The Harvard crew proved beyond any doubt Saturday afternoon that it is the best college crew in the country.
But, that was not quite good enough to get it to Tokyo.
Rowing its best race of the season and clocking the second fastest time in the entire Olympic trials, the Harvard heavyweight eight lost by one length and few feet of open water to the unbelievably powerful and precise Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia.
The Olympic trials at Orchard Beach, N.Y. were billed beforehand as the meeting of the pride of the East, Harvard and the pride of the West, the University of California.
Vesper was all but ignored until it beat Harvard by two lengths in the semi-final heats on Friday, and even then many experts tagged that Vesper victory a fluke. It wasn't.
Coxed by a 46-year old Hungarian refugee and comprised of strong and experienced ex-collegiate oarsmen (average age: 26, average size: 6' 21/2" and 195 lbs.), Vesper overcame an early lead by Harvard, sustained its speed against the consistent Crimson challenge, and surged across the finish line in 6 minutes 1.3 seconds.
The low-stroking Crimson crew got off to a perfect start and led by half a length at the 1000-meter halfway mark, but the Harvard oarmen were unable to match Vesper's increasing momentum. Harvard's time was 6:05.3, its fastest time in the trials and a faster than Vesper clocked until the final race. California finished third, nearly a length behind Harvard. Yale was last.
Before a crowd of 5000 Harvard began the race stroking at 33 and gained an early deck length on Vesper, rowing at 32. California at 44 was in third and Yale followed at 37. At 500 meters Harvard had raised the stroke to 36 and retained a slight lead over Vesper, stroking at a fast 38.
The Crimson held the lead with a 36 until the 1000-meter mark when Vesper made its move. For a moment the two shells were neck and neck, Harvard at 35, Vesper at 38. Then Vesper slowly began to pull away and Harvard never regained the lead although it upped the stroke to an unusually high 38 near the finish.
Harvard was incredibly impressive even in defeat. The first words spoken by the delirious Vesper oarsmen when they stepped onto the dock after the race were words of praise for Harvard.
The Vesper coach, Allen Rosenburg, said after the race, "We always figured Harvard was the crew to beat. They were gutsy all the way; they started strong and never let up. We were worried all the way."
If Vesper gave credit where it was due, so did Harvard. "They were just too good for us. Powerful, big, strong and plain good--an outstanding crew in every respect," was Crimson coach Harry Parker's comment. The dejected Harvard oarsmen agreed.
The Vesper victory was obviously a crushing blow to Parker, Captain Harry Pollock and their crew, who had spent up to four years of constant effort in anticipation of this Olympic opportunity.
Some observers speculated that the back injury to Geoff Gratwick, Harvard's number two oar, might have made the difference Saturday. This was certainly not evident from Harvard's performance in the race or from Parker's explanation of the outcome.
Harvard rowed as well as anyone ever expected them to. The surprise was Vesper. The victory by Vesper may, in fact, have profound consequences for U.S. rowing. Vesper certainly proved that age is not necessarily a disadvantage (Vesper's number seven oar is 35 and the father of six children), whereas experience always helps.
Vesper's example should persuade outstanding college oarsmen to continue with crew in rowing clubs after graduation. The victory could well signal the end of collegiate domination of U.S. rowing.
But if Harvard can produce a crew as good as this one in 1968, no rowing club will be able to take anything for granted.
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