As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.
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.”
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.
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.
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?