“Please send me many U.S.A. artifacts which I can use to trade with the Russians, Pols, etc. Emblems are especially desirable.”
So wrote Ted (Theo) Mittet to his family on October 4, 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In addition to transforming into mini-United Nations, Olympic Villages become a mini-bartering economies where the currency of trade were pins, shoes, patches, shirts and hats.
As NBA All-Star and member of gold-medal winning USA men’s basketball team, Jeff Mullins, said, the most targeted American item were the cowboy hats the men received as part of their team kit.
Mittet, a bronze-medal winning member of a four-person rowing crew, had already given away his hat as you can see in the top photo, but he was still very active in the market. And for Americans, trading with the unknown and mysterious communists had a high level of cool cachet. As you can see, Mittet traded with fellow rowers from Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Another very unique rowing jersey is from the German team. During the Cold War, the IOC got the East and West German Olympic Committees and governments to agree to a united German team from 1956 to 1964. As explained here, not only did the teams agree to using Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as their national anthem, and an altered version of the East German black, red and gold striped flag with the Olympic rings in white placed in the middle red stripe.
This is where I need help. What is the nationality of the athlete Mittet traded with to get this red rowing jersey?
At the Tokyo International Sports Week, the organizers saw this rehearsal of the XVIII Olympiad a year later as an opportunity, not only to see what operational issues existed, but also to provide Japanese athletes with a chance to compete in a high-pressure event with international stars with world-beating expectations.
Of the approximately 4,000 athletes invited to participate in this competition of 20 events, the same ones that would be held at the Olympics in 1964, over 3,400 were Japanese, including some 1,300 who were expected to compete a year later. For the Japanese athlete, rare was the opportunity to compete in international events.
But that was also true for some of the visiting foreign athletes. More importantly, it was an opportunity for several hundred foreign athletes and officials to see what Japan and its sporting facilities were like in advance of thousands of other competitors who would come to Japan for the first time in 1964.
And in the case of the United States men’s eight rowing crew, who all came from the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, their participation in the Tokyo International Sports Week was an opportunity to gain crucial intelligence about the rowing course.
The Toda Rowing Course in Saitama Prefecture was actually constructed in the 1930s in preparation of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Due to the impending issues of world war at the time, the organizers despite working so hard to win the right to host the Olympics, decided to decline. The IOC failed to organize a Games, not only in 1940, but also 1944.
But in 1963, the Toda Rowing Course was open for competition. And when the coach of the US men’s eight team, Allen Rosenberg, got a close look at the course, he gleaned a bit of intelligence that would shape the training and the makeup of the team over the course of the year. According to Bill Stowe, in his book, All Together, about the victorious Vesper 8, that intelligence would help the team build a psychological edge over their chief competitors of the Ratzeburg Rowing Club, the men’s eight team from Germany who were the reigning champions of the Rome Olympics.
Rowing in Tokyo gave Rosenberg and Rose the opportunity to study the rowing course which proved invaluable a year later. For the most part the European rowing courses are laid out to take advantage of prevailing tailwinds and the Ratzeburg style of rowing is short in the water and a high stroking cadence, both advantageous with a tailwind. However, the Toda course did not seem to have a prevailing wind and headwinds were not uncommon. This early knowledge of the anticipated conditions for 1964 helped Vesper to design both a crew and a style that could present an advantage over the Germans on that knowledge alone.
A year later, on October 15, 1964, six teams line up in the dimming light of early evening. As Rosenberg had anticipated and prepared for, a strong headwind was blowing. His team was built for headwinds and power, and whether the Americans had an advantage or not was less important than whether they believed it was an advantage. Stowe believed it was.
The headwind provides an advantage to longer stroking, and also to the bigger oarsmen whose weighty momentum and extra strength propel the shell into the wind. Lighter crews tend to drag when their oars are not in the water because of the wind resistance on the blades. High stroking crews are at some disadvantage as well because the oars are out of the water more often, the headwind pushing against them. At least that’s the theory and I am not about to argue that point.
From August 7 to 11, the newly developed Sea Forest Park was home to the 2019 World Rowing Junior Championships, organized by the World Rowing Federation (FISA).
This is part of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee’s initiative – Ready, Set, Tokyo – to ensure that venues selected or built for the upcoming Summer Games are progressing well in terms of readiness. One of over 50 test events being held through May, 2020, the rowing test event is an actual world championship for 18 years or younger. In this competition, approximately 550 athletes from fifty nations competed in this 5-day event.
The name Sea Forest Park is a vision of what the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has for their property: a verdant forest on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. This waterway, designed for the rowing and canoeing competitions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, forms a perfect rectangle, nestled between two pieces of reclaimed land and two connecting bridges. One of the few salt water regatta courses in the world, Sea Forest will continue to serve as a venue for rowing and canoeing competitions post Olympics.
I visited Sea Forest Park on the final day of the junior championships. And it was hot, the mid-day temperature hitting 34 degrees Centigrade (93 degrees Farenheit), with little green or shade in sight, particularly the grandstand at the finish line. There was one area for spectators off the grandstand where people could sit under a tent and view the competition on a large screen that broadcasted the races live.
This is a test event, so it’s likely that by the time the 2020 Olympics roll around, there will be more covered areas. In the meanwhile, there were opportunities to test a wide variety of things: the execution of races every 10 or 15 minutes, transportation of spectators to and from the Tokyo Teleport area of Odaiba, security allowing and stopping people from entering particular areas, awarding of medals and raising of flags.
Rowing is a difficult sport to watch if you’re just a casual observer. The course is 2,000 meters long, which means that you’re staring off into the far distance trying to pick up the movement of very small boats. But as they get closer to where the crowds are waiting, and the announcers’ voices, blaring through the speakers, informing us which boats are in front, the crowd noise grows. The spectators are there for their teams.
In 2012, the US women’s eight was the favorite to take the gold medal at that year’s London Olympics. Stroke seat Caryn Davies wasn’t buying it. “Everyone’s bow is even at the start line. Being the favorite means nothing when we line up to race.” And Team Canada was nipping at their heels, having nearly beaten Team USA in a World Cup race a couple of months prior to the Summer Games.
But only 500 meters into the finals of the women’s eights in London, coxswain Mary Whipple could see the commanding lead they had built, and she told Davies some years after that at that point in the race she was so certain of victory that she had wanted to stand up in the stern of the boat and shout to the competition behind her, “Bring it!” She didn’t, but the Americans did indeed win gold, leading from start to finish and winning America’s third-ever gold medal in the vaunted eights competition.
This was a significant triumph, important in cementing the American women’s dominance. And yet, for Davies, it was the end of a long road. After winning bronze in Athens and then gold in Beijing and London in the stroke position of the boat, she felt it was time to move on with her life.
“I had had a good run,” Davies told me. “I won a bunch of medals and ended on a high note. I was almost done with law school. I thought it was time to get a job and start ‘real’ life.” With a law degree from Columbia and an MBA from Oxford, Davies entered the reputable law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. For three and a half years, she advised clients on finance and M&A. While getting the work done, she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped to be. The competitive nature of business was different from the competitive nature of sports, and she was noticing the differences.
Business leaders love to listen to and be around sports champions. They love to hear their stories of preparation, struggle and triumph. Yet success in sport is generally clear-cut and objective, whereas success in business is often opaque or subjective. The contrast led to the insight that the challenges of leadership and management can be greater in the world of business where goals and metrics are less clear. In such cases, the ability of leaders and managers to motivate individuals and sustain a team mindset becomes more significant.
True teamwork demands a level of bonding at deeper levels. That requires intentional effort to build. The intensity of the workplace, and its consumption of most of our brain power, leaves little reserve for building those bonds. When you’re executing a sport like rowing, even though physically demanding, you aren’t using all of your brain’s processing power, so there is reserve left to invest in relationships with your teammates.
In other words, often in business, managers may have to work harder to strengthen team bonds to improve team performance, particularly if there are perceived stars on the team. Davies experience has informed her that successful rowing teams do not emphasize the star.
In rowing, there is no standout player. On sports teams where you have star players, you see divisiveness. Generally, you know who is faster on your team, but from the outside looking in, there is no star. You see boats where there’s one person trying to win the race alone, and they burn out. The people behind them can’t follow and there’s a disconnect between them and the rest of the team, just making the boat go slower.
Davies, who was already a member at a couple rowing clubs in Boston, began going down to the boathouse more regularly. She wasn’t there just to get in a good workout in the early mornings, but to learn from the club members who were themselves successful people with lessons for newbies to the world of business. And one day, she learned a lesson from a successful person.
“I was out in the single rowing one morning August last year and the legendary Harvard coach Charley Butt sees me and says through his megaphone, ‘Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should! Rowing loves you, and you love rowing.’”
Reflecting on that, Davies realized she still needs to play to her strengths—that maybe her work in the law firm was not the way to fulfill that drive to be the best.
I was feeling a bit frustrated with my career. I thought, okay, I could double down on law. But I don’t love law enough to be the best in the world. And there is something where I have been the best in the world – rowing -and perhaps I could still be the best in the world. Where is my best contribution? I could slog away at a law firm. But is that my best contribution? There is this thing I am still good at and in which I still have a lot to learn – why not do it to the fullest before it’s too late?
Davies left Goodwin in February 2019 to focus on her training. Having been away from world-class competition for going on 7 years, she had to lot catching up to do, and is realistic about her chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she knows she has a lot to offer.
Let’s be honest. I am nowhere near as strong physically as anyone on the team. If you put us on the rowing machine I would not beat another person. My strength has been on the technical side of rowing. That is something you never lose. I still have that. I realize I can contribute to a team by being in a boat and rowing my best and help others row a little bit better. My #1 goal for this year? Be the best teammate I can be. That means helping everyone get faster. I acknowledge that could help someone beat me out of a spot on the team. If that is the case, so beat it. I will have achieved my goal.
She now believes she has a 50:50 chance of making Team USA for the Olympics. And she’s got one positive sign so far: US Rowing announced the crews that will compete at the 2019 World Rowing Championships to be held in Linz, Austria from August 25 to September 1, 2019, and Davies made the cut. She will compete in the women’s four-person boat with Molly Bruggeman (Dayton, Ohio/University of Notre Dame), Madeline Wanamaker (Neenah, Wis./University of Wisconsin), and Vicky Opitz (Middleton, Wis./University of Wisconsin)
Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y./Harvard University) said “I’m thrilled to be racing in that boat with those teammates. I think it’s going to be a great regatta!”
Caryn Davies (top middle) with the 2008 Olympic championship team
In rowing, the American women are the dominant force in the glamour event, the eights. When the women from Team USA settle in their barracuda-like 9-meter shell in a world final, they do so as winners of 12 of the past 13 world and Olympic championships.
But in 2004, at the Athens Summer Olympics, that was not the case. Caryn Davies was a college student, and many of her teammates on that rowing team were also in their twenties. In the case of rowing, particularly today, experience is highly valued, and teams composed of rowers in their thirties or forties are not uncommon. But the 2004 team had . And a tailwind.
In a dramatic throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet, the crew burst out at the start and held off the Romanian boat in the first heat to set a world record time of 5:56:55 in the 2,000-meter race. Back on the dock, when a reporter informed the boat that they had broken the world record, one of Davies’ teammates blurted out on live television, “Holy shit, we did?”
In the finals, the powerful Romanians were ready for the hard-charging Americans. Despite the Americans holding a narrow lead at the 1000-meter mark, the Romanians pushed past them and held on for gold.
Athens was a learning experience and a launch pad for success. Davies became part of a core group of athletes that stayed intact through the next few years, winning gold at the world championships in 2006 and 2007 before lining up for the finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“We had more experience as a boat, as the core had been rowing together since 2006,” Davies told me. “It was around that time that we saw a shift in the composition of the national team. Leading up to 2004, most athletes came directly from college, and there was a lot of turnover. After 2004, athletes stuck around for years after college. We had more confidence in our ability to respond to competition.”
Determined to win, they dedicated their pursuit of gold to the 1984 women’s eight, which were the last American women to win gold. Channeling the spirit of the women of ’84, the American eight started off with a slight lead, and gradually widened the gap, pulling away from the Romanians. At the halfway point of 1,000 meters, coxswain Mary Whipple called for an extra 20 stroke-long effort, a move dedicated to the team from 1984.
Davies is the stroke, the technically consistent rower who sits in front of the coxswain and sets the tempo for the other seven. She could clearly see how far ahead of the others her boat was. But even in the last few hundred meters, she believed that anything could happen, even the worst.
“In the last 250 meters, a little fear started setting in for me personally,” she said. “By that point in the race, I had driven myself into the ground. My technique was breaking down, and I knew that if it had been me alone in the boat, we would have been going backwards. Thankfully my teammates were there to carry me across the line. There is a photo of me just as we cross the finish line where I am looking to the side with utter terror in my eyes. In that moment I was thinking, ‘That had better be the finish line, because one of two things is going to happen in the next few strokes: either we’re going to cross the finish line, or I’m going to pass out.”
She did not pass out. She and her teammates crossed the finish line first.
Spent, her teammates made efforts to smile and cheer. But Davies’s head was down, bent over exhausted. Whipple crawls over the stroke seat rigger to Davies and embraces her. The women from the US were Olympic champions: the first of three consecutive Olympic championship crews in a row that would cement this team’s dominant place in sports history.
It was as if 1964 was Year 1, and Japan was re-born.
Japan was young, energetic and full of hope. One of the biggest hits of 1964 in Japan was “Konnichi wa Akachan,” – “Hello, my sweet baby!” – a bouncy, happy tune of fresh starts.
Ted (Theo) Mittet was a 22-year old from Seattle, Washington, who qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as a rower on the US Olympic team, and came to Japan with eyes wide open. And he loved it from the start. “Japan is all that I expected and more,” he wrote to his parents a week before the start of the Olympics. “Its people are very friendly to say the least.”
Mittet was on a powerful rowing crew that took the bronze medal in the fours-without competition at the Tokyo Olympics. But while many of his teammates on Team USA went home, Mittet sold his air ticket to the States and travelled Japan. More importantly (to me), he wrote and received many letters. This was a time when people sent telegrams, when long-distance phone calls were expensive, and letters took days if not weeks to traverse the seven seas, pens were our keyboards, while boats, planes and people were our internet.
It was a time when getting a letter from the postman was sometimes a thrill.
I was very glad to see you letter beside my Mother’s Mirror and I cried my father “Received, Received”. My father was glad, too. My mother and brother were glad, too. I cried your letter’s news all over.my friends. I’m afraid you did not write to me soon. But I got your letter. I think happily.
The above was the opening of a letter from a high school student in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture name Katsuhiro Matsuo, overjoyed to get another letter from the young American rower.
Mittet travelled from Tokyo to Yokohama, then on to Kyoto. He passed through Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Nagasaki, Niihama and Nara, before heading back to Yokohama and Tokyo. During his 2 months of travel in Japan, he wrote constantly and voluminously to family and friends in the US, as well as new acquaintances he met during the Olympics and his travels. The letters from the Japanese in particular reflect Japan’s excitement and curiosity about foreigners and their desire to welcome them to their country and their home.
In some cases, the Olympics may have given some Japanese the courage to break out of their normal shy shells and reach out to the world. Mittet was the closest to the outside world for these letter writers, and so they made what was likely an extraordinary effort to write letters in English.
Dear Theodore, I know how surprised you are to receive this letter from unknown friend in Japan. You visited Silk Center in Yokohama. Where I was working during Olympic season. You gave me your card. Oh, no. I required you to give it to me. Do you recollect me? If you could, I am glad. Ha Ha. It is difficult for you to recollect me because you met many people, did not you? – Junko Aoki, a student at Kanagawa University in Yokohama
Dear Theodore, You may be surprised to receive this letter from a complete stranger, but I met you at the Toda Rowing Course and talked with you for a few minutes. I gave you a little badge, do you remember me? I’m taking this liberty of writing to you with the sincere hope that you’ll accept me as your new Japanese friend. – Emiko Kobayashi, a high school student from Toda-machi, Saitama
The Tokyo Olympics were a rush of adrenaline for the Japanese, so many of them amazed and happy to be surrounded by so many foreigners from so many different countries. Mittet met a volunteer interpreter named Teruyo Wakui at Enoshima Station, not far from where she worked translating for the sailors competing in the nearby yachting events. Despite her fatigue, meeting Mittet proved to be another rush for this volunteer just after the end of the Tokyo Olympics.
When I happened to meet you at Enoshima station, I was rather tired after twenty days’ work. But I was so glad to meet you and to speak with you. In yachting game, there was no competition as you. Most of all the competitors of yachting were rather gentle and kind, and even the younger men were not as young as you. You are so young and full of dream and curiosity to many things of Japan.
After twenty days in yacht harbor, I suddenly remembered that youth is more wonderful than any other thing in this world. We can do anything without money, as we are young. And I think you have enough courage to do anything that you want, though you say you don’t have courage, but pleasure.
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.
Catch. Drive. Release. Recovery. The four phases of the rowing stroke are simple. The ability for more than two people at a time to execute them in synch is not.
When the straight four crew from the Lake Washington Rowing Club arrived in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, they were in synch and they were ready. “We believed we had a great chance to win gold,” reflected Theo (Ted) Mittet), who sat in the bow.
As Dick Lyon, who sat in the number two seat in front of Mittet in the shell, told me, after winning the US Trials, the team of Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Lyon and Mittet were running very fast times – doing 500-meter sprints in 1 minute 27 or 28 seconds, which was better than the times Nash’s gold medal winning team at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
When the crew from America lined up against Great Britain, the Netherlands, Argentina and Italy, they were raring to go. The stroke, Nash, got Team USA off to a flying start, and at the halfway mark of 1,000 meters, Nash and his team were “open water,” (more than a length) up on second place Britain. The Americans had, what they call, swing. Until disaster struck.
As Nash recalled in Peter Mallory’s book, The Sport of Rowing, with the US shell comfortably ahead, the rower behind him, Durbrow, suddenly coughed up blood on and over Nash’s right shoulder. Lyon told me that at the 1,200-meter mark, the boat suddenly turned sideways, and he could see that Durbrow was having trouble breathing. “He was swinging in his seat and he had no power in his arms,” said Lyon. Here’s how the situation was described in Mallory’s account:
Nash: The boat slowed and we stopped. We came to a complete stop. Then Phil said, “I’m okay. Let’s go.” We were screaming by everybody once again, but Phil had a second episode of blood loss, and the guys in the bow, who could see his condition, yelled down to me, “Phil’s really hurting. Please paddle.”
Mittet: I remember the absolute disbelief of watching Phil’s blade falter. How could this be? What was wrong? Our feelings and concerns shifted totally to Phil in an instant – we knew that this was serious.
This was a disaster. The coxless four from the USA still managed to cross the finish line. In fact, they completed their heat with a time of 6:56.40, over 5 seconds ahead of the Netherlands. Britain finished first and advanced to the finals, but because Nash’s team recovered enough to finish, they were still eligible for the repechage, a second chance for all the crews that did not finish first in their heat.
And yet, Durbrow was in the hospital. The team that only magically came together after trying countless variations of 17 different people, was now forced to re-make the team with an alternate, Geoff Picard, who was in Tokyo for just such a scenario. With the finals only two days away, Nash’s straight four were no longer expecting to win gold, and were feeling that a medal of any color would be wishful thinking at best.
And yet, expectation and reality, as they saw, and would eventually see, are often at odds. In the case of the LWRC coxless four, recovery followed quickly upon release.
One of the most famous names in America in pediatric health, at least in the 20th Century, was a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book, Baby and Child Care, was a perennial best seller and the bible on child care. The only other book to outsell his in America – the actual Bible.
What I didn’t know was that Spock was a gold medalist, a member of the American eight-man crew that was so dominant at the 1924 Paris Olympics that their time of 6 minutes and 33 seconds was almost 16 seconds faster than the second-placed Canadian crew.
A renown expert in the medical field, an Olympic champion, Spock was a name in America few did not know. And yet, despite a relatively wealthy upbringing, he was not born with confidence and expectations of greatness. As he explains in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, Spock explained that his mother was a very devoted tyrant, and his father was a self-made man who was obsessed with status, proud to have been a member of the finest and exclusive social clubs at Yale University.
When Spock entered Yale, I believe around 1921, he wrote:
I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.
Sports was an acceptable avenue of exploration, and he continued his focus on the high jump, which he trained in at his high school. But try as he could, he could not improve beyond mediocrity. One day in his freshman year, he walked by the rowers in the Yale gym. In rowing, height can be an advantage. Despite his skinny frame, Spock was tall, six feet four inches (1.9 meters), and so caught the eye of the captain of Yale’s rowing team.
“What sport do you go out for?”, said the captain.
“High jumping,” said Spock.
“Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” said the captain.
To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.”
Granted, the Yale squad was one of the worst crew teams in the United States. As Spock described, their technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.
In two years under Leader’s leadership, Yale’s rowing team went from worst to first, and Spock’s eight-man crew defeated a crew made up of US Navy officers fairly handily, earning the right to compete at the Paris Summer Olympic Games. In Paris, the American eight from Yale were considered favorites with perennial favorites, The Thames Rowing Club of Great Britain. Fortunately for the US, the Thames Rowing Club had in Paris only four members of the crew which won the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta the previous year, perhaps paving a golden path for Spock and his team.
As Spock wrote about his team’s gold-medal-winning finals, “the race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, 3-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”
Spock graduated from Yale, and then got his doctor of medicine at Columbia University, launching a career to become America’s most famous pediatrician. Interestingly, Spock became very critical of putting children or young adults into “excessive competition”, worrying that parents were putting too much pressure on their children. “The problem is,” he wrote in 1985 in Tales of Gold, “that Americans are meant to be the best in everything.” He even had thoughts about parenting in Japan, arguably an early hotbed for prototypical Tiger Moms.
I was visiting Japan, and if any country is worse than the U.S. for competitive youngsters, it is Japan. Their educators told me that a shocking number of elementary school children commit suicide and that the number is going up every year. They commit suicide because they don’t think they’re getting grades high enough to satisfy their parents. What kind of society is that in which children have to kill themselves because they can’t compete?
If you think about it, we rowed together for over 3,000 miles in an intense period of several months. We rowed differently from others, we had our own thing. And here comes Geoff. He was on the Harvard team we had beaten him in the US Olympic Trials. He was an alternate, so he was wearing his blazer walking around the Ginza, having a gay old time….and then suddenly he’s told, “you’re in a boat. Get ready!”
That was Phil Durbrow, who suddenly, in the first heat of the straight four (aka coxless four) rowing competition at the Tokyo Olympics, coughed up blood and collapsed, stopping their shell dead in the water. The crew from the Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC), who believed, up to that moment, that they had the team and the swing to take gold, simply willed the boat across the finish line. Finishing meant being eligible for the repechage, but they would have to do so without Durbrow. Durbrow of Menlo College explains.
I sat behind Ten Nash, who was a very powerful rower. I sat behind him and my job was to even things out. Now, suddenly, Geoff had to sit behind Ted and figure out how to fit in the best he can, in maybe, two or three rowing sessions before the finals. Rowing is wonderful when there is no excess baggage. All in the boat who have to act like one, and think the same things and feel the same things and respond in the same way, balance each other perfectly. They need to be aware of currents and winds and course, and the competitors – It’s an incredibly complicated thing if you were to do it with your left side of your brain. But actually, you do it with your right side of your brain. It’s like going down the highway on the other car’s bumper doing 70 miles per hour thinking little about it. Geoff didn’t really have time to get all that.
And yet, Geoff Picard, the alternate, did.
Picard was from Harvard, training under the famed coach Harry Parker, who taught a totally different stroke technique to his rowers. According to Lyon, Pocock taught the LWRC rowers to slow down before the catch, the moment the oar hits the water, extending their reach further than the average crew, and driving fast. The Harvard rowers were trained to be slower with the hands right after the release and faster on the catch.
In the repechage, the US coxless four (which means four rowers without a coxswain), were up against France, Japan and Australia. France kept pace with the Americans for 1,500 meters, but the re-jigged team with Picard in the shell, pulled away in the final 150 yards to win by two boat lengths. Picard seemed to fit in well enough. But according to Nash, in Mallory’s book, “with our different west coast technique and rhythm, he told me he never totally felt in synch.”
With that victory, America was heading into the finals. The reality was, the repechage was only the second time the four had rowed together – would they really be able to come together in only two days and win a medal? As a matter of fact, Picard filled in admirably, giving the team a chance for a medal.
In the finals on October 15, at the Toda Rowing Center, Nash, Picard, Lyon and Mittet made a valiant effort. They fell behind quickly in the first 250 meters, in fifth behind the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Germany. According to Nash, the four began falling into synch, and started to move ahead, making up water on Denmark who had taken the lead. In fact, at the 1,500-meter mark, the US crew was actually in second, just in front of the Brits.
But in the final 250 meters, the Danes held on for gold. The Brits had a bit more in the tank than the American team, grabbing silver. The American team, despite the calamity of Durbrow’s sudden exit in the first heat, still managed to grab the bronze medal.
Nash bemoaned his tactical error to start the team out aggressively at the start, which may have contributed to a loss of rhythm in the early stages. But they all knew they were fortunate to get a bronze medal. “We were very thankful to have a man of Geoff’s quality as an alternate,” Lyon told me. “Another 20 to 30 strokes, we could have come together in time….”
Durbrow remembers those mixed emotions of October, 1964. “I never did see them win the bronze,” said Durbrow. “I was in a pretty deep funk. I had been trying to get to the Olympics since I was 16, and I was in a great position to do something significant.” Instead, Durbrow left Tokyo dissatisfied. To add insult to injury, the army immediately ordered him back into service in Laos.
But time heals and Durbrow has moved on, as have his teammates. One day, some 52 years later, Durbrow got a package in the mail. It was from Ted Nash, and inside the box was his bronze medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and a short note saying that he wanted Durbrow to have it. “Without you, our boat might not have even got to the Olympics at all.”
Mittet, remembering those days of glory half a century ago, understood that those hard days of training, the pain, the excitement, the heartbreak were all worth it for the lasting memories and the friendships forged as brothers in arms.
Yes, we have earned honor as competitors. But, we have been given so much more from our chosen sport over our life time. How could we have imagined this in our youth? Let us always remember those who encouraged us, nurtured us and mentored us along the way. If we are lucky, we have had the opportunity to do the same for others. Perhaps we have done so unknowingly – because of who we have become “deep down.”