Throughout 1970-71, my first year of coaching crew at Penn, I have been training in a single every morning before graduate school. This is still a year before my contretemps with John Hartigan. I have joined Vesper Boat Club because they had a beautiful vintage lightweight Swiss Stämpfli single, the best boat made anywhere in the world, the Ferrari of racing shells, etc., etc., and a pair of Stämpfli sculls for me to use. (I am also still a year away from buying a beautiful lightweight Swiss Stämpfli single of my own.) Frankly, the dust of Undine Barge Club boathouse hung heavily upon me as well, and I was happy to shake it from my shoes, along with the memory of Jim Barker.
It is the summer of 1971, and the Vesper Sculling Coach this year is a remarkable woman named Ana Tamas - shortened from Ana Tama-Reika - who in her competitive days had won many, many European Championship medals for Romania. God, she is impressive! She is in Heaven now. Suffice it to say that she had a smile a mile wide, an accent an inch thick, and whenever she walked into a room the walls shook and all eyes were upon her.
I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing her shout over and over, "Up your body, Pee-ter!" She has all her scullers row for miles - literally, miles and miles - side by side, racing each other with our legs flat, employing our arms and backs only. "Up your body, Ree-cky! Up your body, Pee-ter!"
I figure she's yelling at us exactly what her own coach back in Romania must have yelled at her mile after mile, year after year, during her youth. Isn't that what all coaches do? Regurgitate the words of their old coach? It's certainly the way I started! But while I am upping my body I never quite figure out what she is trying to accomplish by leaving out of the rowing stroke the all-important legs, and I get the impression she doesn't know either. Generation after generation, we rowers are supposed to do what we are told and not question.
"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs but to do and die."
- The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Anyway, I win a wristwatch, a big deal in those days, in the Intermediate Lightweight Singles event at the Independence Day Regatta, but the watch only actually ran for a year, and now I can't find it, which reminds me that on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians took as souvenirs pocket watches from the bodies of the fallen soldiers of the 7th Cavalry in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Thought the ticking they heard was the beating of a hero's heart. Not knowing how to wind a watch, they, too, tired of their keepsakes a day or so later, after the watches ran down. Is this a small world or what?
But my real goal this summer of 1971 is the Lightweight Singles ¼ Mile Dash at the U.S. Nationals, to be held yet again on Hunter Island Lagoon. What better place to exorcise my Silver Medal demons!
The man to beat is Bill Belden. Now where have we heard that name before? Yeah, the little kid in the 1968 Upper Merion Quad. Little kid now become a young man, now rowing for Jim Barker at Undine Barge Club. He's already the 1970 National Lightweight Doubles Champion with his partner Fred Duling.
Now Bill ran a 4:30 mile while he was still in high school. Last year in 1970, just for fun before hiking the Grand Canyon, at the age of 25 I trained my butt off all summer long on the Penn track in Franklin Field . . . and I ran a 5:02 mile. What is that? Half a lap behind Bill? Kind of puts things in perspective, don't you think?
Surprise, surprise! In a single Bill Belden can destroy me over 2,000 meters, no matter how effectively I up my body. Hell, I just don't have his kind of motor! He is destined to win the Lightweight Single Sculls World Championship in just three more years, just like I sort of predicted back in 1968 . . . Another World Champion. How many of those do you meet in one lifetime? I'm lucky. It is my privilege to have met more than a few by now.
But believe you me, I am genuinely fast in a dash! I have the strength and speed to totally compete with Bill Belden over a 1/4 mile! Beat him handily, in fact. I'm sure of it.
This summer season of 1971 Bill and I first meet at the Schuylkill Navy Championships in June. I have just turned 26. Bill is 22. Now a ¼ mile takes me 57 strokes at 40+ strokes per minute. I make it through 25, and then my legs turn to jelly. I am leading . . . and then Bill races past in a flash, leaving only his wake beside me.
The foundation and cornerstone of my training this summer is stadium stairs, brutal repeat sprints up the stands in Franklin Field, the football stadium on the Penn campus, one of the many innovations Ted Nash has brought to Quaker rowing. I redouble my efforts. Soon, when I reach the top each time I feel like I could keep going, take wing and fly like a bird.
We meet again, Bill and I, on the 4th of July at the Independence Day Regatta, a couple of hours before I am destined to row in and win that watch in the Intermediate Lightweight Singles.
This time I put three-quarters of a length on Bill at the start, a huge margin in a dash, and hold it easily for 40 strokes before the wheels again fall off my little red wagon. It astonishes me how my strength can evaporate in a single instant, but still I have six weeks to go before the U.S. Nationals, and now I am more sure than ever that I have the measure of Bill Belden. And everybody else, too. Oh yes! This is going to be my year!
To be continued . . .