row2k Features
Peter Mallory's 'The Sport of Rowing'
Yale Versus Cornell and Navy During the Mid-1950s - Part IV
The 1956 Olympic Trials
February 17, 2009
Peter Mallory

1956 Olympic Trials Final, Onondaga Lake, Syracuse

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


At the Trials, Time Magazine was rooting for the Annapolis 1952 defending champions to win their second trip to the Olympics: "The U.S. Naval Academy's famed 'Admirals,' winners of 29 straight races and the 1952 Olympics, had been recalled from active duty in the Navy and Air Force to try again. They did not do well in early races, but observers blamed it on lack of condition.

"Last week, as the crews lined up for the final test on Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, New York, the last trace of sedentary lard was gone, and the Admirals were as ready as they ever would be."84


The Thursday opening heats had been delayed a day by whitecaps caused by 25 mph northwesterly winds. When they were finally run late Friday, Cornell raced hard and "shattered the myth of the invincible Admirals"85 with a solid but very emotionally draining victory in 6:41.

In retrospect, this was the moment that Cornell peaked.

Wailes: "Cornell took off at 43 and settled quickly to a 34. The Navy Admirals took a slight advantage by settling to a 36, and the University of Washington at 33 was a close third. It was a real dogfight, and Cornell rowing 32-34 most of the way pulled to a three-quarter length victory by rowing 36 over the last 500 meters. Navy went to a 39 in an unsuccessful bid to bring back the Big Red."86


In the second heat, by contrast, Yale was content to let Detroit Boat Club lead until the last 500, when they raised the rate from 29 to 33 and won going away in the much slower time of 6:50.

Cooke: "Detroit rowed a gallant and furious start and kept it up for about 750 meters, trying to prove that they were not the weak competition the other coaches had said, but we rowed past them at about 27 strokes per minute and won easily."87

Wailes: "We took our standard start, settled to 31 for ten strokes, and then immediately settled to a 28-29. Detroit continued at 35, Stanford at 33 and Wisconsin at 32.

"Detroit gained about half a length over the first 1,000 meters and still had a quarter of length lead at 1,500 meters. At this point we took some power-10s, raised the stroke from 28 to 31 and moved away from the pack to win easily by three-quarters of a length.

"Stanford, the crew added to our heat to make us work harder, finished last."88

1956 Olympic Trials, Heat 2, Onondaga Lake, Syracuse
1. Yale 6:50.0, 2. Wisconsin 6:52.9, 3. Detroit 6:54.3, 4. Stanford
(photo from John Cooke)

After the heat, Jim Rathschmidt said to the press, "I have only one worry about our crew. I figure the eight that wins in Syracuse will have to go the 2,000 meters at 32 and higher. My gang likes to settle at 29, which won't be high enough."89


Future U.S. Olympic Coach Allen Rosenberg was at the Trials coxing: "After another day's delay, the finals were held on Sunday. The Navy Coach, Rusty Callow, a deeply religious man, indicated that he would not have his crews row on the Sabbath at his direction. However, on their own, they elected to do so."90

There was more rough water caused by a crosswind from the west, off the lake. Cornell lined up in Lane 1, furthest out from shore, Yale was next to them in Lane 2, followed by Navy, Washington and Wisconsin in that order.

Cooke: "Clifford Goes, coxswain for the 1913 Syracuse IRA Champions under Jim Ten Eyck, was chief referee for the Olympic Trials, and he had always openly favored Cornell."91

Gilcreast: "As for Tippy Goes, he was always rooting for the Finger Lakes crews,92 although Syracuse, his alma mater, never did a thing in those days.

"Probably given Jim's savvy about Tippy's clout as a referee, whenever he visited the Yale crew in Derby we treated him like a king, though I never found him a very warm or regular guy.

"I remember one time we took him to dinner at the local restaurant that we haunted. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was on the right at the bottom of the hill coming out of Derby - an Italian restaurant.

"Tippy wanted dandelions with his dinner, and the owner had to run all around town to get them."93

Esselstyn: "Tippy Goes was only about 5'2", but you'd swear he was trying to blow his voice clear through the megaphone. The commands might as well have been Hungarian. All you knew was that there were three of them."94

According to The New York Times, the final started well for the Elis.

"Yale, off to a perfect start, shared the lead with Cornell and the Admirals in the early stages.

"Then the Elis dropped back."95

From within the Yale boat, however, the reality was a bit more nuanced.

Wailes: "[On the first stroke,] Morey's oar flipped completely around in his hand, and he missed one stroke. I was thinking how lucky we were to recover from that when I caught a partial crab at the release, ducked out of the way of the oar so I wouldn't be thrown out of the boat, and ended going up for the next catch with oar behind my back.96

Cooke: "On the second stroke of the racing start, Rusty Wailes caught an over-the-head crab, losing the grip on his oar.

"I remember coming up to the catch for the third stroke and wondering what Rusty's oar was doing trailing alongside the boat.

"Behind our starboard stern, I glimpsed Tippy Goes in the referee's launch staring right at our boat, clearly aware of the crab, and then turning away to look at the other crews."97

Wailes: "On the following stroke I ducked under my oar and came out on the recover only missing one stroke.

"After all this, a quick glance revealed we were only a deck behind all the other crews. My reaction was that if we could screw up this badly and still be only a deck back—we've got this thing."98

Cooke: "Essy, right behind Rusty, remembers being shocked to see Rusty's face looking up at him as he finished his own third stroke.

"Rusty reached out, pivoted the oar, swung the handle back inboard, carefully avoiding Essy, and hit the fourth stroke right on time.

"Must have been a great disappointment to Tippy."99

Stan Pocock: "Crabs caught in races are often a disaster, but can be a blessing in disguise if they're caught early and a quick recovery is made. The resulting infusion of adrenaline can work wonders on a crew."100

Esselstyn: "When Rusty crabbed, the boat sort of shuddered, and everybody seemed to say, 'What the hell!'

"I can remember it vividly. We began to really catch solid water, and we just knew we could drive as hard as we could, and the boat would remain steady.

"Then Becklean took over. They probably had four men on us, but he told us they only had two."101

Becklean: "We were not a fast-starting crew, so we thought we'd be giving Cornell half a length or so at the start and then mow 'em down later.

"Then we just had a horrible start. Everything went wrong, but after twenty strokes I looked over, and we were even with Cornell. As far as I was concerned, it was all over!"102

The New York Times: "The Admirals went ahead. They were closely followed by Cornell, which had recently won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association crown for the second straight time.

"Yale and Cornell lagged while the Admirals and Washington alternated in the lead. The Admirals set the pace for 700 meters. Then the Coast sweepswingers moved into the lead.

"Yale was third and apparently unperturbed about the leadership."103

"At about 1,200 meters, Yale, who had sat back at 29-30, made its bid, went by the Admirals into second place, and then at 1,400 blew the race open."104

"They went to a 32-beat, and within 30 strokes they were on top. Nearing the three-quarters, they had a two-seat edge over Washington.

"Gradually the Elis drew away.

"At the 1,500 meter mark, the Ithacans, who had been co-favored with Yale in pre-regatta calculations, jumped from fourth place to second place within 200 meters, but the Elis, raising their stroke the least bit, turned aside the bid with no trouble.

"At the finish, it was Yale by three-quarters of a length over Cornell. Then came Navy's Admirals, the 1952 Olympic Champions. Washington was fourth and Wisconsin fifth, less than two lengths behind Yale."105

1956 Olympic Trials Final, Onondaga Lake, Syracuse
Yale 6:33.5, Cornell 6:36.2, Navy 6:37.5, Washington 6:37.8, Wisconsin 6:40.8
(photo from William R. Becklean)

Cornell's take on the race?

Cornell-grad Chuck von Wrangell: "I've heard the story many times that Yale won onlyvbecause they had the sheltered lane."106

Carl Ullrich: "I was there, but up on the shore and just back from service in Korea, so not an objective observer. I believe they were nosed out by having to fight rough water while Yale had smooth-as-glass conditions in their lane."107

Yale's response: "Yale had 'smooth-as-glass conditions?' while Cornell had to 'fight rough water?' That is just not possible in adjacent lanes on Onondaga, a huge lake.

"You can also see that Cornell's lane was closer to the protective log boom, and at least at the finish, Cornell had better water than Yale."108

This is one of those races which has continued to be rerowed in the minds of the participants years and years later.

Cornell stroke, Phil Gravink: "We probably all suffer a bit from selective memory after half a century."109

Onondaga Lake, northwest end
The Syracuse Boathouse on the canal at the end of the lake.
The race course is shown as a white line along northeastern shore.
(photo from

The race course runs down the northeastern shore of Onondaga, as shown on the map included, and the day of the 1956 Trials there was a westerly wind blowing across the course from the far side of the lake. As the wind approached the wooded northeast shore, it would have lifted a bit from the lake surface, creating a wind shadow which would have favored the lanes on that side of the rowing course, though waves which had begun on the other side of the lake would have continued to roll unabated straight to shore.

In addition, several years of experience with the IRA Regatta had demonstrated that the shallow water near shore made for slow lanes. Accordingly, lane assignments were seeded from the outside in, and the two heat winners, Cornell and Yale, were placed in the two favored outside lanes

The finish-line officials were located on a barge out in the lake on the outside of the race course, and the lanes were numbered from the barge in toward shore.

A log boom outside of Lane 1 protected the course, but only near the finish.

As can be seen clearly in the photograph of the finish, Cornell in the white shirts with diagonal stripes was in Lane 1, furthest away from shore, where one would expect the wind and water conditions to have been the most extreme down the course prior to the boom.

1956 Olympic Trials, Onondaga Lake, Syracuse
There was a quartering headwind off the lake. To the right of the barge, one can clearly see the waves beyond and the smooth water inside the log boom. There was a visible degradation of water conditions between Lanes 1 (Cornell), 2 (Yale) and 3 (Navy), but this would have been true only for the last 300 meters. Prior to that, there was no log boom. For the first 1,700 meters, all crews would have been subject to the full force of waves rolling in from the lake. Even if the wind might have moderated a bit for Lanes 5 and 6 closer to shore, furthest out on the lake, the difference between Lanes 1 and 2 must have been negligible.
(photo from William Becklean)

But Yale was in Lane 2, only one lane away. There couldn't have been a great deal of difference, if any, with four more lanes and a buffer area between these two contending crews and the shoreline.

Cornell: "The light log boom was only along the last 300 meters, where we passed two boats and closed significantly on Yale."110

Yale: "Nosed out? We won by three-quarters of a length – hardly a 'nose out' – and we were in control for the last 1,000 meters!"111

Yale: "We took the lead at the midway point, rowing through the Navy Admirals and Washington, and then held it through the finish without even having to sprint!"112

Yale: "Our plan was to row 32 for the first 1,200 meters. Cornell and Navy made spurts to try and take the lead. The University of Washington actually held the lead at this point, but our plan was to beat Cornell and then deal with the rest.

"With 800 meters to go, Beck knocked on the side of the boat, and with a power-10 Bob Morey took us to 34, and we started to pull away from Cornell and the rest of the pack. We now had a couple of men on Cornell, who immediately went to 34 to match us, but they were still losing ground and had to raise it to 36 to try and bring us back.

"We soon had half a length on Cornell, and they were rowing 2 over us. At 400-500 meters to go, we moved it up to 36 and started to pull away again. At this point I knew that was all she wrote."113

Cornell: "The Olympic Trials were no walk in the park for Yale. They had to row their best race to beat us."114

Yale: "I think the Trials was the best technical race we ever rowed, at least after the first fifteen strokes. I've never had a boat feel so solid. Everybody was so exhilarated!115

Essy: "That was my last race against these fine opponents. Today, the shirt I really treasure is that of Henry Proctor, the 6-man from the Navy Great Eight. I won it at the Trials, but the other was that ofClayt Chapman on the Cornell crew. I treasure them both."116

Cornell Stroke Phil Gravink wistfully (and graciously) recalls: "While I agree that Yale's inside smooth water and our outside chop played a role, I have always felt that our loss was as much mental.

"In the Friday heats, we handed the Admirals their first-ever loss,117 and that was very emotionally draining.

"Saturday was supposed to be the eights final, but there was a big wind storm.

"Most of the crews were housed together in two big dormitories at the New York State Fairgrounds. While we spent the day wringing our hands awaiting a two-hour notice, we knew that Jim Rathschmidt, more power to him, had the Yalies in a downtown Syracuse hotel.

"That night, we were told they went to a movie!

"Sunday morning, more wind and the two-hour notice remained in effect. I think it was about 3 PM when we were told to get ready to row at 5.

"Mentally, I think we had gone past our peak and sort of just wanted to get on with it. We never really settled in the first 1,000 meters and had just a little too much to get back at the end."118

Yale: "After five weeks at Gales Ferry preparing for the Boat Race against Harvard and for the Trials afterwards, Jim thought we needed a change of environment, so when we left Gales Ferry we went directly to the Hotel Syracuse. We had clean rooms and sheets, decent food, and a more relaxed and private existence.

"Yes, and the night before the Finals we did go to a movie. For the locals it was quite a sight with our coxswain, Bill Becklean, strutting out in front of these big guys and barking orders as to what movie we should see.

"The hotel stay, compliments of the Yale Crew Association, was another one of Jim Rathschmidt's 'head games,' proof that Yale was 'different.'"119


Time Magazine's Trials coverage put into historical perspective the last hurrah of the 1952 Olympic Champions: "The Admirals jumped into an early lead, rowing a lung-bursting 41 strokes a minute. But the younger college boys in the other crews hung on.

"The Admirals could not keep it up. Slowly, the big Yale crew inched by.

"In the last 500 meters, the Admirals made a final bid. It failed, and they fell back.

"The triumphant Yale crew slipped past the finish to win the Olympic berth by an easy three-quarters of a length over Cornell, whose closing drive brought them in second, a full length ahead of the fading Admirals."120

"In the defeat of the Navy Admirals, the repetitiveness of history again became apparent. Back in 1920, a Naval Academy crew won the Olympic championship for the eights, and a dream kept growing for the next few years. No full crew had ever repeated in the Olympics, and this might be it.

"So the 1920 crew was reassembled as the Navy Officers. But Yale beat them in the final tryouts in 1924.

"An even greater Navy crew won at Helsinki in 1952, a crew that had made history by slamming through unbeaten for three seasons and twenty-nine regattas.

"So that same dream was reborn. The young Naval Officers reassembled from all over the world at Annapolis last February and began the long pull back. As the Navy Admirals, they had competed where they could, trying to regain the spark of four years ago.

"But they couldn't find it."121

New Haven Evening Register: "Ed Stevens, stroke of the 1952 Navy crew which won the Olympic Championship for the United States, slowly pulled off his gold shirt with the Olympic insignia and handed it to Yale stroke, Bob Morey.

"'No,' said the modest Yale sophomore, 'you should keep it.' But Stevens, whose former champs had given it all they could, replied, 'No, I'm through with this business now. I'll never have use for it again.'

"With this simple and unnoticed ceremony, a great era of American rowing came to an end as the Navy grads, winners of twenty-nine consecutive races as undergraduates, ended their careers as oarsmen.

"Winners of the 1952 Olympics, the Naval officers had been called back from duty in far spots of the globe to attempt to regain the glory that once was Navy's. Although they were thought to be at least as good as they were four years previous, they were not strong enough to withstand Yale."122


Cornell: "Our Olympic Trials final race was much like Yale's first heat in Melbourne, just a bad day. Yale's great crew reconciled their bad day two days afterward, and Cornell reconciled ours throughout our 1957 undefeated season."123

Stan Pocock, at the Trials coaching small boat entrants, viewed the race from a boatbuilder's perspective. "As the eights came down the windblown course, something looked wrong. Inexplicably, Cornell's blades were only scratching the tops of the waves. A story circulated afterward that Cornell's riggers had been raised an inch just before the race. If true, whoever did it must have thought that the crew would be better able to handle the rough water rigged that way. It would have been better had they left the riggers alone. This was the only race124 that the Cornell crew lost in four years of intercollegiate competition."125

Yale: "The 'Washington Mafia' had been so convinced that Cornell, with Washingtonian Stork Sanford as coach, was going to win the Trials that they had already hired as Olympic trainer Georges Cointe (the Cornell fencing coach126), and Washington-grad Tom Bowles from Harvard as team manager.

"The rigger was George Pocock himself, another Washingtonian.

"After we won, at Jim Rathschmidt's insistence, Yale manager Roger Bullard was added to the Olympic staff as an assistant.

"In summary, Yale outrowed Cornell twice in three meetings in 1956, and only lost once on a fluke, boat-stopping crab in Washington, DC.

"As an aside, the 1956 Yale Crew understroked every crew in every race - and still won – that is until we met the Aussies and the Canadians on Lake Wendouree, and reluctantly came to the realization that we would have to row a higher stroke to be competitive in the Olympics."127

Yale University, 1956 Olympic Champions
"A number of the oarsmen sagged in their seats. The 3-man keeled over flat on his back. The 6-man slumped forward, his head hanging low. The 5-man splashed water in his face."
- Alison Danzig, The New York Times
(photo from Sports Illustrated)

Yale went on to win the 1956 Olympic final in a stirring race after faltering in the preliminary heats. The bitter 1956 Yale/Cornell rivalry was destined to be continued on the water in 1957 and beyond.

Look for Part V next week.

84 Time Magazine, July 9, 1956
85 Mendenhall, Oar, p. 8
86 Wailes, p. 4
87 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
88 Wailes, p. 4
89 qtd. by Wailes, p. 4
90 Torenber, personal correspondence, 2007
91 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
92 Cornell is situated in Ithaca, on the banks of Cayuga, the largest of the Finger Lakes and about 50 miles southwest of Onondaga.
93 Gilcreast, personal correspondence, 2005
94 Esselstyn, personal correspondence, 2005
95 Michael Strauss, The New York Times, July 2, 1956
96 Wailes, p. 5
97 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
98 Wailes, p. 5
99 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
100 S. Pocock, p. 105
101 Esselstyn, personal correspondence, 2005
102 Becklean, personal conversation, 2005
103 Michael Strauss, The New York Times, July 2, 1956
104 Mendenhall, Oar, p. 9
105 Michael Strauss, The New York Times, July 2, 1956
106 von Wrangell
107 Ullrich, personal correspondence, 2005
108 Charlton, personal correspondence, 2005
109 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
110 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
111 Charlton, personal correspondence, 2005
112 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
113 Wailes, p. 5
114 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
115 Esselstyn, personal correspondence, 2005
116 Esselstyn, personal correspondence, 2005
117 Not exactly true. During their training that spring, the Admirals had unofficially entered and lost to Princeton in the Princeton/Navy collegiate race. Later in the season, they raced Princeton again and beat them handily.
118 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
119 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005
120 Time Magazine, July 9, 1956
121 Arthur Daley, The New York Times, July 4, 1956
122 Olympic Berth Won by Yale, New Haven Evening Register, July 2, 1956
123 Gravink, personal correspondence, 2005
124 An exaggeration. Yale also beat them in the 1956 Carnegie Cup.
125 S. Pocock, p. 226
126 According to von Wrangell, Cointe was a veteran of the French Foreign Legion and a good friend of Stork Sanford's. He was nicknamed "Uncle George" in 1947 when he first came to the Cornell boathouse to take care of blisters and sore muscles.
127 Cooke, personal correspondence, 2005

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