27 April 2020
By Thomas E. Weil
Rowing qua rowing is to most HTBS Types the act of attempting to achieve symphony in motion in a competitive context. But even that core act takes place within a smorgasbord of other activities. This, another in HTBS’s Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series, is the third in a mini-series illustrating some of those other elements of rowing, as depicted by several decades of randomly collected news photos, images that demonstrate the insatiable appetite of the popular press at a time when journalism was interested not just in the act of rowing itself, but also in the bits and pieces that make up the greater tapestry of the sport.
The cardinal rowing scandal of the 2004 Olympics occurred when a member of the Australian women’s eight lay down in the boat mid-race, earning notoriety as “Lay Down Sally”, but there were periods in the last century when a very exaggerated lay back at the finish of the stroke could hardly be distinguished from a full lie-down. Flourishing for a period between the World Wars, as these press photos show, the style was widespread in the United States in the 1930s, and, while the principal purpose of The Other Parts of Rowing is to highlight elements of the sport that are not actually rowing, images of this most strenuously exotic of techniques were too tempting to resist.
While the body angles of the MIT eight at the finish are not quite as extreme as those shown by the Navy men in the first photo above, between the twisted hand and wrist grips, the restricted room for the release over the abdomen and the obvious discomfort of the position, it is hard to imagine what benefits were to be gained from this exaggerated technique. Given the frequent tendency of news photo caption writers to blow things out of proportion in an effort to make their little blurbs more entertaining, it is surprising that these patently contrived contortions appear not to have elicited any particularly colorful commentary.
Inspired by the widely publicized success of the 1932 Olympic rowing events in Long Beach, the UCLA rowing program was established the following year, when this photo was taken, so there were no hoary traditions to be thrown out the door. The coaches started with a clean slate, and they chose to adopt the extended lay back at the finish, demonstrating that the style was popular in that era and suggesting that it was also thought to be effective.
Upon the resumption of rowing following the end of the Second World War, one might have thought that prospects were wide open for re-thinking rowing styles around the globe, but one man and one Cambridge boat club ensured not only that this technique had some life left in it, but used it to significant success on the water, including winning the Grand at Henley in 1951, and placing five men on the winning Cambridge crew that year. John Durack, George Gilbert and John Marks had this to say about was called the “Lady Margaret style” of the early post-war years.
Lady Margaret had always been one of the last bastions of Orthodoxy, and rowing in much the same style as they had during their years of decline, suddenly achieved startling success. Coached by Roy Meldrum, crews developed what had started as a tendency to sit back on the finish into an art form. Indeed, the lie back came to symbolize the whole style, with oarsmen practically horizontal at the finish. For ten years Lady Margaret were practically invincible, and this was undoubtedly their finest period.
The Bumps – An Account of The Cambridge University Bumping Races 1827-1999 (George Gilbert, Clare College, Cambridge 2000), p. 34.
But the bright light of that virtually supine “art form” burned only briefly, and the increasing dominance of other styles adapted to shorter distances soon put an end to the halcyon days of lying down on the job …