15 July 2022
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd’s sixth occasional piece inspired by George Pocock’s memoirs.
The 1948 Olympics brought George Pocock back to austerity England. Eight years before when he and Frances visited on their way home from the Olympics in Berlin, George had recognised his lucky escape from a life of drudgery. His narrow failure to qualify for a scholarship to a fee-paying secondary school caused him to cross the Atlantic in search of work. His father, Aaron aka Fred, had reached the age of 78 in 1936 and had endured a list of misfortunes: his business went bankrupt; his first wife Lucy, George’s mother, died, and four years later his second wife Margaret died in childbirth; he was fired from his post as manager of Eton boathouse for being too lenient with his workers; after nearly twenty years employed as a boat builder by London County Council he was dismissed six months before qualifying for a pension; his back was broken when an automobile knocked him off his bike.
In 1936, George stayed in Eton for a week, marvelling at the extent rowing and 650 boats – among them the Norwegian pine shell, the first boat that he built – played in training the boys of the school. He saw his old apprentice chum Jimmy Ottrey and two of the men who were there when his Dad was manager, ‘Froggy’ Windsor and ‘Bosh’ Barret. And he took his first boat out for a spin. ‘Talk about nostalgia… I looked at every part of the boat and memories, memories…’
After touring the sights, Frances and George took the train to Southampton to board the ship home. On the train there were five people on each side of the compartment, ‘all British, and not a word spoken the whole distance. Nobody had been introduced, of course.’
In 1948, the University of California and the University of Washington won the respective trials for the U.S. eight and coxed four to represent the U.S. in London. George Pocock stood in for Al Ulbrickson as coach of the four as well as acting as boatman for all the U.S. crews. On his advice the eight and the four repaired to quiet water at Marlow to practice. Another advantage was that coaches were allowed launches there.
The Americans shared accommodation with Latin Americans at Fennimore Wood. George described a transformation in the silent bus one day when someone began to sing Begin the Beguine. ‘My, what a change came over the busload, everybody singing lustily and looking at each other and smiling. Inability to communicate with another person is a fearful thing.’
The four had a narrow squeak in the heats that inspired George to dictate a practice session above Henley bridge. ‘I have seen close races lost by one man looking out of the boat,’ he wrote. ‘His mind is obviously not on his rowing.’ They were not getting a run on the boat. ‘We are not going until we get that run between strokes,’ he told his crew. ‘It is attained by hanging onto the finish , or squeezing the finish and getting your weight at least to the upright so that the weight is out of the bow.’ They eventually found a beautiful run.
The final was not easy, but clear cut. Ky Ebright’s eight also won gold. Inevitably, perhaps, George’s thoughts reverted to the professionals among whom he was brought up and their conditioning.
Their three R’s for training were Rowing, Rowing and Rowing; about five miles a day walking, and deep breathing while walking; in workouts never stop except to turn; a long row of 20 miles once a week; twice a day training distance about eight miles; no calisthenics and certainly no ergometers… these machines develop a crew of individuals, each trying to out-gut the others, and not an integrated, smooth-running eight-oared crew of rowing artistry. A symphony of motion, I’ve heard it called, when trained exclusively in the boat. A baboon or an orang-utan could out-perform any man on an ergometer, but in a shell they could not keep it afloat.
Jingle on calisthenics and weight-lifting:
Coach , may we go out to row?
Yes, my boys you oughter.
Leave your shell on the boathouse rack,
And don’t go near the water.
A final thought from George:
Eight-oar’d rowing is the ultimate in team effort when one considers that the weight of the crew and the coxswain can be as high as 1700 pounds… and the boat weight 275 pounds…when one talks of perfection, you are approaching the divine, and I have been out with crews that have attained it. And have heard shrieks of delight come from these oarsmen.