After 40 years of this, it was suggested that the Alte Achter Boat Club (“Old Eight” in German) should have its customary reunion dinner but skip the 3-mile upstream pull. Its constitution, though, is firm.
“You’ve got to sing for your supper,” said Gene Clapp, who traditionally provides it.
Every year since they won a stirring silver medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the US Olympic men’s eight, or a reasonable facsimile, has raced in the Head of the Charles Regatta, flying in from the West Coast, Hawaii, Florida, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. But time and tide and added avoirdupois have taken their toll.
So it’s likely that the Achter, which this year was enshrined in the National Rowing Hall of Fame, will take one final spin in Saturday morning’s senior masters event and then put up their oars.
“I think this is it,” reckoned Pete Raymond. “We’ve had an incredible run. It was an exceptional experience. People may still come back for the party.”
By now, the racing has become secondary to the camaraderie. “I’ve long since stopped viewing it as an athletic event,” said Mike Livingston, who can’t make the race but will turn up for an intimate Sunday dinner with his seatmates. “I look at it as a social event.”
Over four decades the bonds among the oarsmen have strengthened and deepened, extending to wives and children. “It’s like a big family reunion,” said Harvard coach Harry Parker, the crew’s selector and eternal mentor. “It’s wonderful. That part doesn’t change.”
What was remarkable was that the members came out of the first Olympic camp and had raced only once before they took the line at Olympus. Yet neither years nor distance have separated them. “So many of the composite crews take their last stroke and can’t wait to get away from each other,” observed Clapp, who’d just graduated from Penn that spring. The Achter even got together with their New Zealand rivals for a 25th anniversary reunion to celebrate the international fellowship that the Games were designed to foster.
The 1972 bunch was “The Brothers and The Others” — Livingston sibling Cleve and Fritz and Bill Hobbs plus Monk Terry, Tim Mickelson, Clapp and Raymond and coxswain Paul Hoffman. Yet they proved to be one tough and selfless fraternity that has made a point of staying close. “The reason we get together every year is not so much to row the boat,” mused Cleve Livingston, “but because of those enduring and enriching friendships that were formed,”
The genesis was the selection camp at Dartmouth, six weeks of cutthroat seat racing that Fritz Hobbs likened to an NFL training camp, with the dwindling list of survivors posted each week, followed by altitude training in Switzerland and then the Games, where the undersized Yanks came out of an unfavorable outside lane to make the podium. “It was a special group of people,” said Fritz Hobbs. “We spent those 12 weeks in a foxhole together and it seems like yesterday.”
Most of them had competed four years earlier in Mexico City and came home without a medal. Fritz Hobbs and Cleve Livingston had been in the Harvard eight which Hoffman coxed, Terry and Raymond in the straight four, Bill Hobbs in the coxed pair and Mike Livingston had been a spare. So Munich offered a shot at redemption. “For me, it was totally about closure,” said Fritz Hobbs. “We wanted to have an opportunity to show our best stuff.”
Though some eyebrows initially were raised when five Crimson grads made the 1972 boat, the extensive winnowing process had been designed to produce an empirical outcome — the eight men who could move the boat the fastest. “To have that many Harvard guys in the crew it had to be fairly transparent and objectively obvious that we’d each earned our seat,” said Mike Livingston.
Though the crew developed an uncanny chemistry, it wasn’t a factor in the selection. “I wasn’t that clever,” Parker said. “You can’t predict [chemistry].” But the fusion created productive sparks. “We had a nice mix,” said Mickelson, a Wisconsin grad who was the only non-Ivy Leaguer in the boat. “We never had any heated arguments. It never happened. The group just pulled together and stayed that way.”
They were a bunch of pure racers, each of whom worried that he might let the others down. When they took the line at the Games, the Americans focused on New Zealand, who they knew was the bunch to beat. “When they said photo finish, I didn’t know what was going on,” recalled Mickelson, whose tunnel vision was on the All-Blacks. The photo was with the East Germans, who were third by 6/100ths of a second. After they’d had their own celebration, the Yanks partied with their rivals.
A couple of days later Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 members of the Israeli team and the Olympics changed forever. “It was terrible that the Games were drenched in blood,” said Raymond. “That took so much from it.”
Had the rowing been scheduled for the second week, things might have been different even though IOC president Avery Brundage, downplaying the slaughter, ordered that the Games would go on. “I’m not entirely sure we would have rowed,” said Hoffman. “Guys were very upset at how it was handled.”
Had most of them not been hanging around the Boston area that autumn, the Achter might have dispersed for good. But they figured that they might as well race in the Head and decided to keep coming back. To land an entry after their initial appearance, the crew had to form a club and draw up a constitution. “They had an easier time in Philadelphia [in 1787],” observed Hoffman.
Committees were formed — a Training Committee (long since dormant), a Yoga Committee, a Party Committee and a Star Committee (to encourage attendance). “I think we have a History Committee,” said Terry. “We can’t remember anything.”
If a seatmate or two can’t make it, fill-ins are recruited, usually from Harvard’s “Rude and Smooth” gang from the ’70s, who are kids by comparison. Pre-race workouts were abandoned after the crew skipped one and still moved up in the standings. “Proof positive that practice hurts,” concluded Hoffman. The race cadence is deliberately merciful. “We ended up deciding that 26 (strokes a minute) would be a nice round number,” said Terry, the permanent stroke who with Fritz Hobbs and Hoffman are the only members to make each race. “It’s a challenge to row well with no power.”
After bringing up the rear last year, the Achter are realistic about their prospects. “The days of finishing higher than last may be behind us,” reckoned Cleve Livingston. “We’ll see this year.” Maybe this is the Last Roundup, maybe not. The Brothers and The Others have been known to shame each other into suiting up and locking in. “I’ve been putting in the entries for the last 40 years and no one has told me to stop,” said Clapp. “I’m putting in an entry next year, like it or not.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.