Rarely have three truly great American collegiate crews ever met in competition, but such was the case in 1956 and 1957 when Jim Rathschmidt's greatest ever crew from Yale raced Stork Sanford's greatest ever crew from Cornell. At stake in 1956 was a trip to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. The Elis and the Big Red were joined by Rusty Callow's greatest crew ever from Navy, the 1952 Olympic Champion Great Eight reconstituted to attempt to win the right to defend their Gold Medals. It is a story of triumph and disappointment, with passion that has not dimmed in half a century.
Today's posting to www.row2k.com and those that will follow in the coming weeks are adapted from my book-in-progress chronicling the evolutionary history of rowing technique over the last two centuries since rowing as sport was invented at Eton College in Great Britain. Details are available at www.rowingevolution.com., and your comments, corrections, criticisms and additional memories and anecdotes are welcomed.
Since these excerpts are plucked from a much longer work, some background comments are necessary.
The two major force application protocols in rowing are, according to East German scientists, Kernschlag or "solid stroke with a hard beginning" and Schubschlag or "thrust stroke."
I have chosen the following format for summarizing a particular technique:
Shin angles at the entry and body angles at the entry and finish are measured in degrees from vertical (0°), using a protractor on the computer screen. Generally, I round to the nearest 5°. For shins, beyond vertical at the entry is positive, and less than vertical is negative. Body swing forward is positive. Layback is negative.
The beginning of the stroke is arbitrarily assigned the time value 0 and the end the time value of 10.
I have carefully superimposed individual film frames upon one another to ascertain the beginning and ending of the leg, back and arm effort and the beginning and ending of the leg, back and arm motion, which is often different, and then expressed them on the 0-to-10 time scale.
A rowing stroke can then be summarized as follows: -10°, +45° to -30°, 0-9, 0-10, 5-10, which would mean that in this hypothetical case:
My first book, An Out-of-Boat Experience, an amusing memoir, much different from my current project, is available at www.row2k.com. All proceeds go directly to supporting row2k. My profound thanks to Ed Hewitt for all that he and his website do for the rowing community.
The so-called Conibear Stroke was developed during the first decade of the 20th Century by University of Washington's first rowing coach, Hiram Conibear, under the tutelage of Charles Courtney of Cornell. The Conibear Stroke evolved as it was passed down through three generations of UW coaches, who ended up coaching virtually every major American college rowing program from coast to coast. One rare exception was Jim Rathschmidt of Yale.
1956 Yale Varsity 3-man John Cooke reminisced to me about coach Rathschmidt: "Jim learned to row from his uncle, 'Dutch' Schultz,1 who was a famous sculler and showman [and later rigger at Princeton University2].
"Dutch would row confidently to victory in sculling events, and then just before the finish, he would do a barrel roll, eliciting a cry of concern from the crowd, before popping up again and rowing across the finish.
"He would brace one oar with his feet, stand up and paddle the shell back to the dock with the other oar, using a canoe stroke."3
As a boy, Rathschmidt would browse around the boat shop at Princeton. He attended the Hun School, where he lettered in football, boxing, hockey and crew4 and later became its rowing coach. In 1934, he joined the Princeton staff as sculling instructor. His Princeton Lightweights won the Sprints in 1942.
During World War II, Rathschmidt served in France in the US Army 26th Infantry Division, rising to rank of captain.5 After the war, Jim returned to Princeton to become the Freshman Coach as Dutch Schoch moved up to the Varsity position.6
"Jim regretted very much not having the chance, coming out of the Depression, to go to college, or because of the Second World War to compete for his country with sculls instead of guns."7
After the war, his Princeton Heavyweight Freshmen won the Sprints in 1947. His Scholastic Champion Hun School crew competed at Henley in 1950.8
After World War II, 1938-39 Diamond Sculls-winning sculler Joe Burk became the Yale Freshman Coach.
Burk: "The head coach was Skippy Walz, and he coached crew the way he had been coached at football at NYU, with much swearing and yelling and shouting and really gave them a rough time, so after I had been there four years, the athletic director told me they were pretty well fed up with Skippy and asked whether I would become head coach.
"I said to him, 'I wouldn't feel right to be moving up into the varsity job after having been his Freshman Coach.'
"Bob asked me who I'd recommend, and I told him Jim Rathschmidt. He was the Princeton Freshman Coach, and I knew from competing against him how beautifully his crews rowed and what a great job he did."9
From the beginning, Rathschmidt's crews were well-known for their superb bladework and body coordination. Tom Charlton, Yale 1956 team captain and bow-man: "What I do remember about rowing for Jim is the hours of drills we performed, rowing by pairs and by fours, working on bladework.
"I never saw this done by any other coach to the extent that Jim did it."10
Charlie Grimes, Yale 1956 5-man: "Basically, Jim was a stylist. We spent hours with thumbs on top, eyes closed, feet out of the stretchers, rowing us that way in order to get us feeling what the proper stroke was and do it automatically.
"And the amount of time he spent on those drills paid off in spades!"11
In his 1992 eulogy for Jim, Grimes wrote: "Today we think of rowing in terms of ergometers, sweat, pain, persistence, strength and condition. Jim knew all about that, but Jim didn't believe that heaving exertion was what rowing was all about.
"Jim regarded as a goal worthy of his personal concentration what lay beyond exertion and permitted effort to most effectively to be applied.
"Call it style, technique, control or whatever, Jim sought to bring his boats as close to their maximum hull speed as could be obtained from the engines who turned out for his squads.
"Do any of you recall Jim describing the moment on the recovery just before the catch as 'being out there just like you were picking daisies,' or his insistence on not rowing it in, or his emphasis on taking the water just like a sculler?
"He sat directly behind his crews, looking down the bladework more than any coach of his time. He checked from the side to see if water was being missed and to see if a side view could remedy a defect he could see by staring past the coxswain's ears.
"Outboard was where Jim coached, where he felt speed could be found. In Jim's coaching days at Yale, diversity could be found inboard, where different sizes and shapes could not be avoided. When you think about the fact that [in 1956] he balanced two little short guys, Charlton and Cooke, with two enormously tall, thin guys, Beer and Wight, who averaged 6'6" and the other two guys barely made it to 6', that's quite unusual.
"But outboard, where the blades were, he tirelessly sought perfection. The outboard and visible signs were much more important than the inboard diversity, which largely involved the answer to Jim's endless questioning as to whether an oarsman was comfortable doing it the way he wanted.
"And picking the right combination, again, that was all done outboard."12
Cooke: "Certain things stick in my mind as hallmarks of Jim's technique:
This was the standard Courtney/Conibear sequential decelerating recovery, but there was a waterman's sensitivity to Rathschmidt's approach, presumably a reflection of Jim's uncle. The subtle touches at the end of the recovery, in fact the whole attitude, was also quite reminiscent of the philosophy of George Pocock.
The ability of the 1956 Yale Crew to move the boat at low stroke came from absolutely full commitment to their pullthroughs.
Even today, the impression one gets when rowing with the '56 crew is of fingers-to-toes full Schubschlag effort from entry to release. The entry is instantaneous, but there is no hint of explosion. The effort to the release is incredible, but the length is not. Only sub-6-footers Charlton and Cooke tended to lay back consistently in order to compensate for their lack of height. All eight employed the ferryman's finish, levering their heads and shoulders forward toward the finish of the stroke, the result of endless miles of rowing with feet out of their footstretchers.
The insistence that all three muscle groups finish together came from legendary Princeton Coach Gordon Sikes and places Rathschmidt firmly in the Courtney/Conibear mainstream tradition.
The George Pocock-derived word "comfortable" was also a favorite word of Hiram Conibear and Al Ulbrickson.
E. Arthur Gilcreast, PhD became Rathschmidt's Freshman Coach and confidant at Yale. He described Jim's historical perspective on rowing technique: "Watching films of Ed Leader's Yale crews from the '20s and 30s, it seemed to us that they were much slower with the legs in order to swing farther at the finish.
"Our take was that the repeat Yale defeats at the hands of Tom Bolles [at Harvard] in the late 1930's could be attributed to Harvard's earlier use of the legs in a much shorter stroke."15
This was Rathschmidt using films to contrast Leader's 1st and Bolles' 2nd Generation Conibear Strokes. During the 1940s, he had also been curious about the 2nd Generation Conibear technique of Stork Sanford.
In an era of increasing aggressiveness at the catch, Rathschmidt's insistence on avoiding at all costs a two-piece pullthrough demonstrated the continuing influence of Bolles, Gordon Sikes and George Pocock.
Gilcreast: "Jim's 1951 Yale Crew beat Harvard badly in the EARC while rowing well under them. Jim was really proud of that win as a demonstration of the stroke he was trying to use. "After fifty more years in rowing, I still think he was the best coach I ever knew."16
The 1956 Yale Crew began coming together at least two years before the Olympic year, and according to John Cooke, it seemed to depend on "happenstance, luck (some of it bad), prescience, implementation of the fairness doctrine, and some taking of chances on unknown quantities"17 as much as skill and hard work.
Charlie Grimes: "During my freshman year, my biggest problem was that I don't think that Art Gilcreast particularly liked me. I didn't show up right away because I went out for football in the fall . . . and maybe I was also a little diffident about some of the guys whom I'd beaten in high school being as good as he thought they were."18
Gilcreast: "In 1954, Charlie Grimes was on the first Freshman Heavyweight Crew I ever coached, and it was a terrible cross to have to bear. I was clearly not ready for Charlie Grimes!
"I could teach Charlie nothing.
"Charlie was a terribly rough oarsman. He'd rowed at Groton where slam-bam was the best you could hope for.
"I tried keeping him in the second boat for a while. Finally I put him in the first boat, and he looked just terrible, but I asked someone whether they thought the boat went better. The fellow replied, 'I don't know whether it went any faster, but I thought the rigger was going to come right off the side of the boat.'
"Well, that was good enough for me. I concluded we had to have Charlie in the boat...
"Later, after we got trounced in the Yale-Harvard Race, Ed Leader came up to me and said, 'Son, in order to win the race, you've got to put the blades in the water.'
"But that was Charlie Grimes."19
Caldwell "Essy" Esselstyn, 1956 6-man: "I came into the sport through the back door. When I arrived in the fall of 1952, my roommate was on the crew, but I was playing freshman football.
"The next spring, my roommate would come home from all of these races, and it seemed to be such a great team sport, so I went out for crew my sophomore year.
"In the spring of 1954, I started in the third boat and eventually made it up to the Junior Varsity. When the season rolled around, we won our first two races while the varsity was struggling.
"Then one day Jim called out, 'Pull the two boats pull together,' and he changed five guys, including me, and the boat just clicked!
"At the 1954 Eastern Sprints at Haynes Point on the Potomac in Washington, we almost beat the legendary Navy Great Eight,20 and afterward their stroke, Ed Stevens, came over to us and said, 'Who the hell are you guys?'
"Without missing a beat, our stroke, Steve Reynolds, replied, 'Hell, we're the Jayvee!'"21
George Pew, assistant crew manager: "John Cooke also came to Yale intending to go out for freshman football, but he got waylaid with his roommate during Freshman Week, and they drank a case of beer instead of going to the football meeting, so he eventually ended up trying out for crew.
"We had two and one-half good freshman boats that year, and John wasn't in any of them. He spent the fall and the spring riding in the launch with Art, learning a lot . . . but not rowing. When the season finished, Art said, 'When does your summer job start? Would you come to Gale's Ferry?'
"John said, 'What's Gale's Ferry?' He got that explained to him [It's the Yale compound on the Thames River upstream from Groton, Connecticut where Yale teams traditionally prepare in solitude for the Yale-Harvard Race.], and he came. He eventually got into the 5-seat of the First Freshman Crew which beat an undefeated Harvard crew by coming from behind in a very dramatic, terrific race, and as the crews pulled together the Harvard 5-man handed John, the shortest guy on the whole squad, his shirt and asked, 'How did you guys do that?'
"John replied, 'I don't know. This is my first race.'
"Seventeen months later, he was an Olympic Champion."22
Cooke: "Probably the most important move affecting the 1956 Varsity occurred on the Freshman Crew during the spring of 1955 at Gales Ferry, about two weeks before the Yale-Harvard Race.
"Coach Gilcreast (We called him Gilly.) moved Rusty Wailes, his tall rangy 5-man, down to 7 behind Bob Morey."23
"Rusty Wailes, a carrot-top,24 whiplash of oar, tireless, in time and rangy, the kind of 7-man that makes a good stroke great."25
"Rusty was surprised at the move. He had always considered himself a 5-man. His father, Ron,26 had rowed 5 in the Varsity at Washington at the age of 35!
"It was a brilliant move, as Rusty was just what Bob Morey needed, taking the stroke from Bob and powering it up the boat.
"Art Gilcreast's insight set the foundation for the next year's Olympic crew."27
The 1956 Yale Varsity had to be built around the 1955 Freshmen because the 1955 Varsity wasn't much faster than that year's Jayvee.
Charlie Grimes: "After my freshman year with Gilly, I did not row at all in the Varsity boat during my sophomore season [spring, 1955]. Jim called me 'Gaines' for an entire year, couldn't find a place for me to row for three weeks among four boats, and so I had to go run in the rain with another guy, and I spent most of my sophomore year in the fourth and third boats.
"When we got in the Jayvees, we beat the Varsity every day, every paddle, every row, and still he wouldn't change them.
"Jim was a very stubborn fellow. He would tub me with Es, and then he would tub Es with someone else to see how the results came out. Then he'd row us by pairs, and so on and so forth, and I never lost, ever, but I never got a shot.
"Well, he didn't want anybody like me (who was playing football and wasn't going to be rowing year round), and I can understand that. Besides football, I had even played basketball my freshman year!
"Jim did give me one shot in 1955, and we took off like a greased bandit, but I was back in the Jayvee the next day, and we went back to beating the Varsity.
"Finally, Jim lined the boats up and said, 'Alright, whoever wins will go to the Sprints,' and of course the Jayvee caught a crab in the last six strokes, and the Varsity won by a deck.
"I was so disgusted I actually quit rowing before the Yale-Harvard Race. The guys in the Jayvee begged me to come back, at least come up to Gales Ferry, so I did, and we resumed beating the Varsity.
"Eventually, Jim said, 'Alright, I'm going to row you guys four miles against each other. Since the Jayvee has never rowed four miles, I'll give them a full length.'
"Well, he didn't give us a full length, but he did give us two-thirds, and with a half a mile to go, we were still in front.
"Then the [air went out of the balloon], so to speak, but that's how I got my shot at the Varsity for the Harvard race."28
Gilcreast: "Charlie's great moment came in a four-mile trial prior to the Yale-Harvard Race his sophomore year, and I had the chance to redeem myself for having literally blamed him for the whole disaster of our freshman year together.
"We were coming up the river, and the Jayvees were doing a pretty darn good job. They were only about two lengths behind the Varsity with about a half a mile to go. At that point, the second boat literally gave up the ghost. They had given it everything they had. They were obviously not going to win it, and fatigue just took over.
"But Charlie Grimes kept right on going like he was just starting off. It was the most amazing physical performance I had ever witnessed, so I said to Jim, 'You've got to get this guy in the boat! This kid's got some kind of stamina that I have never seen.'
"The next day Charlie was in the boat, and the rest was history."29
John Cooke: "Dave Wight had stroked his Phillips Exeter Academy coxed-four in the 1952 Olympic Trials, nearly winning the event! Dave was always thought of as a stroke-man. He stroked the 1953 Yale Freshmen, and he stroked the Jayvee in 1956 during spring practice.
"Charlie Stalford had captained the 1955 Freshman boat, rowing 6-seat behind Bob Morey and Rusty Wailes. He had just about nailed down the 2-seat in the 1956 varsity when his initiation into Zeta Psi fraternity lasted longer than expected, and he arrived at the boathouse just as the Varsity was pulling away from the dock with Dave Wight 'temporarily' in the 2-seat.
"Dave never gave up the seat.
"Incidentally, the coxswain of Dave's 1952 Exeter Four had been Bill Becklean, and he ended up coxing the 1956 Yale Eight."30
Becklean: "I very easily could have missed the Olympics entirely. After the Olympic Trials my sophomore year at Exeter, I quit crew and went out for soccer and wrestling.
"When I got to Yale, I had no intention of coxing, but my Exeter classmate Bob Morey came up to me after a couple of weeks and begged me to join him on the freshman squad because he was frustrated with the novice coxswains."31
Cooke: "Our team was made up of athletes of all different sizes and shapes. Esselstyn in the first boat (who had long legs but a relatively short torso) and I in the third boat (just plain short), used 'highchairs.'
"Our seats were raised with about a one-inch block of wood, so that our legs could be flat at the finish of the drive."32
Rusty: "Sometime in early March, Jim finally let Charlie [Grimes] back in the Varsity [after spending his fall playing football].
"After the BU race, Jim was quoted in the papers: 'The Varsity started well and rowed well in the first half of the race, but their timing was off the rest of the way. We have a long way to go.'
Rathschmidt: "Our boat looked good at 24 to 28 strokes a minute, but at racing speed they did not have it.
"We seemed to be doing very well, but when we tried going at a 32 beat, the boys got in all sorts of trouble.
"I've made two changes so far, to try to get more speed. For the next week we will simply have to experiment to find which boys can move the boat best."33
Cooke: "After our race against BU, Rathschmidt was still not satisfied with the way the varsity boat was rowing. There was a noticeable 'break' in the swing between the 3- and 4-seats.
"On the following Monday and Tuesday, Jim tried nearly every starboard oar in that 3-seat to try to overcome the problem. None of the changes seemed to satisfy him.
"Late Wednesday afternoon, after many half-mile and one-mile pieces with different 3-men, the eights ended up in front of the boathouse. It was past dusk and getting dark fast. The bay doors were open and inviting, with light pouring out and illuminating the dock.
"The boats were turning for the light when Jim called out to pull the Varsity and the third boats together.
"There were soft moans throughout the fleet.
"He called out for 'John' to move into the 3-seat in the Varsity.
"When no one moved, Jim yelled again for John Cooke to move into 3.
"Oh . . .
"I took my 'highchair' and my oar and crawled across into the Varsity boat. Once I was settled, we went back upstream about 1.5 miles. Everyone was very tired, but I pulled as hard as I could. Bill Becklean yelled at me a couple of times that we were supposed to be paddling!
"It sure felt good to me, but then wasn't that the way a Varsity boat was supposed to feel?
"We had a couple of half-mile pieces going home, and again I thought it felt great.
"The next day, Jim boated the crews with the comment that it had been late yesterday, that John had not had much of a chance, and that we would start out again with the same boatings.
"Since we were all fresh, and I was pumped-up, that was all the chance I needed.
"I never gave up that seat again.
"I found out later that on the previous evening, Jerry Romano, our extraordinary boatman and Jim's launch driver, in talking to Jim about his disappointment at not finding the right combination, had told Jim that he had tried every starboard oar in that 3-seat . . . except John Cooke.
"Jim's reply was along the lines that John was still rough and had not yet developed enough oarsmanship to be of any help to the Varsity.
"Jerry insisted it was mostly a question of 'fairness,' and that John would probably feel that he hadn't gotten a chance.
"Jerry must have felt sympathetic to another 'Naugatuck Valley34 guy' like himself, and wanted to see him get that chance.
"Jerry only told me the story years later, but it has a ring of truth, and Jerry often repeated it."35
The final Varsity lineup for 1956 averaged 6'3" and 187 pounds, but was a hodge-podge of tall and short, thick and thin. Cooke in the 3-seat was especially notable for his extra layback in order to stay in the water as long as his taller teammates.
Emory Clark, Yale '60: "That '56 Yale crew had so many different body types, everyone had to do something a little different to make it come out right."36
Cooke: "Returning all but one of their oarsmen from the 1955 Henley Grand Challenge Cup winners,37 Penn came into the season as a favorite along with Cornell, yet we rowed through them at a lower stroke and beat them on their Schuylkill River home course.
"We had only settled the boating with me in the 3-seat three days before that race."38
Es Esselstyn recalls: "We raced Penn in the Blackwell Cup and beat them easily. That was the first time Rathschmidt thought that maybe we had something, that maybe these misfits could move a boat."39
"Jim responded to the press with a simple and straight forward, 'I am pleased. This was our best performance of the year. Our timing was better. We need to show improvement in our blade work, but if we keep improving, we are going to have a lot of fun this spring.'"40
Wailes: "The papers also noted that 'sophomore stroke Bob Morey, the second smallest man in the boat, kept the beat at a solid 30.'
"After each Yale victory, another adjective was added to Bob's description. By Syracuse it had become 'the 19-year-old 178-pound scrappy sophomore stroke from Short Hills, NJ.
1 Nickname comes from a famous New York gangster of the 1920s.
2 Rowing News, December 1956, p. 10
3 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
4 Eli's Rathschmidt Earns Top Crew Coaching Fame, New Haven Evening Register, July 2, 1956
5 Eli's Rathschmidt Earns Top Crew Coaching Fame, New Haven Evening Register, July 2, 1956
7 Grimes, Rathschmidt eulogy, 1992
8 Rowing News, December 1956, p. 10
9 Burk, personal conversation, 2005
10 Charlton, personal correspondence, 2005
11 Grimes, personal conversation, 2006
12 Grimes, Rathschmidt eulogy, 1992
13 Cooke: "I cannot ever recall Jim using the term 'back.'"
14 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
15 Gilcreast, personal correspondence, 2005
16 Gilcreast, personal correspondence, 2005
17 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
18 Grimes, personal conversation, 2006
19 Gilcreast, 1956 Crew 50th Reunion, 2006
20 1952 Olympic Champions, still together, still undefeated over three seasons.
21 Esselstyn, personal conversation, 2005
22 Pew, 1956 Crew 50th Reunion, 2006
23 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
24 another red-headed 7-man like Rusty Callow, Stork Sanford and Chuck von Wrangell.
25 Mendenhall, Oar, p. 5
26 Stan Pocock: "Ron Wailes was the only man I ever heard of who could lift an eight out of the water by himself." S. Pocock, p. 136
27 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
28 Grimes, personal conversation, 2006
29 Gilcreast, 1956 Crew 50th Reunion, 2006
30 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
31 Becklean, 1956 Crew 50th Reunion, 2006
32 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
33 Rathschmidt, qtd. in New Haven Evening Register, April 15, 1956
34 Both Cooke and Romano grew up in Ansonia, Connecticut. The Naugatuck River Valley was the industrial heart of 19th Century Connecticut. The river flows into the Housatonic River between Ansonia and Derby, the site of the Yale Boathouse.
35 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
36 Clark, personal correspondence, 2006
37 Actually, several key members had graduated from the 1955 Penn crew. As Yale would point out only one year later when Cornell claimed that beating the 1957 Yale crew was the same as beating the 1956 Olympic crew, it is rarely fair to compare college crews from different years.
38 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
39 Esselstyn, personal correspondence, 2005
40 Wailes, p. 2