European Championship of Rowing, Vichy 1967

Vichy is a resort town of 30,000, best known as the seat of the French government that collaborated with the German Fascists during WWII. However, Vichy had always been a resort town known for its waters. The town prospered when Romans came to take the waters in the first century AD. Louis XVI upgraded the facilities in 1787. I tried the waters, which had a foul, sulfurous taste. The racing course was on the Allier River, in the middle of the town. Resort hotels lined the course.

We drew West Germany for the opening race. We were 1.5 seconds ahead at 1000 meter mark, but they rowed through us decisively, winning by 5 seconds. As winners they advanced to the finals. We went to the Repechage, French for “repeat chance.” We beat Czechoslovakia by nearly 9 seconds and advanced to the final. On the day of the final I noticed that Harry had moved the buttons outboard on the oar. The location of the button determines the fulcrum point of the oar. This change would give us a little more leverage, a lighter load, and less power. A change of 1/4-1/2 inch on a 12-and-1/2 foot oar can be noticeable. We rowed down to the starting line with the other crews. We rowed by sixes and then by eights. We practiced rowing thirty strokes at a racing cadence. At the starting line the athletes took off their warmup suits, display- ing all 54 rowers in their national racing uniforms, with the vari- ous colors of the rainbow displayed. The oarsmen were chattering in their native tongues. The race commands were given in French, the language of FISA, the international rowing association.

The starter checked with each crew:

“Allemand de l’ouest, prêt?” “Soviétiques, prêt?” “États-Unis, prêt?” “Allemand de l’est, prêt?” “Hollande, prez?,” “Australie, prêt?”

Each coxswain raised a hand to acknowledge the boat was aligned and ready.

Then the starter declared: “Êtes-vous prêt?”…pause…”Partêz!” All six crews started at once. The tension was released. The mass start began. We got off to a good start. At the 500 meter mark, West Germany, East Germany, USSR, and USA were tied for first at 1:27.69. However, at 1000 meter we had fallen to last place, over six-seconds off pace, out of the race. Yet, there are transcendent times, when everything falls into place. This was to be one such time. The boat became faster in this race than it ever had been in practice. The boat became more than the sum of the parts and the whole developed a power of its own. We were still fresh. We rose to the challenge. We went from last place to second place with 500 meters to go, 3 seconds behind West Germany, 1.5 seconds ahead of the Soviets. In the last 500 meters the Soviets made a move and passed us, but we responded and passed them, closing rapidly on the West Germans, who won, and we finished in second place, 1.5 seconds behind, and 0.03 seconds ahead of the Soviets. We were a college crew, in our early 20’s. We had played with the adults, and proven that we had a right to be there. We were ecstatic. Next year was an Olympic year. Only one person, Jake Fiechter, was graduating. Our hopes were high.

Harry’s comments (from the same newsletter) after the race were:

We did what we wanted to do. We rowed a whole race extremely well under intense pressure. Even in defeat it was a remarkable performance. This outfit deserves to be ranked with any college crew that ever rowed.

Curt Canning wrote “The Longest Summer” for the Dartmouth

Football Game Program (10/67):

Then we were at the 500-to-go mark and everything was taking on finality. The Russian coxswain went crazy. I was wrenched out of my concentration by his incredible yelling. TheRussians were sprinting. They too were trying to catch us. It was our turn to go up. Mind and body screamed for mercy but the sprint was upon us. The next thing I remember was looking over at the Russian seven man as we crossed the line. As I slumped into a numb feeling state I thought,”Man that must’ve been close…”

“You’ve improved since St.Catherine’s,”Keller said in his heavily accented English as he slipped the silver medal over my head. “But not enough,” came his afterthought.

Peter Ayling, manufacturer of oars, wrote a supplement for the magazine ROWING, Oct./Nov. entitled: WELL DONE AMERICA. He wrote:

In training before the Regatta the press, in general, believed that it would be the East Germans who would push the West Germans. Some thought the Russians would make it a hard race for the Germans…it was considered that Harvard had “rowed above themselves” to trail West Germany by a mere five-second margin.

The opposition in the repechage probably gave the boys just what they needed: confidence against somewhat lower opponents, which allowed them to continue to improve as they had done throughout training… Although the manner of this win was impressive, it did not convince us that more than a fourth place seemed likely.

The last race arrived and the crowds became larger. At the 500 meter mark the margin of 1 1/2 seconds covered all six of the crews, but in the next quarter the picture changed dramatically and it was now 7 seconds which separated first from last with US in last-place. At the 1500 meter mark the American eight had made good 1 1/4 lengths overtaking Australia, East Germany, H olland and the R ussians. T he leaders, W est Germany , were only just a length in front. At the finish the US had closed to within a half length of a tiringWest Germany eight and then had kept her nose in front of Russia by .02 hundreds of a second. In the press box Robert Heron turned to me and said:“they should not do that too often, my heart won’t stand it.”

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Preface, by John Powers of the Boston Globe

The romance of the river is eternal. Those of us who’ve pulled an oar at any level, from maneuvering a bulky wherry around a honking gaggle of geese to racing in the Olympics, never quite leave the dock behind. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—like messing about in boats,” Rat declares in ‘The Wind in the Willows.’

Andy Larkin’s fascination with rowing began at age 10, when he came to Cambridge with his father, spotted a sculler paddling on the Charles and was ‘transfixed’. He might have found his way to the water eventually—his ancestors built ships in Maine. But Andy got there the way that most of his college teammates did, by serendipity or suasion.

Andy was a polio survivor who evolved into a gangly prep- school cross-country runner whose coach, who’d dubbed him ‘Giraffe’, concluded that he was too big and slow for the sport and nudged him toward crew. Only one of his seatmates on the 1968 Olympic eight had rowed before he arrived at Harvard. The rest were an assemblage of football and basketball players who’d been tracked down in their dorms by freshman coach Ted Washburn or plucked out of the line at registration. “They were dragged, prodded, shamed, provoked and repeatedly pestered into attending the Crew Meeting,” Washburn recalled.

When the candidates walked across the Lars Anderson Bridge and through the crimson doors of Newell Boathouse, the drafty Victorian-era torture chamber, they arrived at the dawn of what would become the sport’s most enduring dynasty. In the autumn of

1964 a number of upperclassmen just had returned from the Tokyo Olympics. “They were tall, fit, accomplished,” Andy recalls. “They were the river gods.”

Harry Parker, their master and commander, was only 28 but already something of a deity. The varsity that he was piecing together that season went on to make the cover of Sports Illustrated as the ‘world’s best crew’. Andy and his classmates were the neo- phytes, learning their craft in the ‘Leviathan’, the double-wide gray barge that resembled a flattened Roman galley whose conscripts were struggling to grasp the concept of catch, drive and recovery.

What they learned went well beyond the intricacies of feathering a blade. Rowing represented ‘a surrender of the self to the whole’ and the necessity of pushing past pain to achieve success as it was measured on Saturday afternoons. What their varsity coach, himself an Olympic sculler, convinced his charges was that the body could endure more than the mind imagined. “What could be tolerated?,” Andy mused. “What were the limits of effort?”

Andy regarded Parker as an Eastern mystic who embodied the traditional tenets of yoga—austerity, intensity, concentration, physical strength, superior intellect and mental will. “Harry’s path to enlightenment was to row fast,” Andy observes.

Although he rowed in the second freshman boat in 1965 Andy was invited as a spare to Red Top, the Harvard headquarters where the oarsmen prepared for the annual four-mile pull against archrival Yale on the Thames River in New London. The following year he found himself rowing at No. 6 for the rebuilt varsity that Parker later hinted was one of his favorite boats.

They might have been an odd amalgam of New York ethnics, New England Brahmins and Utah Mormons but they still went undefeated. “They were boisterous and argumentative,” observed Parker. “And they had a lot of fun.”

No previous Harvard varsity had taken on the rest of the planet as Andy and his confreres did during their tenure. In 1967 the Crimson won the Pan American Games as the US entry then went

Preface 5

to the European championships and finished second to the West Germans.

The following summer Harvard earned its Olympic ticket by the narrowest margin conceivable—five-hundreths of a second over Pennsylvania in a race where the Crimson never were ahead until the final stroke. On that day, Parker reckoned, the two crews were the fastest on the planet.

Harvard’s primacy literally vanished into thin air as soon as the oarsmen went to Colorado for three weeks to prepare for Mexico City and struggled with altitude sickness that left them listless. “What this crew needs is a doctor, not a coach,” Parker concluded.

At the Games, the most politically turbulent ever, Andy and his seatmates found themselves criticized as radicals because of their support for equal rights for their black teammates and at odds with the US Olympic Committee, which derided them as unpatriotic longhairs and considered sending them home.

Yet Harvard, the last collegiate crew ever to represent the US, still made the final with a rejiggered boating against five national composite crews. Three of those oarsmen continued on to 1972 where they won the silver medal in Munich. Andy put away his oar, went to Harvard Medical School, worked in the North Philadelphia ghetto as a conscientious objector and became a doctor specializing in internal and pulmonary medicine.

A decade later the river drew him back. He’d watched a crew rowing and ‘something stirred within me’. Andy’s father had died and he was going through a divorce. “There was something missing in my life as an adult,” he says. “I recalled my adventures of youth rowing in a boat.”

So he bought an Alden, a sturdy and forgiving recreational sculling boat, and went out on the Connecticut River near where he grew up. Instead of surrendering himself to the whole as one of eight, he could indulge himself, paddling as he pleased. “It is a great pleasure to move at my own slow pace,” he writes, “without concern that I will be beaten.”

 

The long views available over water calmed his mind, Andy says, and the exercise warmed his body and provided a sense of well-being. The tradeoff was that as a sole practitioner Andy was on his own. He was responsible for his own gear, his own food and water and, if anything went awry, his own life.

On one of his voyages down the Connecticut River he capsized on Long Island Sound at New London when his boat was smacked by a ferryboat wake and he had to arm-paddle ashore after his belongings had floated away. “It was not so much the situation that you got into but rather how you handled the situation,” Andy writes. “It was OK if you got to tell the tale.”

He is no longer a ‘hammer’, he says. He has lost his power. But still he settles in and pushes off as he did half a century ago. “I continue to row for the joy of messing around in boats,” says Andy, who makes prudent concessions to age and moderate obstructive lung disease. “There remains nothing more pleasurable for me than to go out and row steadily for an hour.”

The romance of the river is eternal. “What is there in the universe more fascinating than running water and the possibility of moving over it?,” muses Santayana’s quote posted on the Newell bulletin board. “What better image of resistance and possible triumph?”

May 7, 2018 Brewster, MA

Blurbs about the Book

Thomas Weil, Rowing Historian and Author of Beauty and the Boats:

My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow, by Andy Larkin, is an appealing memoir, an indispensable rowing history and a lyrical paean to river boating. As memoir, it flows from the boyhood of a doctor’s son through the cultural turmoil of the late 1960’s into the calmer waters of late middle age, evoking memories of times and places which will be familiar to many of its readers. As good writing, it resonates particularly in Larkin’s descriptions of his solo sculling journeys in recent years on New England waters. As history, it provides a heretofore unseen perspective of life at the top of the sport’s pyramid – Larkin was a multiple Sprints champion and an Olympian – from the early years of Harry Parker’s reign at the helm of Harvard rowing. This first-person narrative offers a unique view of how some of the issues that roiled the 1968 Olympics – and remain unresolved a half-century later – were used to malign one of our country’s greatest collegiate teams.

Peter Mallory, Author, The Sport of Rowing Leander Club, the First 200 Years

Oh my! Andy Larkin has such a fertile mind, such curiosity, such a keen eye for observation, and takes such delight in details. Many of the rowing stories he tells have been familiar to me, but as I read My Life in Boats, I realized that I knew them but I had not experienced them. Now I have.

Andy is an idealist, a man of conscience, a man of perspective.

He is also a philosopher. “I was struck how much rowing was like life. You were not sure where you were going, but you could tell where you had been, but that view faded with time.”

One must go back to George Pocock to find a member of our extended rowing family who has described the metaphysical wonders of rowing with such depth of feeling and sensitivity as Andy Larkin.

Kathy Keeler, Stroke Olympic Gold Medal Eight, 1984, widow of Harry Parker

I enjoyed reading My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow. I have been around the sport of rowing and the people that Andy Larkin wrote about for years but to read what was going on in his mind during these events adds to the history. You really get the sense of all the dimensions that went into making the 1968 Olympic Boat and then the distractions both mental and physical that many of the oarsmen were dealing with as the Games themselves happened. They performed admirably despite all that. (I had never seen the piece that Harry Parker wrote post 1968 Olympics which was such a vivid explanation of how hard and focused the crew had been during that whole year.)

But the part of the book that I really enjoyed was Andy’s adventures down the Connecticut River in an Alden. You really get to see that river in a new light. Those of us who have rowed in various locations along the Connecticut don’t often slow down enough to enjoy the true beauty of the place. Andy’s adventures go from bucolic to harrowing, but his perseverance in these journeys was wonderful to read about.

Dave Zirin, Co-author The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, Sports Editor The Nation Magazine.

This book not only offers us the full story of the 1968 Olympics, but it is a meditation on a sport that I, for one, know way too little. I was educated and enthralled.

Harry Edwards is a retired professor of sociology. His students included Tommie Smith and John Carlos. He is currently consulting with Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick is a NFL quarterback who has taken a knee for social justice.

Former Olympian Andrew Larkin has chronicled a fascinating journey through the social-cultural and sports-political history of one of the most tumultuous eras of the modern Olympic Movement and its impact and aftermath for a Harvard University rowing crew at the center of developments. An absolute must-read for all who would understand the full spectrum of athlete activists comprising what was arguably the most politically aware and committed U.S. Olympic team ever fielded. Well-written and alternatively both deeply personal and broad in the scope of its subject matter, My Life In Boats, Fast And Slow is a great read even for those not familiar with the sport of rowing.

About the author

Andrew Larkin graduated from the 25th grade with a degree in medicine, and then he spent another 25 years working.  He was freed, not far from the Shire, in Northampton Massachusetts.

He is in recovery from workaholism and enjoying life. To his astonishment he is found  his life today has recapitulated his life in school in many ways.  He does not watch television or listen to the radio.  He walks and rows regularly.  He spends his time reading.  He enjoys naps.  His interest in chemistry has morphed into home economics; he enjoys baking and cooking. His friends say his home looks like a college dorm.  He is happily married.  She lives in the house across town, which he visits frequently.  He mows  her lawn with a scythe.

My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow

Last fall I  published a book, My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow. 

The book is a coming of age story about  my dream of rowing in the Olympics.   Here is the introduction:

Introduction

  Before there was Harry Potter, there was Harry Parker, the heavyweight  varsity crew coach at Harvard for over fifty years, from 1963 to 2013. Every fifty years the Harvard Varsity Club compiles a book about sports at Harvard.  I would like to quote from the Third H book of Harvard Athletics, outlining the legacy of Harry Parker:

       The word dynasty doesn’t do justice to Harvard heavyweight crew; the programs, the accomplishments rival those of any school, in any sport, over any stretch of time. The titles, the trophies, and the testimonials are proof enough.   Such success is an inevitable result of recruiting great talent, but those in charge of Harvard rowing program also take immense pride in developing novices into elite oarsmen. Step into Newell boathouse and you will sense the unmistakable harmony that exists there, making everyone-from the future Olympian to the unsung rower toiling in the fourth boat—feel at home…p 760

        Perhaps the greatest of  Harvard’s rowing achievements came in 1967 and 1968,    when the varsity won the gold medal at the 1967 Pan-American Games, placed second at the European championships, and  represented the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where the boat reached the grand finals…p710

Hark back to the middle of the last century of the previous millennium, and hear my story about rowing for Harry Parker, and my life in boats.

The book is available at:

https://levellerspress.com/product/my-life-in-boats-fast-and-slow/.

I am also working on an audiobook and a kindle edition, which will be coming out soon