I had never been to West Point in my life, although I had ridden on a train to camp, had gone by the place on the opposite side of the Hudson, and between food fights with those wonderfully messy cherry pits had seen the bastion of American militarism from a distance. I had envisioned an incredibly repressive place, but what I found instead was a peculiar mixture of rigid adherance to arbitrary rules and a strange brand of permissiveness.
The first thing I noticed as I drove through was a beautiful dark green Corvette Stingray, its engine making characteristic low rumbling noise, cruising effortlessly at 20 mph. (I found, much to my annoyance, that the speed limit was 25!) Then I passed an orange Vette, a bright yellow Vette, another and another. I thought something was dangerously amiss, but I soon discovered that there were 160 (count'em) Corvettes on campus, more than you or I have probably seen in an entire lifetime of playing the old car identification game which, in my case, drove both my parents absolutely crazy.
In their ultra-American patriotism, the cadet seniors had saved up their base pay for four years in order to buy the ultimate symbol of traditional American brute power and gaudiness, a Chevrolet Corvette. GM's domination served as a fitting contrast to Cambridge, where such automotive monstrosities are rare and BMW's and Volkswagens are the only cars one seems to see. The fact that I have a BMW, however, makes the validity of this analysis open to serious doubt.
But I really didn't go to the Point to look at cars or make neat sociological critiques. I went to watch the premier swimming meet in the East, the Eastern Seaboard Swimming Championships, and find out if Harvard's success in its dual meet season would carry over in to championship competition.
In breaking 12 University records, scoring 240 points, and coming in a very respectable third (North Carolina State grabbed second from the Crimson in the final event), Harvard's three-day performance was nothing short of an unqualified success. What made these statistics even more incredible was the fact that the Crimson was coming into the contest having already peaked and shaved for two dual meets, and in the final contest with Yale had just shattered eight Harvard records.
As any swimmer well knows, it is extremely difficult to continue to swim faster times after shaving a couple of times, especially in such a pressure situation as existed at West Point, but Don Gambril's eight (the only Crimson swimmers who scored points in the meet) managed the impossible. By comparison, North Carolina State, which had shaved and peaked for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship the week before, failed to match its times in most cases but, relying on its depth and diving, it was just too much in the end for Harvard.
The most surprising aspects of the Easterns were the re-emergence of Penn from two seasons of swimming doldrums, and the almost total collapse of Yale. The Quakers finished fourth with 233 points to Harvard's 240 and N.C. State's 240.5 and Princeton's untouchable 361, but it battled the Crimson and the Wolfpack all three days for the runner-up spot. Penn's finish, however, was no fluke. It had conceded its dual meet season and unlike Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth (which finished an abysmal eighth) it had not shaved or peaked until this weekend, and it paid off as Penn swimmers, in most cases, swam a couple of seconds faster in every race.
"We didn't honestly think we'd be up there," an obviously pleased Penn coach George Breen said during the last day on Saturday, but he might not have been telling the whole story. The biggest reason for the Quakers' success had to be the superlative performance of senior Bob Atkinson, the only man to win three races and by a wide margin top individual the swimmer at the meet. Atkinson dropped three full seconds to take the 220-yd. individual medley in record time, repeated his fine swim in the 400-yd. version, also setting a record, and then surprised everybody by winning the 200-yd. backstroke as overwhelming favorite and defending NCAA and Eastern champion Charlie Campbell of Princeton, tired out by a winning performance against Tim Neville in the 100-yd. free, faded to fifth.
Poor old Yale. After surprising everyone by tying for the league championship, the Elis paid the consequences as it had a miserable weekend, finishing sixth and failing to mount anything resembling a defense of the crown it took last year in New Haven. An indication of how far down the Elis slid came in the 400-yd. freestyle relay. For probably the first time in history, Yale failed to reach the finals in the event, which until very recently was an Elis trademark. In the consolation finals, the team finished first but was disqualified on starts. To top off what had to be an extremely disappointing weekend, Yale captain Nate Cartmel, in a coin flip for the silver League trophy, lost to Harvard's Mike Cook and the Crimson took the cup back to Cambridge in a plastic baggie.
Once again the two dives made Harvard's task infinitely more difficult as Dave English failed to reach the finals on either the 1-meter or 3-meter board.
It is easy to say that diving is uninteresting or relatively unimportant, but the fact of the matter is that in order to do well in any dual meet and championships, a team must score diving points--a lesson the Crimson has been taught all year. Diving aside, Harvard swam just about as well as anyone at the meet, including Princeton. But whenever the Crimson built a small lead it was erased by the dives. In fact, the only day that Harvard held onto second was the middle one, and it is more than a coincidence that the second evening was the only one of the three without a dive on the program.
Despite this obvious shortcoming, the swimming program at Harvard is fast gaining ground on the rest of the league, with only Princeton left to catch. The recruiting edge is now Don Gambril's, and another group of swimmers of the caliber of a Tim Neville, Hess Yntema, Dave Brumwell or Rich Baughman could give the Crimson the depth to take it all next year.