"TRINITY, LANE 1. COXSWAIN, PLEASE RAISE YOUR HAND. COAST GUARD, LANE 2. COXSWAIN, PLEASE RAISE YOUR HAND...."
As the starting line referee went down the line of freshman lightweight crews, checking in with each coxswain, all six teams sat ready and waiting, their sterns held fast to anchored stake boats. Every muscle in our bodies was wound to maximum recoil, and our ears were primed to listen for the final starting commands. We knew the start would come quickly once the boats were aligned and all the coxswains' hands were down. Then we would sprint forward, with every ounce of energy in our 149 lb bodies.
"Two seat, take a stroke!" Heidi called out. Porgy responded, resetting our point.
"OARSMEN, SIT READY!" the starter commanded.
We slid back up to half slide position, buried our blades, and sat up tall. Our blue and gold singlets were brilliant and distinct among the other crews, for they had been skillfully handmade by the mother of one of the guys on the varsity lightweight team.
The Coast Guard coxswain raised his hand suddenly in order to make a last-second point adjustment. Georgetown did the same, and then all the crews were set and ready again. The wind was minimal, and the skies slightly overcast - ideal conditions for a fast race.
"ALL HANDS ARE DOWN," the starter barked. "SIT READY...READY ALL, ROOOOW!"
We came off the line at a 44 and then settled to a comfortable 36. Our start was flawless, and soon we were out ahead and moving.
"WE HAVE A LENGTH," Heidi called out.
When you rocket forward off the starting line of a six-boat race, your mind starts to enter a different state of reality, induced by the adrenaline flowing through your veins. It’s a dark space, filled with the raw material that dreams are made of - both good and bad. Suddenly I didn't know a thing, other than the fact that I had an oar in my hands.
I also couldn't remember what other boats were in our race, but it hardly mattered. It was simply Trinity versus Coast Guard. That morning our boats had gone through the semis in first and second place, beating all the times in the other heats. But we'd only edged the Guard by 2 seconds, or three quarters of a boat length. And now we had to do it again.
"POWER TEN!" Heidi called out, trying to break away into open water. "1, 2, 3, 4..."
Our boat lifted off, and we heard the magic gurgle under our hull, telling us that we were moving well.
Once you've beaten someone once, you know you can do it again, and the psychology is definitely in your favor. While our victory against Coast Guard back in April may have been a fluke, it wasn't any longer. We'd taken them again - not by much, but enough to establish a clear pattern of dominance.
"GIVE ME TEN AND SHOW ME YOU ARE MEN!" the Coast Guard coxswain demanded, with unadulterated anger in his voice.
The Guard pushed back into us, restoring a bow-to-stern overlap. We were now approaching the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, where the course would shift right and the other crews would gain some ground on us. We'd planned a silent power 20 to try and compensate.
"HERE WE GO!" Heidi cued us, with excitement in her voice.
Make no mistake, crew racing is a naval battle, and the maneuvering in a six boat race can be highly strategic. As the clear favorite, however, our strategy was quite simple—get ahead and stay ahead. The longer we did so, the longer Coast Guard would suffer from the notion of being second best. We also knew it had to irk them that we had a woman in our boat, guiding our efforts.
"C'MON, WE'RE MOVING ON THEM!" the Coast Guard cox'n shouted.
Sports writers try to describe crew races in print, but it's generally a futile exercise. Sure they can list stroke ratings, and how the lead changed back and forth between crews, but that's about it. Then again, ask an oarsman to remember a race and be prepared for gobbledygook. It's like listening to someone try to describe a dream after it happened.
"COAST GUARD JUST TOOK TWO SEATS ON US! LET'S TAKE IT UP TWO!" Heidi shouted.
Peter bumped it up to a 38. We were now 1000 meters from the finish, holding onto a three-quarter-length lead.
An oarsman's mind during a race is, at best, empty of discernable content. Sure, you might experience individual feelings of rage, excitement, and fear, and I certainly had all of those bouncing around in my brain. But what saved you from being overpowered by these transient emotions was your training. It had to, or you were totally screwed - distracted by their siren's call.
"C'mon!" Peter shouted. "Pull harder!" He had a white piece of cloth tied around his mop of brown hair, making him look like a Samurai.
Eight guys dealing with their own neurosis and ideas about how a race should be rowed was not a real crew - it was a catastrophe. By contrast, a well-trained crew was like a synchronized machine with eight cylinders. One stroke followed another in near perfect succession, seemingly devoid of individual nuance.
The only question now was - could we keep our shit together?
Yes, there was an advantage to being ahead, but there were disadvantages too. Now the race was ours to lose. Coast Guard was still sitting on our stern, like a hungry shark, keeping the pressure on. Only 750 meters remained, but my legs already felt spent, waterlogged with lactic acid. And with every stroke, the Guard was eating away at our lead.
Up until this point, the race had been a game of chess, played out between the two coxswains. Each time Coast Guard had moved on us, Heidi had called for a countermove. Each coxswain knew what their crew was capable of, and just how hard they could push them until the final sprint. But now we were like two tired boxers in the final rounds of a match, each one hoping that the other would falter. To make matters worse, the other four crews in the race had sensed our fatigue and were now making a final charge of their own. In lane six, Georgetown had actually gained overlap on Coast Guard.
"SPRINT!" Heidi yelled. "SPRINT!"
Fear either overcomes and paralyzes you, or you learn to ride it like a wave. I felt a second wave of adrenaline kick in, giving us a final push. Five boats were now closely overlapped, surging toward the finish line. As we flew past the stoic figure of Jack Kelly, we barely heard the cheers from the grandstands, now rising to a distant roar.
"DO IT FOR CHARLIE!" Heidi shouted.
As young oarsmen in an undefeated crew, we'd begun to think of ourselves as invincible super heroes, yet deep within our bones we knew that it was mostly our coach who had made us what were at that moment. Charlie Poole had been our Prometheus, the invisible "9th man" in our crew, and he had given us our life force. So in that last 20 strokes it was our coach who carried us across the line. Then we stopped and completely collapsed.
When all of the eights had drifted to a standstill, I looked over at Caluso, slumped over this oar. Wincing in pain and still gasping for breath, he finally glanced over at me. Then the announcement came over the loudspeaker - we'd won by a margin of 1.5 seconds over Coast Guard. I couldn't help myself as I pumped my fist in the air, then released a primal, jubilant howl. Peter turned around and we hollered again together.
Caluso shook his head and looked away in disbelief, utterly defeated.
There is a soporific, drug-like bliss to winning, and it makes the world around you seem quite wonderful. At the awards dock, Charlie Poole was waiting for us, dressed in his red, white, and blue shorts, track sweatshirt, and official Dad Vail cap. He gave us a toothy smile, and we could see the tears welling up in his eyes.
"I'm so proud of you guys," he said, hoarsely. "I can't tell you how much this means to me."
Soon he had to stop talking and resorted to giving everyone a giant-sized, Charlie Poole hug. Soon none of us could speak, and as the cameras clicked, we stood there like a bunch of dopes, unpracticed in the ways of winning. Even Karma Joe, who was normally the most reserved of the lot, was beside himself with childish joy, and Wean kept hugging Heidi as if they were sweethearts.
Once the medals were placed around our necks, we rowed back to Undine and quickly joined the rest of the team to spectate for the rest of the afternoon. In between races, we ran up and down Kelly Drive, collecting our betting shirts, with our gold medals still slung around our necks. Most of the teams were gracious in defeat, and openly offered us their congratulations. Then we circled back to Undine and helped the final Trinity crews land.
The women's varsity had just returned to the dock, wearing silver medals around their necks. We collected their oars and everyone clapped as they took their boat. Cynda Davis was grinning from ear to ear, momentarily at a loss for words, and my erstwhile date Kooshe looked totally ripped and confident - a total transformation from the shy girl I had met last fall. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride for them, even though they had narrowly lost to Ithaca College, taking second. Otherwise, their season had been perfect.
Our freshman heavies had also done exceptionally well for themselves, considering they'd only managed one victory prior to Vails. Mike Bradshaw had stroked them to a tremendous effort in the final sprint of their race, moving them from 5th to 2nd place within the last 30 strokes. The varsity lights and the novice women both came away with bronze. Finally, while Mongo and the varsity heavies failed to medal in the finals, they had rowed their hearts out just to qualify during the semi, taking second in a photo finish. In the final, they ended up a respectable 5th, as did our heavyweight four.
When all of these results had been officially tallied, Norm Graf gathered us all together at Undine dock to make the big announcement. Trinity had taken the Jack Bratten points trophy for overall best performance, unseating the previous year's winner, Coast Guard, 48-44.
Hoots and hollers were heard all around.
"Coach," Carl Rox finally asked. "Does this mean we can destroy some capillaries tonight and get weak in the knees?"
Graf grinned, and then put on one of his mock frowns of disapproval.
"First, you have to load the shell trailer and make it back to Hartford," he bellowed. "After that, I'm off duty."
Athletic glory may be fleeting and ephemeral, but the memory of a good victory can last forever.
What happened after our win? To be honest, back at Trinity, most people didn't really take much notice of us, as rowing was not a big deal to the main student populace. If you wanted athletic glory, you played football. Still, we did manage to get some kudos after the fact. Karma Joe got his picture splashed across the front cover of the Trinity Reporter that summer, and Norm Graf let me take home a single scull to train - the beginning of the end to my sweep rowing career.
And what became of my nemesis, Michael Caluso? Back at the Dad Vails, I had never able to find him after the finals, even though I hung out for several minutes at the Coast Guard trailer. His teammate Gerald, finally gave me a betting shirt, and shook my hand in his stead. He had disappeared forever, like a bad dream.
(Author's Note: This is a work of "creative non-fiction," which means that it is more or less true. Some of the names of the characters have been altered, mostly to protect them from identification. The story takes place in the mid-1970s, a time in when the sport of rowing was in a period of change, and so was the author's life. Enjoy!)
For more on Dan Boyne, go to www.danboyne.com.