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Crew Takes To The Charles: Avast There, Ye Lubbers!

By Leonard H. Shen

For the Harvard heavyweight crew, spring vacation has been one of the best weeks in the year. During those seven days of double practice and the accompanying "cumulative fatigue," the crew finally came together into the famed "Harvard racing machine" --a machine that Coach Harry Parker has led to a 70-6 career record and a century-old tradition of pre-eminence.

What makes Harry "the winningest coach" at Harvard? One oarsman put it succinctly: "Having raw muscle is just the starting point--what counts most is the psychology behind it. Harry gives us that psych factor."

Unlike most sports, crew trains all year for a single season in the spring. Throughout those 300 hours of fall and winter practice, each oarsman is sustained only by the distant image of racing season. As a result, those long hours of pre-season rowing--in a racing shell, in an indoor rowing tank, on an "unpleasant machine" called the ergometer--develops in each oarsman a formidable mental drive that will be focussed, months later, into a six-minute race.

The Harvard training program has many ways to develop this psychological edge, and the physical raw material it works upon. First, Harvard has a tradition of attracting the high school talent that has already distinguished itself in rowing. "A coach couldn't ask for better people," remarks freshman coach Ted Washburn, "We're in a Garden of Eden." Last year, he adds, six out of his eight first boaters had rowed in high school; stroke John MacEachern '81 and port oarsmen Bob Mudge '81 and Matt Arrott '81 had rowed for U.S. national teams. Experience is also evident in the varsity, where Coach Parker can more than fill his first boat with oarsmen who have already competed--and won--on international levels.

The talent is there, but it must be fine-tuned by quality coaching. Ted Washburn '64, who coxed all the way from junior high to Harvard and the 1964 Olympics, has been coaching the Crimson's freshmen for 15 years, and shows a technical expertise to match his experience. His training program parallels head Coach Parker's: an emphasis on long-distance endurance sessions during the fall and winter, with an increasing amount of short but hard rowing during the spring. Oarsmen work out in a variety of winter exercises: in addition to running and weightlifting, they row inside "the tanks" against mechanically generated currents, pull against the weighted flywheel of a rowing machine and sprint up and down the steps of Harvard Stadium. Such rigorous training has produced some of the best freshman crews in the world, as evidenced by first-place honors in England's Henley Thames Challenge regatta in 1972 and 1976.

High school talent and an intense freshman training program provide the foundation for Harvard's varsity crews. As one crew member said, "You've sweated through Ted's training--now you're ready for the professional discipline Harry demands." Coach Parker's credentials are also lengthy: an oarsman and sculler since college, he has worked with Harvard crews for 19 years and coached the U.S. national and Olympic women's crews. Gordong Gardiner '79, the team captain and varsity boat stroke, describes Parker: "Harry's the best in the country. He treads the very thin line between undercoaching and overcoaching."

Although Parker's daily two-hour practices develop both consummate technique and raw physical power, he is especially effective in his cultivation of a winner's psychology. Doug Wood '79 comments, "With his laid-back style Harry puts together an intensity in workouts that a loud coach wouldn't be able to produce. By not pushing most of the time, he makes oarsmen develop their own drive; he then adds the little bit extra, the pithy advice that makes us do well." The personality of the man, as well as the counsel of the coach, is the crucial factor. Howard Johnson '81 remarks, "He's inspiring because he's such a stable Rock-of Gibraltar person." Hap Porter '79 sums up the crew's relationship with the coach: I trust him--totally. It's easy to have a winner teach you how to be a winner."

The comments--and performance--of Harvard oarsmen make one point very clear: crew is a uniquely psychological sport. There is the very psychic sense of "we're all in the same boat"; one oarsman notes, "Crew is one of the purest team sports--there's an enormous amount of trust and cooperation involved and you can't mess up. Eight other guys are depending on you, and a single missed stroke of the oar can easily lose the race for everybody." A teammate adds, "You really feel like one machine--your oars are going in together, coming out together, you rest together." The sense of esprit de corps, if not total unity, is also naturally heightened over the long course of pre-season training and in-race competition. "When you're sweating and toiling with somebody six days out of the week, nine months out of the year, it's easy to become very close friends," said one oarsman.

This psychological intensity, combined with top-level coaching and seven months of unrelieved practice, comes to a head during racing season. Beginning this weekend, when the crew competes in the San Diego Classic regatta, all the emotion cascades in a series of six-minute races that seem to suspend time. The concentrated pre-race tension is just the beginning. "It's hell on the starting line," grimaces Doug Wood, "The idea of the agony you're going to go through for six minutes is enough to make you quit. And there's always the extra pressure of a Harvard tradition of winning, and your own getting used to winning." Hap Porter adds, "I resign myself. There's an immense amount of controlled energy about to be released--but also immense room for error."

The race itself is a catharsis for all this tension. Boats begin from a dead standstill, and are quickly accelerated by short, fast strokes. The frenzy of those first few seconds is more than psychological--an oarsman must pull two square feet of wood through ten feet of water and return his oar for another stroke, all in a little more than one second. Several strokes into the race, the speed of rowing settles slightly, and the oarsman must precisely time his movements, keep the three-foot wide keel balanced, and maintain maximum power for some 200 additional strokes.

In this midst of this, the oarsman is thinking: concentrating on the proper technique for peak efficiency, compensating for choppy waves and gusts of wind, and by the last 500 meters of the course, "psyching up" before a total depletion of strength. At that point, says one oarsman, "You have to work through the pain; it's mentally taxing, too, you have to push and drive yourself to the maximum. Everything disappears but you and the oar."

While the oarsman is determinedly keeping his eyes within the boat, the coxswain is giving him a running commentary on the race. In addition to steering, the "cox" verbally enforces a perfect symmetry of eight oars throughout the stroke; he reminds rowers of specifics of technique; he describes the frantic chaos evident in the opponent's boat, regardless of its relative position; and he calls for changes in rowing speed and power at strategic moments in the race. Occasional "Power Tens" are yelled out to gain a decisive edge with ten all-out strokes; the coxswain's comments range from the factual "Great--we gained ten feet with that Ten" to the more poetic "Give me a Ten that'll make the coach weep!"

Finally, of course, there is the finish line. Surrounded by cheering alumni and even a few students. "It's the ultimate moment of being fulfilled," sighs Howard Johnson '81. "Eight months of training is made worthwhile in the six minutes when you prove yourself tougher, physically and mentally, than the other boat." Every victory also adds to the crew's wardrobe; each oarsman receives the racing shirt of his counterpart in the losing boat. And, of course, the oarsmen get to throw their loudly protesting coxswain into the river--even if the water is 38 degrees and polluted.

Harvard Crew, however, isn't all professional discipline, "eight masochists and a sadist cox." Some highlights of the year have little to do with winning a race. After a particularly hard day, the "funnelator" makes its appearance on the Charles; with devastating accuracy, water balloons are launched by the giant, 15-foot slingshot against passing B.U., Northeastern and Radcliffe crews. In June training camp, the crew also exchanges funnelator sorties with the freshmen, and bombards the Yale crews rowing 200 yards away on New London's Thames River.

Training for the Yale race is a festive time. Last year one freshman, known as "The Hulk" because of his physique, was nearly painted green for the race. The crew also enjoys private screenings of recent movies each night, and stages an extremely "rude" talent show, with each skit designed to outdo the others in (?) comedy. And as a climax to the two weeks, the oarsmen delightedly watch the tradition three-and-a-quarter-mile "coxwain's race." The four Harvard coxswains, urged on by the heavy oarsman who coxes, attempt to row a boat faster than their four Yale counterparts. Harvard, as one would expect, usually wins.

All of these camp hijinks, however, are only a means to stay relaxed before the Yale race, a grueling four-mile, half-hour spectacle attended by thousands of alumni and students each June. The longest crew race in the world, the Harvard-Yale regatta is the culmination of nine months of practice and six weeks of racing experience; everybody "goes for broke." At the end of last year's race, senior George Aitken fainted, while Gordie Gardiner was bent double with cramps. One oarsman recalls the agony: "I was just hurting. I didn't feel anything, any emotion. I've never hurt as badly--I just wanted to stop and lie there." Only later did the pain give way to "an amazing amount of jubilation and relief."

Summing up the race, and the season. Doug Wood spoke for the whole crew: "At that point, there is nothing better than winning--feeling a certain cameraderic. Your hard work is finally, finally through. Now you can go back and celebrate." Judging by its record, the Harvard Crew should be doing a lot of celebrating this year.

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