row2k Features
Peter Mallory's 'The Sport of Rowing'
Yale Versus Cornell and Navy During the Mid-1950s - Part II
The Development of the 1956 Cornell Varsity
February 3, 2009
Peter Mallory

Stork Sanford

Read Peter Mallory's introduction, and Part I, The Development of the 1956 Yale Varsity, here.


The last of the great Conibear coaches was Rollin Harrison "Stork" Sanford. He coached Cornell University from 1936 to 1970.

In Sandord's youth, it was Rusty Callow's first year at the University of Washington. Stork and fellow future coaches Al Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles were members of the UW Class of 1926 Freshman Crew that won at Poughkeepsie in 1923, sort of...

Class of '26 Washington Freshmen
at the 1923 IRAs, First across the line, second in the record-books.
Bow-man Tom Bolles at far left. 7-man Stork Sanford and Stroke Al Ulbrickson at far right.
(photo from

Stan Pocock: "They had already taken the shirts from Cornell when, after a 2-1 vote, regatta officials announced that Cornell, not Washington, was the winner. Shortly thereafter, an article appeared in The Literary Digest, a leading magazine of the day, featuring a picture taken at the finish line that showed Washington clearly in the lead."41

These three young rowers would later become part of the 2nd and 3rd Generations of Conibear coaches, and after the frustration they must have felt at the end of their first trip to Poughkeepsie, they helped Washington win the varsity race twice before they graduated!

Who knows what the history of the next quarter century might have been like if they had not finished their freshman year quite so motivated?

Rowing historian Chuck von Wrangell, 7-man of the Cornell varsities from 1946 to 1948, tells me Rusty was mightily impressed with Stork, so named when his Washington crewmates noticed that his back and arms were normal, "but his legs were enormously long.

"I think he considered Sanford his best oarsman, ever. He had Stork rowing 7-man (best seat in the house, I always thought) all of his years."42

Just as with his teammates, Ulbrickson at Washington and Bolles at Harvard, the Sanford version of the 2nd Generation Conibear Stroke evolved over the decades.

Layback was avoided, and ratings were kept low, and so the quest for improvement was inevitably channeled to the only remaining channel, to aggressive pullthroughs.

Nevertheless, ten years after Sanford came to Cornell, his crews still rowed in a manner with which Ulbrickson, Bolles and other 2nd Generation Conibear coaches would have been very comfortable.

After World War II, the IRA Regatta did not resume immediately. In 1946, the "Lake Washington Regatta" was held in its place.

Washington, Cornell, Wisconsin, Harvard, M.I.T., California, Rutgers and British Columbia participated.

Cornell won.

The accompanying photo of members of the winning crew caught them at mid-drive, halfway through their leg, back and arm motions.

Von Wrangell recalls the technique he was taught: "Coach Sanford took a very powerful drive for granted. To him, that was an absolute requirement and a given for any man whom he placed in the Varsity boat.

"He then emphasized a quick release and recovery out of bow, with the key element of a decelerating slide arriving most gently and 'reverently' at the stops just in time for the next catch.

"'Many's the race that has been won on the recovery, not the drive,' he used to say.

1946 Cornell Varsity 6 Curtis Morehouse, 5 Wilbur Gundlachn
+15° to -10°, 0-9, 0-9, 0-10
Arms, backs and legs are concurrent
(photo from British Pathe Newsreel, 2098-12, Untitled)

"When we could put those two major elements together - the all-powerful drive and the graceful, fully controlled, decelerating slide on the recovery - we soon found ourselves in a magical sort of reverie in which we were each working like all get-out, but somehow feeling it was easy.

"We felt as if our shell were flying or gliding over the water, not in the water. When achieving that state, we could go on forever.

"We used to call that 'swinging.' We could not reach that state every day, but in '47 and especially in '48 we achieved it more frequently, and it showed in our races.

"I've watched countless races in recent years, and seen some films as well, and I've consistently seen the stroke-man's oar enter the water just inches past the perimeter of the 2-man's puddle, and many times entering the water right in the middle of the puddle. When we rowed 32 and were 'swinging,' the 2-man's puddle would be back somewhere near the rudder, which was attached to the stern back then.43

1946 Lake Washington Regatta
Cornell crossing the finish line.
(photo from Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

The Cornell pullthrough of the late-1940s was characterized by a quick entry and a very strong, athletic surge to the release, followed by the typical Conibear recovery: quick hands followed by a decelerating slide.

Von Wrangell: "Our technique was made for rowing at 32 for a two-mile or longer race. We enjoyed those, and Poughkeepsie at three miles.

"Somehow we could also move the boat okay at the Olympic 2,000 meter distance, although I personally hated rowing such a short race.

"Sanford did not like the 2,000 meter distance, either. He felt that a mediocre crew could do a halfway decent sprint for the entire distance, and that winning over such a short stretch didn't mean all that much. It did not separate the men from the boys.

"A 34 was about as high as we could row. Personally, I cannot think of anything more delightful than rowing at 32 and keeping up or even moving out on a competing crew rowing at 38.

"I think of Sanford being perhaps the last serious proponent of the long, low stroke rowed with grace and finesse (meaning slide control) and at the same time tremendous power.

"In the 1948 Olympic Trials at Princeton, we rowed the fastest time of the whole regatta in our first heat, winning in 5:56.4 over Harvard's 5:57.3.44

"That time stood for ten years, and we rowed it at 32 almost all the way, sprinting for about the last quarter- or eighth mile to 33 or 34.

"I figure if the difference in weight and hull shape and oars between the wooden Pocock equipment of 1948 and the new lighter equipment of today accounts for about twenty seconds, then our time in '48 would compute to about 5:36, which isn't too bad, and I repeat, it was obtained with our rowing at 32, not 38 or 40.


Von Wrangell: "I believe Coach Sanford stuck with this technique for some years after 1948, when virtually our entire boat graduated.

"I am not cognizant of the technique or results of crews after that until the magnificent 1955-57 crew, which was Coach Sanford's greatest. I believe they rowed with more emphasis on leg drive from the catch, with back swing and finally arms breaking later.

"I'm guessing that Rusty Callow's Great Eight might have shown him that accentuating the leg drive from the catch and then coming on with the backswing and arms afterward afforded some improvement in boat speed."45

Indeed, Rusty Callow's 1952 Navy Crew had used their legs strongly enough to flatten them prior to the end of the stroke, and Stork had accompanied them to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

Stork Sanford
on Cayuga Lake in 1956 or 1957.
(photo from Phil Gravink)

Chuck von Wrangell was indeed correct that there had been a fundamental change between the Cornell technique of the late-1940s and that of the mid-1950s.

In 1955, Cornell won its first of four consecutive IRA championships.

That Cornell crew still rowed strongly from entry to release, with a strong surge and strong send, but the body mechanics had visibly changed.

The legs, backs and arms still all began their efforts at the entry, but the emphasis on an early leg drive had become so overpowering that leg and back motion had become completely sequential, even if their effort was still concurrent.

They had reached the sequential end of the leg/back continuum, and force application had evolved from concurrent Schubschlag to hybrid-concurrent46 Kernschlag.

Not that the idea was new. For fifty years, George Pocock, Sanford's good friend and a mentor to every American coach of the 20th Century, had been advocating leg effort sufficient to keep the arms straight and the back immobilized in the first half of the pullthrough.

This was the hybrid-concurrent technique that he had taught the 1948 Washington Olympic four. We shall soon see it was the same hybrid-concurrent technique that Stan Pocock was teaching his crews in Seattle during the same era.

In one sense, this was only an evolutionary change, just "a difference of degree," in the words of current Harvard Coach Harry Parker.

But it also was a revolutionary change. Every mainstream47 American collegiate coach in history up to this time, from Ward and Courtney and Ten Eyck and Glendon and Sikes through Conibear and his many successors, men like Leader, Callow, Ebright, Ulbrickson, Bolles, as well as Burk at Penn and Rathschmidt at Yale, every single one had coached their crews not just to brace with their backs but to actually open their backs concurrently with the motion of their legs.

Every one.

Callow and Burk had produced champion crews in the 1950s which drove their legs sufficiently hard to flatten them prior to the finish, but was it George Pocock who pushed Sanford over the edge to sequential motion from concurrent effort at the entry?

Carl Ullrich, Sanford's Freshman Coach beginning in 1955, recalls: "I think Stork talked technique with other coaches - he still talked with Stan and George Pocock - and they still had some pretty definite ideas on technique."48

Sanford's evolution of technique took on greater significance because there already were lesser college crews of that era in the United States, Wisconsin being the most prominent, which had evolved beyond the concurrent-effort Schubschlag pullthroughs which were the very foundation of the Conibear Stroke to a sequential-effort segmented-force Kernschlag pullthrough that was the antithesis of what both Hiram Conibear and George Pocock believed in.

Von Wrangell: "Sanford and Tom Bolles were very close friends. Sanford, it could be said, was regarded as a good friend by every other coach, but he found it a bit awkward to discuss technique with his former coach and mentor at Washington, Rusty Callow. Although he loved and respected him, Rusty was like a father to him, and it was hard to talk with him as a peer.

"The guys he enjoyed talking technique with were Tom Bolles, Buck Walsh at Navy [a follower of Richard Glendon], Norm Sonju at Wisconsin, Ulbrickson at Washington and Ebright at Cal.

"The latter two he could only see at Poughkeepsie."49

Sanford also had his own opinions. Harry Parker recalls: "I once heard Stork give a short clinic in which he questioned the way Bolles had his oarsmen break their arms early in the stroke. Stork advocated straighter arms and much more emphasis on the legs and back."50


It may be recalled that Washington's 1936 crew was built around their indispensable strokeman, Don Hume, Olympic Champion as a sophomore. Navy's great crew from 1952 through 1954 were built around an extraordinary 1951 Plebe Crew with an exceptional stroke-man, Ed Stevens, Olympic Champion as a sophomore, who by example single-handedly transformed Rusty Callow's preferred technique.

The 1956 Yale crew was built around their 1955 Freshman Crew, stroked by Bob Morey, another person destined to become a sophomore Olympic Champ.

The Cornell renaissance in 1955 was a virtual carbon copy, centered on another sophomore stroke-man, Phil Gravink.

Ullrich: "The mid-'50s were the big turnaround in Cornell Crew, particularly starting with the freshmen of the 1954 season, Loren Schoel's51 Freshman Crew with Phil Gravink at stroke.

"Stork was not an advocate of going out and getting lots of experienced oarsmen to apply to Cornell. His primary success was with athletes of other sports - football, basketball, lacrosse, etc., etc. - and teaching them to row."52

Gravink recalls: "I was recruited to play football but was snagged in the freshman registration line by Stork or Loren Schoel, as were several of the others.

"None of our Freshman Crew in 1954 had any prior rowing experience. Six of us were together in the Varsity boat in '55, seven in '56, and eight of that nine were back together in '57.

"We were a tall and heavy group from the start. I believe the press said that we outweighed the football line. We also all had very long arms (36 or even 37"). That may have accounted for the evolution from the technique of von Wrangell's 1946-48 crews."53


Ullrich: "Stork attributed the 1950s turnaround one hundred percent to the installation of rowing tanks on campus in Teagle Hall, the PE building. The tanks allowed heavy rowing - both dead water and moving water. (The tanks did have moving water.)

"Of course, the tanks also allowed Stork to demonstrate and really teach the technique at the catch that he was convinced would make the boat go."54

Gravink: "The Teagle Hall tanks were opened in the fall of '54, and I agree they were an important part of our success.

"Stork would spend hours beside me and others refining the catch in the moving water. Stork would sometimes put his hand on the butt end of my oar at the reach to help me perfect the catch.

"He emphasized rolling up the oar as the slide slowed in the last third of the recovery, no backsplash on the entry and an immediate leg thrust before the back- or arm-action started.

"'Catch without 'checking' the boat,' was what he drove home. He would then say, 'You should feel the same flex on the oar shaft all the way into your stomach.'"55


Maintaining flex in an oar shaft from entry to finish is a powerful word picture, indicative of a mainstream Courtney/Conibear accelerating Schubschlag pullthrough to a strong send at the finish.

Sanford's new leg emphasis was intended to be only an adjustment in the means to achieve the same ideal that had united every Conibear coach back to the founder and before.

Gravink: "By the time we hit the water in late March, you either had that technique, or you were not in the first boat."56

Ullrich: "Stork and I talked technique - although he certainly did most of the talking.

"He emphasized the catch particularly. He wanted me to teach the catch as the last thing on the recovery - not the first thing on the drive.

"Rather than backsplash, Stork advocated a smooth motion at the catch with the oarsman visualizing that motion – the rise of the hands - being on the recovery, with the drive beginning as the legs exploded after the oar was anchored in the water.

"He felt that once that oar was buried at the catch, the legs were the strongest parts of the body and should be blasted right at the beginning of the drive, with the shoulders and arms following through to end up pretty much together.

"Of course, we got a lot of 'shooting the slide' and missed water in teaching this to freshmen, where that delicate point between recovery and drive was not felt with the hands at the true moment of the catch.

"Our catch really was a difficult technique for the oarsmen to learn."57

Perhaps it was hard to learn because if the athlete followed Sanford's instructions to the letter, the result would be a force discontinuity between the leg-dominated first half of the pullthrough and the back and arms-dominated second half. What saved the crew from this fate was Sanford's insistence on maintaining flex in the oar shaft from entry to release and the long, low-stroke competitive workouts Sanford learned from his coach and mentor, Rusty Callow.

You can't beat the boat next to you at a controlled low stroke unless you effectively accelerate the boat from entry to release on each stroke. Phil Gravink was a master at this.

Gravink: "Workouts were long, three to as many as six miles non-stop at about a 24, then turn around on the lake and do it over again in the other direction.58

"As I recall, he wanted three hundred miles on the water before we would get the stroke up to 31.

"Once on the water, coaching shouts from Stork were few and far between, and they were rarely other than about timing.

"'So-and-so, you're late on the catch! . . . Watch the slides! The boat is checking! . . . So-and-so, you're washing out!'

"Not much else.

"Because our technique called for as long a stroke as possible, several of us had problems getting a clean release, though real crabs were rare. I compensated by rolling my left hand around the end of the oar. That resulted in a serious blister in the middle of my palm, so 'Uncle' Georges Cointe, our trainer, bought me left-handed golf gloves.

Georges Cointe
(photo from Photo Science Studies, Cornell,
memories of the Cornell Crew)

"I would wear through one every two or three weeks.

"Some of the other guys were always wearing holes in the belly of their shirts, and Todd Simpson would often actually have his belly bleeding.

"The body of our race was almost always rowed at 31.5. We would hit this after about forty strokes. This was true for two-mile and three-mile races.

"At 2,000 meters, which we did kinda look down upon, we would just do more power-10s, where the stroke would rise to maybe 33, but then if we were rowing well, it would again settle to 31.5.

"We wanted to hear coxswain Carl Schwarz shout, 'We are under them and moving!'

"We could start a sprint, if needed, with 500 meters or a little less than a half-mile to go. We would go, 'Up two in ten!' every 20 or 30 strokes if we needed to fend off the other boats.

"We could actually finish at 40. This was accomplished entirely by shortening the reach, but not changing much else.

"Starts were the same process in reverse."59

In winning the 1955 IRA, the Cornell Varsity, stroked by sophomore Phil Gravink, handed Joe Burk's great 1955 Penn Crew, soon to be winners of the Grand Challenge Cup, soon to tour West Germany undefeated, its only loss ever.

Read Part III here.

41 S. Pocock, p. 54
42 von Wrangell, personal correspondence, 2005
43 von Wrangell, personal correspondence, 2005
44 The New York Times, July 1, 1948
45 von Wrangell, personal correspondence, 2005
46 Concurrent effort of legs and backs, but sequential motion of legs and backs.
47 omitting only followers of English Orthodoxy
48 Ullrich, personal correspondence, 2005
49 von Wrangell, personal correspondence, 2005
50 Parker, personal correspondence, 2005
51 Loren Schoel would go on to coach Syracuse University from 1956 to 1968. Future coaches Tony Johnson and Steve Gladstone rowed at Syracuse under Schoel.
52 Ullrich, personal correspondence, 2005
53 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
54 Ullrich, personal correspondence, 2005
55 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
56 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
57 Ullrich, personal correspondence, 2005
58 a workout Sanford learned learned from his coach, Rusty Callow.
59 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005

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