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The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal
By David Halberstam
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 David Halberstam
All rights reserved.
IT WAS NOT A CELEBRATED event. It was an Olympic trial, to be sure, and the trial of a sport of unusually passionate participants. But no tickets were sold, and the community in which it was held, Princeton, New Jersey, largely ignored it. The local innkeepers and restaurateurs did not report to the Chamber of Commerce, as seems mandatory these days, that holding the sculling finals in their city had brought $5 million worth of extra business to the town. A handful of hastily put up cardboard signs told the curious few how to find their way through Princeton's streets to the shores of Lake Carnegie. In a world of media events, journalists were notably absent. There were no press credentials; there were no television cameras; there was only one still photographer on duty. One young woman from the U.S. Rowing Association was in charge of the press, and her typewriter, old and battered, immediately broke down. A reporter from the Boston Globe showed, and so did one from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Those papers probably represented the two most serious rowing cities in America; Harvard-Penn rivalries in crew were special. The New York Times sent a stringer; crew was a shakier sport at Columbia. The regional Associated Press bureaus seemed to be competing for the right not to cover it. The scullers of America existed, it was clear, in a world of their own.
No chartered planes or buses ferried the athletes into Princeton. No team managers hustled their baggage from the bus to the hotel desk and made arrangements so that at mealtime they need only show up and sign the tab. This was a world of hitched rides and borrowed beds, and meals, if not scrounged, were desperately budgeted by appallingly hungry young men. The rowers were always hungry. Food was fuel, and they burned immense amounts of fuel, judging restaurants not by quality but by quantity.
Christopher Wood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the favorite to win the right to represent the United States in the single sculls, was particularly experienced in scrounging lodging and food, and he knew the Princeton area well. At the Princeton Motor Lodge, for example, while rowing in a four-man boat, he and his teammates had rented a double room for $30, taken the mattresses off the box springs, laid them side by side and four people had stayed in one room for $7.50 each. On this weekend Tiff Wood (from a boyhood inability to say his own name, which had come out not Christopher, but Tiffer) drove down from Cambridge with a friend and competitor named Charley Altekruse, both of their sculls strapped on Wood's car. That allowed them both to cut costs on travel. Gas, oil, meals had come to $150 for Wood, or about twice what he had gotten in expense money from the Olympic committee.
Wood liked Charley Altekruse, they were Harvard oarsmen from different crews, and Wood thought that among his colleagues Altekruse had the greatest natural athletic talent, that unlike most rowers, he would be good at almost any sport. Most scullers loved to train but hated to race because the pain and the tension of a race were so great. Wood was amused that the gifted Altekruse loved to race and hated to train. Besides, there was an additional financial benefit in traveling with Altekruse. Since he had only recently graduated from college, he had a better network of friends and graduate students planted around the eastern colleges where regattas took place. In Princeton they would stay at the home of friends of his, further saving on costs.
Tiff Wood was a champion single-scull rower, perhaps, some thought, the best American hope for a sculling Olympic medal in the 1984 games. At thirty-one he was, as a man who had devoted his entire grown life to rowing, the personification of the amateur. He had put aside career, marriage, pleasure in his single-minded pursuit of excellence in a sport that few of his fellow countrymen cared about and that was, therefore, absolutely without commercial rewards. Not only was he probably the official favorite for the race, he was, in the world of oarsmen, the sentimental favorite as well. As a much younger, less experienced oarsman he had been a spare on the 1976 Olympic team. But no one had become sick, and he had not rowed a stroke. A more senior figure in the world of rowing, he had been the captain of the men on the 1980 team, but Jimmy Carter had canceled U.S. participation in the summer Olympics that year, and again Wood had not rowed a stroke. Because the Olympics were the one occasion when the oarsmen had a chance at national exposure, the boycott had been a particularly bitter blow. Wood had been their spokesman that year and had been extremely critical of Carter's decision; other athletes were privately as critical but, fearing commercial reprisals, remained publicly supportive. The oarsmen feared no reprisals to careers that had no commercial potential to begin with. So wearing their dissent as publicly as possible, they had formed a rowdy and raucous bunch during the ceremonies held in their honor in Washington by Carter. Many, like Wood, had refused to shake Carter's hand on the evening of the gala. There had even been a certain ritual for snubbing the President of the United States; those who had decided not to shake Carter's hand simply did not go onstage with him. That part at least was relatively genteel. When the ceremonies were over, most of Wood's contemporaries on the 1980 rowing team had swallowed their disappointment, vowed never to vote for Carter if he ran for reelection, and withdrawn from competitive rowing. But Wood was different. The Olympic goal had continued to tantalize him. Because, without a chance to compete in the Olympics, his rowing career seemed incomplete, he had decided to stay with the sport for one more shot, the 1984 Olympics. He loved rowing—it, more than his professional life, was his real world; and he had given a great deal personally to it, serving on various official rowing committees. Within the world of former oarsmen, there was a subtle sense that, all things being equal, it would be a nice thing if Tiff Wood won.
On this weekend, two of Wood's principal opponents, John Biglow and Joe Bouscaren, both former Yale oarsmen, had driven down together. They had rowed in an informal race the previous Sunday on the Charles against Tiff, and both had beaten him. For Bouscaren, who had come in second, the victory over Wood was a special boost. Bouscaren was a talented and graceful oar who was somewhat smaller than both Biglow and Wood; more often than not, Bouscaren led for the first half of a race, and then Wood or Biglow passed him near the end.
For Biglow, a former two-time national champion who had been bothered by a bad back and who had not rowed well in the past year, it had been a day of genuine celebration. For the first time in a year he sensed that he might be able to try the Olympic single-scull trials after all. Unlike Bouscaren and Wood, who had spent the winter rowing on the Charles and working out in Harvard's Newell Boathouse, Biglow had returned to his native Seattle and had tried to find out what was wrong with his back. He had spent most of the winter rowing in a double with his friend Paul Enquist. That put less strain on Biglow's back, for a double was not as heavy on the individual sculler as the single, and he had gradually been able to compete again. His rowing, which had been quite rough in 1983, had begun to improve. He and Enquist had formed a very good double, and there was a chance that they might become the U.S. double scull in the Olympics.
He had come back to Cambridge in mid-April resigned to the fact that if he made the Olympic team it would be in a double or a quad (a double scull was two scullers with two oars each, a quad was four scullers with two oars each, each boat without a coxswain). That was all right, he would still be part of the Olympic ideal, but in his heart he coveted the chance to be the single sculler who was the rower for America. As Tiff Wood once pointed out, "You could be on a championship eight which won all its races, but you might only be the fiftieth-best oarsman in the country. But the single sculler is the best, and everyone in the world of rowing knows it."
When he had showed up in Cambridge, Biglow had been without his own scull. Previously he had used one belonging to Harvard, but Harry Parker, the Olympic sculling coach, had not saved it for him and had given it instead to Altekruse. That struck Biglow as an ominous note. It was as if his place had already been taken and Harry, in his silent and almost mystical way, was no longer interested in him as a single sculler. That spring Tiff Wood had bought a brand-new scull for $3,400, had tried it out and decided he didn't like it (although he was using the seat from his new scull with his old one, which made him feel he was sitting on a $3,400 seat). Biglow had asked Wood if he would lend him the new scull. Wood, anxious to make back a little bit of the money he had just invested, had offered to rent it to him for $50 a week. That had surprised Biglow, who, just as careful with his money as Wood, had decided against renting it. Biglow had asked Harry Parker, who was also the Harvard coach, if there was an extra shell around the boathouse, and Parker had pointed to a terrible fat old boat, a loser's boat for sure. That diminished Biglow's confidence even more. At that point Biglow had thought of a sculler named Andy Sudduth who had just ordered a new top of the line shell and then had decided to compete as a sweep oarsman instead of a sculler. Biglow had asked if he could use Sudduth's boat for a week, and Sudduth had said yes.
On the first weekend that Biglow had come back to Cambridge, Harry Parker had scheduled some informal races. On Saturday he had tried some of the oarsmen in doubles; and Biglow, who had spent the winter in a double and who had no doubt of his ability there, had been in the winning shell. On Sunday, Biglow thought he would row in a double again. But no one else wanted to row doubles, and so Parker had decided that everyone would race in singles. Parker had broken the oarsmen down into two heats. He had placed Biglow in the faster heat against Wood and Bouscaren. At first Biglow had been annoyed. He was sure that Parker was doing this to discourage him from rowing singles and trying to force him into the double. On this Sunday they would row two thousand meters, roughly a mile and a quarter, the standard distance. It was a rainy, windy day, hardly ideal for rowing, and both Bouscaren and Wood had gotten very good starts, going out quickly on Biglow. In the second five hundred they had not gained, and then, in the third five hundred meters, Biglow had begun to move. Because he was wary of pushing his back too hard, he had not gone all out. Nevertheless, in the fourth five hundred he had passed both Wood and Bouscaren. That had been Easter Sunday, and Biglow thought of it as a kind of religious experience. For the first time in a year he had been able to row at a high level without his back betraying him and his legs going numb. He had beaten his two principal competitors.
Up until that moment Harry Parker thought that John Biglow had made a commitment to the double and he had envisioned a Biglow-Enquist double as a powerful one, a likely Olympic entry. But Parker had sensed that the moment that Biglow had returned to Cambridge and smelled the Wood-Bouscaren tensions, John would be unable to resist the singles. All that ego was at stake, these were his two principal competitors from the past, it was like the third of the triplets coming home after a long trip away and wanting to play with the new toys. If Harry Parker sensed it, Paul Enquist knew it. "There it goes," he said to Parker on the first day, watching Biglow trailing after Wood and Bouscaren at the boathouse. After Biglow had won the singles race, Enquist had not said anything to Parker, but there was a sad look on his face. Later, when Parker had caught his eye, Enquist had shaken his head and made a downward circling motion with his right hand. The meaning was perfectly clear to Parker: Their double was down the drain.
So when John Biglow and Joe Bouscaren had driven down to Princeton together, neither thought of himself as an underdog. Biglow for the first time in a year believed his back did not hinder him, and Bouscaren believed that in the past few months he had reached virtual parity with Wood and Biglow. Bouscaren had been a year ahead of Biglow at Yale, and the two were close friends. On the way down they talked incessantly of rowing, of their bodies and of genetics. Bouscaren seemed fascinated by his body. Sports and competition obsessed him, and no one took better care of himself. He worked on his body and maximized its strength—he was smaller than the other two—and indeed at one time he had thought seriously of making sports medicine his career. He had hoped to go to Dartmouth Medical School, which was for him the perfect medical school in the perfect locale; he could row during the fall and spring and go long-distance skiing during the winter. What more could the body and the mind want? But he had not gotten in and had settled for the urban confines of Cornell Medical School in New York City. On the way down he asked Biglow whether, if he wanted to pass superior genes on to his children, he should choose a wife for her athletic ability. Was it wrong to place too much emphasis on her strength and size? Near the end of the drive, Biglow had turned to Bouscaren and said, "You know, Joe, this is the most important race of our lives." Bouscaren had been silent for a moment. "This is for the Olympics," Biglow said, "this is what we've been working for all these years. Who wins here, goes."
There was something different, almost noble about the Olympian in his mind. Four years ago he had been asked by his Yale friend and teammate Steve Kiesling why he was working so hard in preparation for the 1980 Olympics and he had answered, "the Olympian stands alone." Listening to Biglow talk about the race, Bouscaren had quietly agreed. Biglow, he knew, in his own meticulous way was already concentrating on the race, already rowing the race. They were both staying, fittingly enough, with a former Yale oarsman, Donald Beer, class of 1956, who had rowed in a Yale eight that had won an Olympic medal. Beer liked former Yale oarsmen to stay with him in Princeton. His house was a virtual rowing museum, replete with all kinds of souvenirs from the past. One thing above all else that John Biglow knew about the house was that there was an Olympic gold medal in it. Beer, fittingly enough, had once told Biglow, "John, always remember, there's more to life than rowing—but not much."
For the first time in almost thirty years, the United States had a serious chance to win an Olympic medal in the single sculls, albeit the bronze. For the past three years, the American scullers had taken third in the world competition. The last American Olympic single-sculls medal had been a bronze won by John Kelly, Jr., of the Philadelphia bricklaying, rowing and acting Kellys. He had taken the bronze in 1956, in his third Olympic shot (his father had won the gold in 1920 in Antwerp, the last American gold in this event). But in 1981 Biglow, then only twenty-four and rowing in his first international regatta, had surprised everyone by winning a bronze. He had repeated in 1982, and Tiff Wood had taken the bronze in 1983. That meant that there were two world-class scullers competing in Princeton this weekend. And the times of other scullers such as Bouscaren, Jim Dietz and Brad Lewis were only a fraction off the times of these two.
Excerpted from The Amateurs by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1985 David Halberstam. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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