row2k Features
Life is a Metaphor for Rowing, Ch. 46: British Infantry Square
February 24, 2023
Peter Mallory

Speaking of Ironman world champion triathlete Scott Tinley, my 1979 junior women's pair of Margi Fetter and Betsy Zumwalt knew Scott Tinley, too, and they won their own personal Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. All by themselves they opened a 55-gallon drum of a**-whup on our own United States Rowing Association after the sons of guns unilaterally declared a boycott of the 1979 World Rowing Junior Championships in Moscow.

You better sit. Listen to this:

As you have yet to read in this severely chronologically-challenged book, by 1979 Margi and Betsy had amassed a total of nine national medals between them, toured Western Europe with me and ZLAC Rowing Club for six weeks in 1977 and rowed stern pair in my 1978 national camp-selected U.S. Junior Women's Quad at the 1978 World Championships in Belgrade. When we all return from Europe, they, their parents and I sit down to plan out a strategy for the following year.

These are two young girls, both still 16 years old and already highly experienced, and they feel more than ready to avoid any national selection camps in 1979 and make an A Final at the Junior Worlds in Moscow on their own, but in what event? The double sculls is just about the most daunting field at any World Championships. How about the pair? That's a real skill event, which plays to my strengths as a coach, to their international experience from 1977 and 1978, and to their strengths as multiple medalists in multiple events, sweep and scull, at the 1977 and the 1978 U.S. Nationals. So . . .

Step 1: Order a new coxless-pair from Pocock Racing Shells and two of the newly-released revolutionary composite oars from Concept2. The parents take care of that.

FIAT X 1/9
FIAT X 1/9

Step 2: Trade in my beloved 2-seater FIAT Ics Uno/Nove sports car for a Volvo wagon that can transport the three of us, our pair and a couple of singles as well. I take care of that.

Step 3: For a couple of years Margi has been having increasing trouble with her knees, something about the patellar tendons not tracking properly under her kneecaps or something, and the doctor says they can't put off dealing with them any longer. So she immediately gets both knees operated on simultaneously so as not to interfere with our training any longer than necessary. Interestingly, she can row almost right away and transitions from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane very quickly, but it is another month and more before she can bend her knees sufficiently to use her slide much in a boat. So we end up training for weeks and weeks in our new pair with arms and body only.

"Up your body, Mar-gi! Up your body, Bet-sy!" Ana Tamas would have been very proud.

By the time Margi and Betsy finally reach their stern stops, they can row that pair one hand, two hands, eyes open, eyes closed, feather, no feather, low stroke, high stroke, either side, either seat, both of them ready to toe from bow or stroke. The flow comes relaxed and easy. They've made that boat their boat, their event!

Half the time we train three across in singles in practice for the competition. The other half it's me against the pair. So, by Christmas of 1978 we are INVESTED, physically, emotionally and financially: me, the girls, the families . . . when shortly after New Year's comes word that the United States Rowing Association Board of Directors has voted to boycott the World Rowing Junior Championships. Just . . . like . . . that.

Their stated rationale is that at the 1973 European Championships the Soviets had made things so difficult on the American team, including Joan Lind, including Fairthy Farthington's ill-fated lightweight eight, including Steve Gladstone's promising heavyweight eight, with delays at the airport, bribes, lousy food, lousy accommodations, red tape at the border with the boats, more bribes, inability to go anywhere unattended, etc., etc. . . . so difficult that the Board decides not to subject our impressionable young American Junior rowers to such hardships and indignities.

Then word filters out that it might have more to do with the fact that the Soviets require air flights into Moscow be on Aeroflot, the government-run airline, and accommodations booked through Intourist, the government-run travel agency, freezing out the American travel agency with which the U.S. Rowing Association has signed a contract, causing significant negative financial repercussions to the federation and to the travel plans of individual board members. We appeal to every member we know personally . . . and a few we don't. They stand firm, shoulder to shoulder, impenetrable, like a British Infantry Square at the Battle of Waterloo.

After the USRA refuses to reconsider, my girls appeal to the United States Olympic Committee, which has a long-standing detailed grievance procedure for athletes. They win the first review. Then they win again. And again! On up the line.

By now it's June. The next step in the grievance procedure takes place in Detroit, the site of the U.S. Women's Rowing Nationals, with 1964 Vesper Olympic Champion rower Emory Clark presiding. He rules in the girls' favor. On the spot.

But the clock continues to tick.

It's July. The USRA Board of Directors, after losing every single step, after dragging the process out for more than six months, hoping to delay until the Junior Worlds are over - Damn their eyes! - the Board of Directors of the United States Rowing Association is finally forced by the USOC to face my girls in binding federal arbitration.

Yah Dah Dah!!!

What the Board apparently doesn't appreciate is that Margi's father is an attorney and Betsy's mother is a judge! They have spent months around a kitchen table in the evenings formulating a strategy for their daughters to present. I only find out later.

For the arbitration hearing we return to Philadelphia from our summer training site in St. Catharines, Ontario alongside what feels like the only friends we have left in the world, the Canadian National Junior Team. The attorney chosen by the USRA to argue in favor of the boycott is the federation's shining star, Board member and 1976 Olympic Eights Bronze Medalist Anita DeFrantz, a role model for both my girls and for me.

And I already know Anita really well. She's a fellow Quaker, a Penn Law grad. But get this. She's also a fellow Indianapolitan, fellow Shortridge Blue Devil and fellow Hoosier! I kid you not! Is this a small world or what? But Anita is years younger than I, so both Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and I missed running into her during our high school years.

My fellow Indianapolitan and fellow Hoosier parents even worshiped at the very same church that Anita and her parents attended. Strange to find myself and my girls opposed by a family friend, especially Anita DeFrantz, us having so much in common, and extra especially on something as patently ridiculous and destructive as a sports boycott.

As I wait patiently outside his chambers, the federal judge presiding over the arbitration hears out Margi and Betsy v. USRA. He takes 45 minutes to issue his ruling which summarily brushes aside the feeble arguments presented by a very uncomfortable Anita DeFrantz, humbled by a couple of high school kids representing themselves all by themselves in that wood-paneled office lined with row upon row of law books.

We celebrate silently . . . and head for the airport and a flight to Hazewinkel, the Belgian national rowing facility. Together with the rest of the U.S. Junior Team, we have no choice but to embark upon a "tour" of two regattas in Western Europe intended by the USRA's travel agency to substitute for the Junior Worlds.

BLOSO Rijkssportcentrum Hazewinkel
BLOSO Rijkssportcentrum Hazewinkel

The sad saga continues. The United States Rowing Association actually goes to a second federal judge and tries to get the binding arbitration of the first federal judge set aside, and after the second federal judge threatens to put the entire USRA Board of Directors behind bars for contempt of court if they don't stop their malarkey - I wonder just what part of "binding" they didn't understand - after all that . . . with just weeks to go they are finally compelled to accept and support us as our country's representative at the World Rowing Junior Championships in Moscow.

And that's just the short version of this story.

To be continued . . .

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