It didn’t bode well in New York.
Four men from the Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC) in temperate Seattle came to hot and muggy New York to compete in the US rowing trials on August 29, 1964.
Ted Nash was the veteran and star of the crew of the straight four without coxswain. He had won gold for the United States in the straight four rowing competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the only American team to win gold. Dick Lyon, Phil Durbrow and Theo (Ted) Mittet filled out the boat, coming together in a very short time to compete in Tokyo for the 1964 US Olympic rowing squad.
But first they had to win the trials, held at Orchard Beach Lagoon in New York.
According to Stanford University rower, Lyon, the crew from LWRC got in a practice start with a team from the Detroit Boat Club, just before the heats were to begin. Ted Nash broke the edge of his oar blade on one of the maple flagpoles floating on Styrofoam that formed the lane lines. “We barely made it back to the line in time after sprinting back to the NYAC boathouse to get another oar,” Lyon was quoted in the book, The Sport of Rowing, by Peter Mallory.
After winning their heat, Lyon told me that as the team was preparing for the final, Mittet said quite urgently that he had to pee, which meant that he had to sprint 100 yards to the boathouse, and then another 100 yards back. Mittet made it back to the line in time for the start, and they got in a couple of hard sprints in just before engaging in one of the toughest physical activities one can do – 2,000 meters of rowing to absolute exhaustion.
Rowing as a team is very difficult. It’s not a matter of getting the best rowers together in a shell and expecting them to perform. It’s more a matter of finding a group of rowers that feels a rhythm, that leads to a seemingly effortless flow, and results in unchained speed.
Durbrow was in Laos with the US Army when he got his orders to report to Stan Pocock in Seattle. Pocock was the coach of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and Durbrow’s coach at Menlo College and Melbourne Olympian, Duvall Hecht, had strongly recommended Durbrow. When Durbrow arrived in Seattle, he felt like the odd man out. Pocock was looking for the men who would build a powerful crew of eight, as the eights are the heavyweight class of rowing, and thus the glamour event in rowing competitions. Durbrow joined 16 others who were already competing in two squads of eights, wondering where a 17th would fit in.
And yet, try as he might, Pocock could not find the right mix of eight, his teams losing to squads that were not Olympic quality. So in early July, Pocock agreed to disband the crews of eight so that the rowers could find the right combinations of pairs and fours. Nash quickly grouped with Lyon, and when Durbrow got on the scene, they found a natural to sit behind Nash, the powerful stroke. So Nash, Durbrow and Lyon would try any and every combination of the remaining 14 rowers at Lake Washington, and met mainly with disappointment.
Mittet, who grew up on the shores of Lake Washington, and had rowed from the age of 16, was late to the LWRC trials. By the time the eights were disbanded, most of the small boat team decisions had already been made, except for the straight four. But when Mittet jumped into the shell with Nash, Durbrow and Lyon, “from the first stroke, I was awakened to a level of rowing that I had never imagined possible,” as Mallory quoted Mittet as saying. Mallory also quoted Durbrow as saying, “we were trying every conceivable combination of oarsmen in a number of fours that went out every day. Boats that I expected to be super fast felt heavy or ungainly, but one time, Ted Nash, Ted Mittet, Dick Lyon and I went out together with Nash stroking, it felt light and quick.”
The three would continue to experiment with other rowers to sit at the back of the scull, but whenever they rotated to Mittet, they found their rhythm and speed again. After countless combinations, Nash made the decision at the end of July to add Mittet to complete the team of four, and commit to getting ready for the Olympic trials to be held 6 weeks later.
When Nash and his three teammates got to New York for the Olympic trials, they felt confident. Lyon told me that the game plan was to explode off the start with a powerful 40-plus stroke per minute rhythm, and then to ease down to 35 or 36 after a minute, which is about 350 meters of the 2,000-meter race. But Nash, who sat at the stern of the boat as the stroke, the rower who sets the pace, decided to maintain a high pace. Lyon said that for the first 1,000 meters, the crew kept the pace around 39 strokes. “We had never practiced for that long,” Lyon told me. “I don’t remember that we talked about this, but Ted is an extraordinarily enthusiastic person, so we just kept it up for the first 1,000 meters.”
The crew of Nash, Durbrow, Lyon and Mittet won handily, beating the Harvard crew by nearly 3 seconds with a time of 6 minutes and 23.1 seconds.
“We were extremely fit,” Lyon said. “We were doing two or three workouts a day, including work outs with weights, running stairs. There were naps in between those thousands of miles of rowing.”
The team was confident. The rowed together exquisitely. The handily won the US trials. They believed they had a great chance for gold in Tokyo. And yet, they heard some great times coming out of Europe – 6 minutes and 19 seconds in one case.
And of course, there is always the unexpected. A shocking turn of events awaited the straight four team in Tokyo.