1 Denmark 2 Great Britain 3 USA
Straigh Four finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: 1 -Denmark, 2 – Great Britain, 3 – USA; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet

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….”

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Bronze medalists Ted Nash, Geoff Picard, Dick Lyon and Theo Ted Mittet; from the collection of Theo Mittet.

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.”

Receiving their medals
Receiving their bronze medals; from the collection of Theo Mittet.
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Theo Ted Mittet, Dick Lyon, Geoff Picard, Ted Nash at Toda Rowing Center; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet.

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.

Olympic Village dining hall
Left, Geoff Picard and Bob Schwartz of the Harvard crew and Theo with back to picture, in the Tokyo Olympic dining hall; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet.

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.

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Nash, Picard, Lyon and Mittet in Tokyo; from the collection of Dick Lyon.