Left to right - Bjørn Borgen Hasløv, Kurt Helmudt, Erik Petersen and John Ørsted Hansen_gold medal coxless fours 1964
Left to right – Bjørn Borgen Hasløv, Kurt Helmudt, Erik Petersen and John Ørsted Hansen_gold medal coxless fours 1964

The coxless fours from Denmark were champions. While they won their heat quite handily, finishing more than five seconds ahead of their closest competition, the championship race was decided by slightly more than a second.

And yet when Bjørn Borgen Hasløv recalls that time in Tokyo in 1964, he doesn’t remember the pain or the tension. The stroke on the Danish team that pipped the Great Britain team for gold remembers that they were a young group of men who came together as a team.

“We were young,” recalled Hasløv to me. “I was 23, still not having completed my studies because I spent my free time rowing and had no time for other things. The youngest was 20, Kurt Helmudt, who was in shipbuilding. Erik Petersen, 25, was a plumber, and John Ørsted Hansen, 26, was a fitter, charged with steering the boat. It was important that we could tell if we were rowing together, not as separate people. You have to feel your team around you. If you don’t work together, 100%, you will never be fast.”

Hasløv said that his coach, Poul Danning, taught him (among many other things) that the sport of rowing requires individuals to find their role and rhythm within a boat so that all are in synch – for example if the strongest person in the boat pulls as hard and as fast as he can, the differences in power and speed with the others will actually slow the boat down as water resistance increases due to the differential. Legendary boat maker George Yeoman Pocock expressed this insight in this way – “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend.”

Hasløv believes that his team worked so well together that the water was indeed their friend that day. “Everything was going to plan. We were concentrating hard on rowing together, supporting each other, finding rhythm in the boat. I didn’t feel the pain. I could feel the water under the boat, and it sounded like music as our boat was going perfectly. It’s a strong feeling. It’s a feeling that you control your body and you are a part of a team.”

My guess is that Hasløv was feeling what Pocock and other rowers call “swing”. Daniel Brown, in his wonderful book, The Boys in the Boat, about the American Eights Rowing Team that competed in the 1936 Olympics, described “swing” for an eight-man crew this way:

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. it’s called “swing.” it only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten at once. Each minute action – each subtle

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The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

The German rowing teams had already won five of the previous six rowing events in the Olympic Games hosted in Nazi Berlin. At the beginning of the main event – the eight oars – the American crew didn’t hear the man say “start”, so lost precious seconds from the beginning. They were in the last lane, which had the hardest crosswinds to overcome. Their stroke, the pace-keeper of the eight-oared crew was so ill, he looked as if he would pass out any moment. And for the first half of the race, the men’s team from Seattle, Washington was in last place with another 1,000 meters to go.

I was on my step machine at the gym yesterday, my towel and water in their place, and my Kindle resting on the step machine display. I was reading the final chapter of Daniel Brown’s brilliant book about the legendary American crew from The University of Washington – The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

boys in the boat_seattle PI

The description of the race, as were descriptions of all the key races, were thrilling. And as I tapped from page to page, I noticed my pace picking up on the machine. The stroke, Don Hume, was a ghost, and the coxswain Bobby Moch, was hesitant, but shouted that he wanted the 7, Joe Rantz, to take over the stroke role. That woke up Hume, who resumed his role and picked up the pace.

And again, up went my pace.

Brown writes