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.
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Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Dick Lyon and Ted Mittet in Seattle; from the collection of Dick Lyon.

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.

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At the US rowing trials at Orchard Park, New York, kneeling in front of teammates: Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Dick Lyon and Theo (Ted) Mittet; from the collection of Dick Lyon.

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.

 

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From the collection of Dick Lyon.

 

“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.

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Olympic Village Theater and Bicycles, from the October 23, 1964 edition of the magazine Asahi Graf

The Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics really felt like a community. After all, it was, up to 1964, the gated neighborhood for US military families, a symbol of the continued American military presence in Japan.

Without a doubt, one of the lasting memories of the Olympians’ positive experience of the 1964 Summer Games was the availability of bicycles throughout the Olympic Village. The Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee had bicycles donated by Marukin Bicycle Manufacturing and Matsushita Electric Industrial and had them placed in all parts of the Village. The concept was if you saw an unattended bicycle, you could get on it and ride it anywhere in the Village. When you got off it and parked it, the bicycle was then available to any other person in the Village.

Members of the French Olympic Team on bicycles_Bi to Chikara
Members of the French Olympic Team on bicycles, from the book, Bi to Chikara

Olympian rower, Ted Nash, expressed his appreciation of the bicycles and Japanese hospitality in this post.

The reception was spectacular, the cleanliness and orderly fashion amazed us, the thoughtfulness of our hosts – the Japanese – was a constant surprise – They provided 750 new bicycles within the Olympic Village grounds on a “no-owner” basis. We simply found a vacant bike, rode it anywhere, left it there, and it was fair-game for anyone else – the seats never had a chance to cool off. Bus schedules, tours, eating and training facilities, were excellent with no measure spared to make the athletes feel at home.

Olympians rode the bicycles to the bus stops, to the dining areas, to the movie theaters and to their dorms. The books and magazines of the time were filled with pictures of Olympians smiling and socializing in the Village on those bicycles. One Olympian, who will remain anonymous, told me that it was their escape vehicles when they pinched the Turkish flag from that country’s living quarters.

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Members of the Danish team, from the collection of diver Søren Svejstrup.

The report by the Olympic Committee stated that there were actually over 1,000 bicycles allocated to the Olympic Village, but whether there were 750 or 1,000, there were simply not enough. An American gymnast told me that he often ran to open bicycles to make sure no one beat him to them. 5,000 meter Olympic champion, Bob Schul, wrote in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were so valuable that “they’d be hidden in bushes and other secret places, waiting on the athlete who had placed them in hiding the night before. We were among the few who arose so early that there were always a few within reach.”

Canadian field hockey player, Victor Warren validated that by telling me that “when our goalkeeper had to pack up our stuff we made it a point to take a bicycle and hide it in our dorm room so we could transport our stuff to the bus easily.”

The master of the psych out, four-time gold medalist Don Schollander, explained that one could get so worked up about whether a bicycle would be available, that he had to very consciously tell himself not to be bothered if he could not find a bicycle, as he explained in his autobiography, Deep Water.

I made up my mind not to let anything upset me. the Japanese had provided bicycles to help us get around the Village, but there were never enough. If I couldn’t find a bicycle, I would wait or walk. I was careful to take the right bus to training, so that I wouldn’t be too late and have to hurry, or too early and have to hang around. If I couldn’t get into the pool exactly when I wanted to, I told myself it didn’t matter. Whatever happened – that was fine with me. it rained a lot that week; if I got caught in a rainstorm, it was no big thing.

In the end, in so many of my interviews with 1964 Olympians, one of the most enduring memories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were the Village bicycles.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Members of the Dutch team.