On Being the Stroke, Part II

Cornell lightweight crew win the Thames Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta by beating Nottingham and Union Rowing Club on 1 July 1967. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.

16 September 2022

By Chris Williams

Here Chris Williams’s tale on rowing at Cornell in the mid-1960s continues.

Year by year

Freshman year, when I was in the 3rd or 2nd boat and we were on our own, my goal was to establish a series of strokes that set the rhythm that everyone could feel. That is usually best felt 10 or so strokes after starting – everyone is rested and the occasional chaos of the first few strokes is behind you. In order to maintain the rhythm, if it was off, I would slightly adjust my drive to “pickup” or “gather” the boat (i.e., get us all back in sync). Then I’d increase my drive to reinforce the rhythm desired. The boat could feel the new synchronicity. I always felt that if we could do ten good strokes together, we could then do twenty. If we could do twenty, then we could do thirty. When you’re in the boat, you can feel when it is moving. But if you’re in the middle of the boat (or anywhere but the stroke seat), there is nothing you can do to re-establish that perfect rhythm. I could definitely “feel” if the 7-man was “rushing” or if the 6-man was “late”. I’d communicate this to the cox who would then communicate it to the rower (“6 – you’re late!” Or, “7 – you’re jumping the catch!”).

Once I was in the 1st boat and we all got in sync, the boat started to really move. We knew because the 2nd boat could not come close to keeping up. And, given the chance, we might be able to hold our own against the mighty Varsity. In fact, that opportunity arose just before leaving for the Sprints. We took a 1,000-meter piece against them in the inlet on the way back to the docks. Details differ as to who won. Those in the Varsity claimed victory; those of us in the Freshman boat claimed victory. Sixty years later, that dispute has yet to be resolved!

Having this wind at our backs, we had high expectations on becoming the first Cornell Freshman crew to win the Sprints in Worcester, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, one of our oarsmen caught a full crab about halfway in the final race. We finished in 4th place. The Varsity won by more than two lengths! I was certainly disappointed by the loss but did not obsess on it. I had three more years of rowing and three more attempts to win the National Championship (this was before Lightweights competed in the IRA). I knew I did not have a shot at being the Varsity stroke my Sophomore year as the incumbent had held that seat the prior two years, winning the Sprints both times, and was about to win for the third time as a Senior. I was happy to be the JV stroke and bide my time until my Junior year.

When I stroked the JV my Sophomore year, we won all our races until we got to the Sprints. What happened in the finals at the Sprints ended up being the biggest wakeup call of my career. Our nemesis, Harvard, got ahead of us by half a length and nothing we did enabled us to move past them. This defeat taught me two things: first, there is a difference between being “successful” and “winning”. After all, we won all our races and came in second to Harvard in the finals. That could be described as a “successful” season. But we didn’t win them all. So, we weren’t “winners”. Second, the fact that we could not beat Harvard reflected on my ability to push the boat to its ultimate potential. I determined to never again be in the position where someone had out-worked me and vowed that it would not happen. As the old Bob Dylan song intones “There ain’t no success like failure and failure ain’t no success at all”.

Cornell on an outing in June 1967, practicing for Henley Royal Regatta. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.
Cornell after crossing the finish line as winners of Thames Challenge Cup at Henley. Photo courtesy of Peter Mallory.
The Cornell crew on their way to collect the Thames Cup at Henley, which was presented by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Elworthy. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.

The silver lining to Sophomore year was that the victorious Varsity would be competing as “heavyweights” for the Thames Cup in Henley Royal Regatta – rowers’ ultimate post-season goal. (For those unfamiliar with the difference, “Lightweight” crews had to average 155 pounds per man the night before the race with the heaviest rower weighing a maximum of 160 pounds. “Heavyweights” had no weight limit.) They would be taking to England two “spares” – a Starboard and a Port rower (me).

Although we had little rowing time with the eight, we did train in a coxless pair, propelled by a Port and Starboard oarsman. It took a bit to learn how to row in a straight line but once we did, my ratio enabled us to become more than a bit successful. We could make the boat move! So, we would try to find other pairs training for their upcoming competition and ask if we could take ten to thirty strokes “with” them. Our biggest surprise came when we learned that one of the pairs we had either beaten (or stayed too embarrassingly close) had medaled in the prior Olympics (’64).

We had high hopes of winning the “spare pair” race, an informal race over half the normal length of the course. In our first race our opponents “crabbed” shortly after the start. Although there was no signal from the umpire, I brought our boat to a halt and slowly rowed back to the starting line. They thanked us for our magnanimity, and we went into our second start. Only this time we were the ones who crabbed. Our opponents didn’t return the gesture, rowing away for the victory. Another lesson learned in the difference between “winning” and being “successful”.

Cornell’s victory in the Thames Challenge Cup was news in The New York Times, 2 July 1967. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.
From The London Illustrated News, 8 July 1967. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.

There was not much special about the Junior year season. I was the Varsity stroke. We won all our races, but the boat never seemed to “fly”. Maybe the coach saw this or maybe he had other reasons, but the week after our last dual race, being the week before the Sprints, I was moved from the Varsity stroke seat to the JV stroke seat. I was devastated and faced either a massive “pity party” or a determination to make the JV the best it could be. I did have one advantage when moving to the JV – the 7-man had been the 7-man in our Freshman boat. We synced well. However, the rest of the boat was clearly undersized, even for lightweights. We had a week to get our act together and see what we could do in the Sprints. I don’t recall anything special about the practices before heading off to Worcester. But I clearly recall that Saturday at Worcester. I believe we won our heat and would, as expected be in the final. Then tragedy hit – our coxswain became seriously ill with dehydration and had to be taken to the hospital. The sole solution was for the heavyweight third boat cox to become our cox for the finals. I had never met him. Then we received our game plan which basically said if you’re behind, the only chance you have is to start your sprint around the 900-meter to go mark and try to take them by surprise by getting ahead. The cox’s call would be “What is happening!!; What is happening!!” At that point I would take the stroke up and we would essentially start the sprint that usually started with 500 meters to go. I dreaded the call but knew it was coming. It worked as planned and we got ahead of Harvard. The only problem was that the finish line was 800 meters away. Harvard clearly expected us to falter. I did not expect to falter as I had prepared myself to be in the best condition of anyone in any boat. I was able to maintain the stroke rate and the boat responded accordingly. When we crossed the finish line in first place, I was hurting so badly that if someone offered to shoot me to put me out of my misery I would have acquiesced. But we won! Not only did I feel great, but I took great joy in knowing that many of the oarsmen in that boat had never won and had no prospects of ever winning at the Sprints. To have all of us in the victors’ circle was and remains a great source of pride. (Oh – the Varsity lost the Sprints for the first time in four years. The margin was over two lengths. It was bittersweet.)

That race was the most important and remains the proudest of my rowing career, which had one more year to go.

The 1967 crew was – and remains – a special group of guys. The majority of us (Ron Kaye at cox, me at stroke, Bill Cromwell at seven, Dennis Koza at five, Al Hoyt at three and Bo DeRoo at two) were “Lew’s Boys.” Our Freshman coach believed in us and we, by extension, believed in ourselves. But we always felt like second class citizens to the varsity boats stroked by Chris Mabley. I certainly wanted to be out of his/their shadow. All of us did.

Although I probably never had to worry about not being the Varsity stroke, I always feared that one day I’d be moved out of the stroke seat. That fear never left me (PTSD?) until after our very last race, when we won the Holy Grail – the Thames Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta. No Cornell Lightweight crew before us or since has accomplished that feat. We won the final by two and one-third lengths….   

Senior Year personal highlights/recollections

I don’t recall much about our Fall season except for the traditional intersquad race at the end of the season. The prize given to each person in the winning boat was a miniature oar. I never did win one. And I was the Stroke! Truth is, it took a while for my ratio to be adopted by the entire boat. That could not (or did not) happen in a single outing.

Winter training consisted of weightlifting, rowing in the tanks and running the stadium steps. I attacked all as hard as possible. When running up the stadium steps I had an imaginary Harvard competitor on my left side, one step down from me and trying to beat me to the top. This served to drive me harder and harder up the steps to keep that from happening. No one was going to work harder than me!

Having had the miserable experience of trying to drive through Harvard my Sophomore year, I always wanted to be – and stay – ahead, preferably from the first stroke onward. We had great racing starts and it was music to my ears when our cox yelled “We’re out” (meaning in front) shortly after the first few strokes following the glide. Shortly thereafter we’d hear “I’ve got their stroke.” Then “I’ve got their 7-man.” And the most beautiful of all: “I’ve got their bow.” We never trailed in any of our collegiate and Henley races.

Other than the Sprints, these races stand out:

  • On the Schuylkill against Penn, one of their strategies was to have their cox call out to me in an attempt to either rattle me or disrupt my timing. We took care of that by quickly moving out of earshot…
  • The race against MIT and Columbia at Orchard Beach lagoon featured a very blustery course and I believe we may even have had canvas wave deflectors between the oarlocks to keep water from coming in. We won the race by our usual open water, but I was upset that we had not rowed a smooth(er) race.
  • At Dartmouth, we rowed with the river current, which was extremely strong. Our 6-man had a pre-race tendency to always have to pee over the side. We had to stay upstream until he accomplished his mission. Once we got to the stakeboat and the race started, we flew down the course, setting a record. Since our bodies were attuned to at least 6+ minutes of racing, it felt like we had not completed a full race.
  • The Sprints consisted of a morning heat and an afternoon final. We knew and had been reminded that we could finish second and still have good lane positioning for the finals. But there was no way I would have that. I never wanted to come in second to anyone, regardless of the circumstances. We clearly won our heat and then took the final by open water. The emotion of that final collegiate win was so strong that I had to bite hard on my lower lip at the Cup presentation to keep from crying. Vindication was so sweet!
  • At our annual end of season picnic, I received the coveted Competitor’s Cup. And the news that we would be traveling to Henley to compete for the Thames Challenge Cup!
  • Our Henley training rows on the inlet were magical. The water was flat. The boat flew. The distractions of class (and girlfriends) were gone. No more making weight. The weather was magnificent. What a way to graduate!
  • We did have one more domestic race – the American Henley Regatta at Worcester, the same location where the Sprints were held. We (I?) were cocky enough to believe we could beat all the other competitors, which included the Vesper eight which had won gold in the ’64 Olympics and had the same stroke, Bill Stowe. I clearly remember the warmup pieces we took before heading to the starting line. I did not like the feel of the boat. Something was “off”. I still regret not asking the cox to do a few more pieces until that got sorted out. Something was “off” – we caught a full crab shortly after our racing start. That doomed our chances of winning. But once we got underway, the “off” feeling was gone and we stayed competitive, ultimately coming in third, about one and one-half lengths behind the winner, Vesper. We beat Boston University by a length. Although we did not win, I took this loss as a positive in that we had gotten that crab out of our system. We never suffered another one.
  • Our trip to Henley featured a detour. We would race in the Gillette Cup in Ratzeburg, Germany, prior to Henley. It wasn’t until our 15th reunion that we found out that the Harvard Heavies were slated to go and backed out at the last minute. We took their spot. (I still don’t know how that evolved.) We landed to great fanfare in Hamburg, Germany, and had pictures of us descending the airline stairway on the front page of the local newspaper. We took a bus to Ratzeburg Lake, stood on the dock and watched the great Ratzeburg crew wrap up practice. They were probably a couple of hundred yards away and as I looked at the boat I thought “We can take them!” Then they pulled up to the dock. The bow man was the smallest in the boat and the first one out. He was probably 6’ 4” and a lean 190 pounds. It got bigger from there. I took a hard swallow and wondered what we were doing there. However, there were other competitors – the national heavyweight teams from England, Denmark, Sweden as well as Marietta, the (heavyweight) Dad Vail champions.
  • Race day was Saturday with another, informal race on Sunday. I clearly remember that we had a great racing start and, as usual, were out in front of everyone after about 20 strokes. My only thought was “I hope we don’t make them (Ratzeburg) mad”! It didn’t take long for them to flex their 35 pound per man advantage, and they soon left us behind. But we placed 4th out of the 6 crews, beating Marietta and Sweden. Denmark was third, beating us by 8 seconds. We beat Sweden by 7 seconds and Marietta by 11 seconds, a bit less than 3 lengths.
  • On Sunday we took practice pieces in the morning with Ratzeburg. They were doing 1,000-meter intervals. We did the first 500 with them. So, in a normal start, we would get off the line with two half strokes, one three-quarter stroke and then ramp the stroke rate up to about 44 to 46 strokes per minute. After twenty strokes, we would take a long glide stoke and hit our race pace of between 34 and 36 strokes per minute. The exact pace would be pre-determined, based on the race conditions and the competition. I took great pride in being able to exactly hit the designated stroke rate within about three strokes of the glide. This would be verified by the cox with his stroke watch. I could do the same when taking the stroke rate up or down.
  • Back to Ratzeburg, recall that we could get in front of them in our racing start – our only advantage in being substantially lighter. Knowing this and having nothing to lose, I came off our “settle” at about a 40 and kept it there for the entire 500 meters. I was curious as to how long we could stay with them. The answer was that we could stay with these beasts for that short duration. Had it been any longer, we would have quickly lost ground. We were clearly in over our heads. But it sure was fun!
  • Sunday afternoon featured an informal race and included the same crews as Saturday with the absence of Ratzeburg and Sweden. That race was the most exciting and exhausting of the entire trip, Henley included. England finished first, Denmark second; our boat third with Marietta a very distant (4 lengths) fourth. But our race against Denmark was a doozy. We lost to them by a deck length (0.3 seconds), a significant improvement from the prior day when they beat us by 8.0 seconds (two lengths). For days I wrestled with whether we could have moved through them had we not hit such a high stroke rate in the last 10 or 15 strokes (I’m guessing we were at a 42) or if that did not make a difference. Fortunately, none of our Henley races were so difficult as to have make such a decision. Nevertheless, there are just two races that caused me such pain after the finish line as to have a “just-shoot-me” moment: the JV race my Junior year and the race against the Danish national heavyweight team in Ratzeburg.
  • One quick note about my experience with pain or exhaustion during a race. Once we got past the racing start, my mind totally blanked that out. And I was never a stroke counter, although woe be to the coxswain who shouted out “ten more” (as in strokes to the finish) and it ended up being twelve!
  • The Henley races were almost anti-climactic. We rowed five races in four days, with the Semis and Finals being on the fourth day. We won the first race “easily” (more than three lengths) and were rowing at a 30 at the end; the second race we won by two lengths, rowing about 4 or 5 strokes lower than our competitor; the third we won by a bit over two lengths; the Semi-final was supposed to be our most difficult race. We won by over a length, and I did not have to extend myself as I could see that our competitor could not move on us. I was content to save myself for the final.
  • The Finals race had a few significant events. The first was the majesty of rowing inside the “booms” (the actual race course) up the course to the start. Unlike an actual race, you could appreciate the fans clapping for you and see the finish line tents receding. In other words, we could all appreciate the storied surroundings. The second was backing in to the stake boats for our final collegiate row. When race time came, I was always incredibly focused and filled with rage against our opponent, whomever that might be. Focused meant that I effectively had side blinders on – nothing could distract me from the upcoming race. This would start as soon as we picked up the boat to take it to the water. “Rage” meant that I absolutely hated my opponent – at least at that moment. If someone could have gotten in to my mind, they would have heard some highly vituperative comments. I knew my opponent meant to beat me and I vowed not to let that happen. In this particular case I was glowering at the stroke of our competitor. He noticed and commented something to the effect of “chill out”. This, of course deepened my rage. I could not wait for the race to start and crush them. It was close at first, but we did just that, winning by two and one-third lengths.
  • Another memory that has stayed with me was taking practice pieces against Kent School, where I first learned to row. I knew from experience that a Kent varsity looked down on a lightweight crew. During the few days of practice prior to the start of racing, whether it was by prior arrangement or happenstance, Kent came along side and asked to do some “pieces” against us. I don’t recall how long the pieces were, but I do recall that, as we were rowing side by side, our cox called for a “Power Ten”. The boat jumped and we took about three seats on them. Another power ten and we took a few more. Later one of their oarsmen, knowing that I had rowed at Kent, came up to me and said, “You walked right through us.” Indeed, we had.
  • Ours was the 99th running of the Thames Cup. The medal ceremony was impressive, and I have framed the Thames Challenge Cup gold medal. Coach Jesdale was able to take the Thames Cup back to Ithaca and, per tradition, all our names were engraved in it. I got to see this with my family when I was working in Belgium and came to the Henley Regatta in 1979. However, the one thing lacking in victory was the emotional intensity that I experienced when we won the Sprints. Perhaps it was because all our competitors were unknown to us and presented us with no baggage – a la Harvard. Perhaps it was because we never had a really hard race.
The German press met the Cornell crew at the airport in Hamburg when the Americans were going to compete in the Gillette Cup at the Ratzeburg Regatta. Cox Ron Kaye is trying out his megaphone on stroke Chris Williams. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.

Fast forward about 25 years. My good friend Eric Loberg had gotten involved in Masters racing and they had a competition in Austin, about 150 miles from my home in Houston. Eric was a “townie” (his father was a professor at Cornell) and extremely competitive. As well as “wild” in the off season, with me as a frequent partner in crime. We rowed together in the Freshman boat, but he made the Varsity our Sophomore and Junior years, winning the Sprints his Sophomore year. Unfortunately, he left for Tuft’s Dental School at the end of our Junior year. We stayed in contact over the years and saw each other at our five-year reunions at Cornell. In Austin, we met up at the boathouse before their Masters’ race and he asked if I’d like to help carry the shell down to the dock. It was an honor. And a shock – because as soon as I put my hands on the boat to lift it up, my blinders came on. I was ready to race!

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