NEW LONDON, Conn. — They came back on Saturday to revisit Red Top, the enchanted place by the Thames River from where the 1968 Harvard crew embarked upon the magical mystery tour that brought them to Olympus and has bound them together for 45 years.
“It’s wonderful to revisit these moments,” mused Steve Brooks, the youngest member of that eight, and the one whom fortune chose to stroke the boat in the final at Mexico City. “It’s a great way to come back and to pay tribute to Harry.”
Harry Parker — no last name needed now or then — still is coaching the varsity, and Sunday morning he’ll be marking the 50th anniversary of his first year at the helm when he sends out his boat for the 148th 4-miler with archrival Yale. “It would have been incredible to me if the coach of the 1914 crew that won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley had still been around when I turned up in 1964,” says Andy Larkin, who rowed in the 1968 boat.
Little has changed since that crew left the Bulldogs in its backwash here. The distance, unique in American collegiate rowing, is the same. The crimson jerseys with the white H are the same. And the bond among the oarsmen, who came from Concord and Sacramento and Salt Lake City and Cincinnati and the Virgin Islands and points between, is the same.
“I have great affection for all the oarsmen,” says Curt Canning, who captained them. “When we get together we pick up right where we left off. The bond is solid. I remember my father, who had three Purple Hearts as an infantryman in World War II. His bond with the platoon was amazing.”
Except for Brooks, who’d rowed at Noble and Greenough, the oarsmen were a collection of former football and basketball players, runners and swimmers who for one reason or another found their way to Newell Boathouse, the creaking Victorian torture chamber on the Charles.
When Canning, Larkin, and their classmates signed on in the autumn of 1964, five-ringed fever was rampant at Newell. Though the varsity had lost the Olympic trials to Vesper, the Philadelphia club that went on to win the gold medal in Tokyo, five of its members had competed in fours at the Games, with Geoff Picard winning a bronze, and Ted Washburn, who’d coxed them, was freshman coach.
Paul Hoffman, the cox who’d taken a year off after prep school so that he’d still be at Harvard during the next Olympic year, hung up a Mexico travel poster in the locker room as soon as he arrived. “Someone asked me, what’s that?” Hoffman recalls. “I said, that’s what we’re here for.”
All but one of the Tokyo veterans still were around, and they formed the 1965 boat that Sports Illustrated featured on its cover as the “World’s Best Crew.” “We were in awe,” remembers Canning. And Parker, who’d made the Olympic sculling final in 1960, was all but deified. “It was like we were doing martial arts, with Harry the Zen master,” says Larkin.
Every Saturday of every year brought victory, usually by open water. So none of Parker’s oarsmen doubted that they’d make it to Mexico. “Harry had this presence,” says Brooks. “You knew he was The Man and he was going to do it.”
The summer of 1967 convinced not only the Crimson oarsmen but the rest of the rowing planet that they belonged in the fast lane. After winning the Pan American Games, Harvard went to France for the European championships and finished second to West Germany in what essentially was a preview of the Olympic final.
“Our competitors averaged age 31 or 32,” says Canning, whose seatmates finished ahead of the Russians, East Germans, Dutch, and Australians. “They were time-tested oarsmen and they thought of us as kids, upstarts. I took great pride that we were one of the six fastest boats in the world.”
Making the varsity the following spring was extraordinarily difficult. “It was all very cordial, but there was no question that people were out for each other’s throats— in a healthy way,” remembers Brooks, who was the only sophomore to crack the lineup. “When it became clear who the eight would be, I felt a sense of elation and arrival that was hard to describe.”
The junior varsity was so strong that two of its members, Monk Terry and Charlie Hamlin, ended up making the US straight four that finished fifth at the Games. The varsity went unchallenged, winning its fifth straight Eastern Sprints crown and beating Yale on the Thames by a dozen lengths, the biggest margin since 1911. But when Harvard arrived in Long Beach, Calif., for the Olympic trials it found a decidedly more formidable Penn boat than the one it had beaten twice, with two new faces in the lineup. “It was a mighty battle,” recalls Larkin.
Indeed, Harvard trailed by more than a second throughout, and it wasn’t until the final stroke that the Crimson pulled ahead by a few inches and five-100ths of a second in a photo finish. “I could see that I had at least a seat or a seat and a half [on his Penn counterpart],” says Brooks. “I didn’t know what the issue was. I thought we had them.”
Penn, though, was rowing a Pocock shell that had a longer bow than Harvard’s Staempfli, so it was uncertain whose ball had crossed the line first. It was the Crimson by a handsbreadth. “At that time I thought those were the two fastest boats in the world,” says Parker, who’d rowed at Penn and whose mentor, Joe Burk, had become his rival. “If we were to have raced the Olympics at that time at sea level, I think there was a good chance that we could have beaten the Germans and everybody else.”
But some of his oarsmen got ill during altitude training in Colorado and were sapped by Mexico City’s mile-and-a-half height and more sickness. Art Evans, the boat’s smooth stroke, had to be replaced after the heats, with former captain Jake Fiechter filling Brooks’s original seat, and it took an heroic effort in the second-chance repechage, with Harvard coming from last place midway along, to finish second and make the six-boat final.
That was the Crimson’s last gasp. “In the final we were out of gas,” says Hoffman, whose colleagues finished last. The extenuating circumstances gave them no comfort. “They were really disappointed, needless to say,” says Parker. “But they had nothing to be ashamed about.”
The gnawing unfulfilled feeling prompted Fritz Hobbs and Cleve Livingston to continue on to 1972 where they won silver medals along with younger brothers Bill Hobbs and Mike Livingston, as well as Terry and Hoffman, with Parker as coach. The Munich crew still rows at the Head of the Charles (as the Alte Achter). The 1968 boat did a Head row in 1983 and hasn’t laced in since. This trip to New London was all about shared memories. “Red Top has deep psychological meaning,” says Larkin. “It’s magical.”
Should the urge return for one last paddle on Sunday morning, there’s a spare shell in the boathouse. Hoffman knows the course by heart. And if they’ve misplaced their original jerseys, Harry has a few he can spare.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.