours of commitment. I am aware as is she that she will never be a great oar, and that she will not row in college, for she is slight, irate with her parents from her early childhood because she got neither her mother nor her father's height. But she decided to row nonetheless and this year, rowing, (it is something my wife and I will gradually come to understand), has become a manifestation of her dedication to her colleagues, and her willpower. For this brief stretch in her life rowing has become a reflection of who she is, and who she is going to be, intense, responsible, committed to those around her, purposeful and fearless.
Her crew is undefeated so far. If my memory serves correctly, there are five boats in the race. Hers has won an earlier trial, I believe. But in the final they get off to a terrible start. They are dead last after about 150 yards. And then they begin to feel their rhythm and there is a certain magical swing to their oars, the boat smoothes out, and they start passing the other boats. First one and then a second. My eye is fixed on her boat like a laser beam-four young women, perhaps 17 years old-reaching as deeply as they can into themselves. There are still two boats ahead of theirs. On the shore my own heart feels like it is going to burst. I have rowed myself at a relatively low level, in eights and singles, nothing as intense as this with as much at stake, but I know the demands of this moment and the inevitability of the pain, and the fact that for these few minutes this is the only thing in the world that matters. They pass a third boat, and now they are closing on the lead boat, with probably 100 yards left. They close a little more-it is very tight at the end, but the other boat holds its position. They come in second.
My wife and I rush down to the dock to greet them. Our pride is beyond measurement. They are, of course, heart broken: all they can think is that it is their first loss, and it was so close, and they were driving on the lead boat at the end. Another 100 yards and they might have won... Perhaps. They are caught in the sheer misery of the moment, so much at stake, coming so close, missing by so little; my wife and I, older and perhaps wiser, enough comparable defeats in our own lives when we were younger that magically some day morph into triumphs of character, are if not exhilarated, thrilled on their behalf, by their courage, their comeback from that dreadful start, and what they accomplished against terrible odds. They think it is a defeat; we think it is a victory of great proportions, a reflection of something marvelous discovered within. I am apt to think of that day as a kind of epiphany: We will see more evidence of this in years to come-when she ends up teaching kindergarten in a poor area of the Deep South and stands up again and again to some of the darker forces in our society manifested in their crudest incarnations-but as I write this, I am reminded now that this is the first evidence of the power and strength of her spirit, and her willingness, when summoned, to find and give more of herself than anyone expected.
I thought of all this-what women's sports helped find and give to our daughter--as I read Daniel Boyne's The Red Rose Crew, about an American women's crew that came from nowhere to take second-against all odds in an international race in 1975 in England, losing out to an East German crew by a few feet (with an awareness that the East German crew was like almost all athletics representatives of that dreadful country, almost surely coked to the gills with steroids). Boyne's is not only a very good book, actually quite a marvelous one, but it is a very important book as well, by far the best book that I know of the pioneer years when against unspeakable odds and in the face of unpardonable stupidity and sexism, women's sports in America began to come of age. Red Rose Crew is in fact a classic and it belongs on any number of lists: a list of sports thrillers (it's a great read, almost impossible to put down); a list of the changes wrought by the women's movement which began in the Sixties; and finally a good book on American history-for it is a book that tells how things really happened and the formidable forces aligned against the women who led the way.
The young women in this book are pioneers-they triumphed not merely over the favored Russian and Romanian women in England, but their greatest triumphs were back in their own country against all the prejudices of the era about what women were not supposed to do, about poor, indeed unspeakable practice facilities, obtuse, disingenuous college athletic directors and ignorant rowing officials, and narrow, smug male rowers (the gold for truly appalling behavior here goes to the crude Yale oarsmen of that era). What they did was remarkable, standing up for themselves and for those yet unborn: one has a sense reading Boyne, that they were always aware of their dual responsibilities, that they wanted to row for their own pleasure and rewards, felt they had earned the right to do it, but that they were also acting for those still to come, their daughters so to speak, asking the age old questions of those who challenge an outmoded, rotted hierarchy-if not us who, and if not now, when?
Sometimes now when I lecture at some college someone will ask where all the heroes have gone-why don't we have heroes like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, or other good athletes of their childhood. It is a fascinating question and it presupposes that there were heroes back then and that someone who is a better baseball player because he had slightly better eyesight than his peers is indeed a hero. I have my own quirky list of heroes, and it rarely gibes with the conventional list accepted by those who decide these things. My heroes tend to have done something that matters in the long run, that changes things and makes this a more just and democratic society and who in the process have often gone against the prevailing prejudices of the era. By that scale this is both a book and a boat filled with heroes, and the millions of women like my daughter who have participated in different sports since they challenged the rules, are in their debt. And I too, still the proud father from Lake Quinsig, remain in their debt.
There is one other hero in this book and he is in a sense an unlikely one. Boyne's book is in a way, whether intended or not, an homage to Harry Parker, the Harvard rowing coach. As I write this he has been the varsity rowing coach there for 43 years. It is arguable that he is not merely the dominating figure of American rowing over a stunningly long period, but that he may be the most successful, longest reigning coach operating at that high a level in American collegiate athletics. He is an all ways an admirable man, intelligent, careful, and talented; he is a stoic man himself and he has almost involuntarily taught among other things stoicism to the not so stoic children of a privileged part of our society. Several generations of oarsmen and now oarswomen (if a generation is 15 years, we are talking about three generations) are better stronger people because they had the good fortune to enter his world. He is also the fairest of men, the most innately egalitarian. He was at the very top of his profession in 1975 when these young women came to him asking for his help. Not surprisingly, if you know him, Parker, took up their challenge, and he did not let the prejudices of the era blind him as it did so many others in the world of intercollegiate athletics. He treated them as he would any other group of rowers-on their dedication and their talent. Thus the women he coached were not the first nor the last to understand that he represents American amateur athletics at its very best: he took on their quest as he has done so much else in his life, simply because it was the right thing to do.
So this is an uncommon book about an uncommon group of women-heroes for this or any other time.
David Halberstam is the author of 20 books including seven books on sporting themes. They include The Amateurs, the story of four single scullers competing for the 1984 Olympic gold medal.