12 May 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 fifth 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.
This first image depicts one of the more dramatic finish line collapses ever caught on film, in which the UCLA bow four are demonstrating full lay back style while five defends himself from six’s wild tumble from the boat, seven channels Rodin’s Thinker, stroke contemplates trying another sport, and cox seems to be practicing his rising-from-the-toilet move. All of that said, this was the first season of rowing at UCLA, and possibly the first race in which these young men had participated, such that their travails may warrant more than the usual dollop of sympathy.
While not as dramatic as the preceding image, this photo shows an odd contrast in that, unlike the scene in that image, the state of the bow four here seems relatively stable compared to the stern four, three of whom exhibit the classic “slumped over the oar and staring at their ankles” pose. One might wonder at the extent to which the ten length margin of loss, the greatest in almost three decades, contributed to their glumness.
While the margin of loss in this contest was not extraordinary, and the winning time set a new Boat Race record, the fact that this was Oxford’s eleventh consecutive defeat could not have come as much consolation. Rowing history does not reveal whether slumped four and stretched out five were exchanging words of commiseration or merely random bodies shown as they fell on the field of battle.
As underscored in this image, the single sculler’s agony is made all the more apparent by his aloneness – no teammate with which to be compared, with whom to commiserate, or on whom to collapse. But more poignant in this image is the contrast between the loser, merely slumped over following his defeat, and the apparently even more exhausted victor, fully supine in his single after having frustrated the Kellys, father and son, in their first campaign for the Diamonds.
Racing when unwell is never a good way to compete, but, as the son of a three-time Olympic gold medalist, John Kelly, Jr. carried an extra-heavy burden of expectations throughout his rowing career. Junior having finally won a Diamonds in the Kelly name at the same venue a year before, one can only imagine what Senior might have been hoping for from his 21-year-old son at Junior’s first Olympics, and his thoughts as he helped carry his exhausted son from the field in 1948.
Kelly did not reach the Olympic single scull finals in either 1948 or 1952, so one might hope that finally winning an Olympic medal, albeit a bronze one, in the 1956 Games would have provided some comfort to his tortured soul. It is impossible to read his mind from this photo, but Kelly does not show signs of acute exhaustion, and his face could as much reflect resigned satisfaction with finally achieving an Olympic podium finish as any other emotion.
This is the sole “Accident” in this piece. Hard as it would seem to believe, it appears that the dropped medal was never recovered from the floor of the lake by the awards platform. For decades now, the challenge of dropped medals has been largely obviated by the awarding of medals on ribbons. The practice of providing a replacement for a lost medal is not confined to the Olympic arena, as Henley Royal Regatta has been known to offer the same accommodation.
One might wonder whether the agony of the effort should feel more disabling with a win in a close race than in an embarrassing loss, but, as with the 1946 Kelly image, it is certainly less common to see the winner in such straits rather than the loser, whatever the margin.
Most manage to endure their finish line pangs within the confines of their shell, but some, as in this case (and in the first image in this piece), are so stricken as to lose all balance and slip out of the boat, which can, as in this case, require immediate assistance from nearby craft. Most do not require hospitalization. Anyone who does may provide the most stirring evidence of having given his all.