row2k Features
Life is a Metaphor for Rowing, Ch. 48: A Velodrome Visit
March 10, 2023
Peter Mallory

Rudy Weiler (left), Jack Nicholson (right)

But 1979 was not all sackcloth and ashes for us. When it was time to make our journey to Moscow, we flew from Belgium to Copenhagen – It took a full 22 hours less time than our earlier bus ride with Guy, just a guy! – and joined up with our very good friends on the Canadian Junior Team. Women’s Coach Rudy Weiler and Boatman Jack Nicholson were indeed a sight for sore eyes at a time when it felt like we had no friends at all in the States.

At the age of 34, I am the U.S. head coach at a World Rowing Championships and by default chef de mission at FISA meetings! Thomi Keller is consulting with me! My French is flowing, and I am even making good sense in German, especially after a couple of glasses of Russian vodka. Nostrovia!

My 'Mockba 1979' Coach’s Badge (left) Thomi Keller (right - CC BY-SA 3.0 nl)
My 'Mockba 1979' Coach’s Badge (left) Thomi Keller (right - CC BY-SA 3.0 nl)

Over the course of a year, we have progressed from a Pocock pair at home to a Kaschper in Philadelphia to a Stämpfli in Brussels to a VEB in Moscow. A real smorgasbord! And we become the first crew ever to compete at any World Championships with Concept2 oars. How about that? Those oars make quite an international impression, and we have tons of offers to purchase them after the regatta.

* * * * *

So did the Soviets try to make our lives a living Hell, just as the USRA Board of Directors had feared? Not really, but we were definitely in a “Through the Looking Glass World”, everything not quite what we were used to.

The flight from Copenhagen to Moscow was indeed on an Aeroflot jet. I remember looking out the window at our airport gate watching the baggage guys trying to figure out how to get all our oars into its cargo hold. They try one way and then another and then another . . . and then they simply disappear around the back of the plane. A few minutes later, several Soviet passengers are asked to step up to the Aeroflot representative at the gate. Soon they leave with disgruntled looks on their faces.

When we finally board the plane, everything becomes clear. There are all our oars, American and Canadian, tied in bundles to the last three rows of seats. The guys that had been asked to leave must have been bounced to make way for those oars. Nothing like this would ever have been allowed by the FAA in the States, but the Soviets are certainly bending over backwards to accommodate us.

We and all the other teams are put up in the Hotel Ukraine, one of several pseudo-Gothic skyscrapers Stalin had constructed around Moscow during the 1950s, this one a hotel for foreigners in a park along the Moscow River. Grandiose on the outside, it is dingy on the inside, and the food is simply dreadful, just as we had been told to expect. Every meal is mystery meat that looks and tastes like shoe leather, along with potatoes and cabbage. Every meal.

Hotel Ukraine
Hotel Ukraine

It stays light in Moscow until after midnight, and the sun is again streaming through my window at 3:30am. We travel around together with the Canadian and Israeli teams in our own Soviet government bus. Our handler is the daughter of a famous Soviet Cosmonaut, and it is obviously intended that we never be left alone. Even when our little group of coaches go to Red Square – amazing, by the way – and then stop at a bar for a glass or two or three of vodka, our handler comes right along and sticks like glue, but she is very nice.

When we are alone I expect her to ask me about how much fun it must be to live with beaches and palm trees in Hollywood, California, but all she asks is why the United States has organized NATO in the West and SEATO in the East to surround her glorious motherland with enemies. I have no satisfactory answer.

However. when I ask her if it is possible to for me purchase some Soviet postage stamps with rowers on them, she surreptitiously writes down addresses on two pieces of paper. I hand the first to a cabbie outside the hotel the next day, and he takes me to a government stamp shop. After I make my purchases – amid lots of hand gestures and pointing – I hand the other to another cabbie who takes me back to the Ukraine.

Again, bending over backwards.

There’s a sad end to this part of the story, however. Back at the hotel after the end of the regatta with the teams celebrating and me drinking vodka, a lot of vodka, with the East German coaches in their rooms, my elaborately well-hidden stamps are stolen. How anybody knew where to look was way beyond me, but we had been told to expect that our rooms would be riddled with surveillance devices. Who knows?

* * * * *

On to the regatta. The rowing course is six years old, constructed for those infamous 1973 European Rowing Championships, but the surrounding Krylatskoe Olympic Sports Complex is brand new, very large and even includes a miles-long closed course for the Olympic Cycling Road Race, like an automobile racetrack.

On a free day before the start of the rowing competition, Margi, Betsy, and I check out three of the bicycles provided for rowing coaches to follow their crews up and down the rowing basin. Looking for adventure, we cycle around the rest of the Olympic facilities that are still under construction.

Olympic Velodrome
Olympic Velodrome

In the velodrome, they are still laying down plank-by-plank the high-banked wooden track. One of the soldiers guarding the facility is on the scaffolding sound asleep, cradling his AK-47 like it was a baby. Betsy takes a picture.

Suddenly on the other side of the building a second soldier starts pointing his own AK-47 and yelling fiercely at us in Russian. Thinking fast, we wave cheerfully, respond loudly and enthusiastically in English . . . and get the Hell out of there. Fun memory.

To be continued . . .

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03/10/2023  1:44:42 PM
Another great installment. Thank you for posting these!

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