July 5, 2012
Stanford rowing has had its share of Olympic champions, including Elle Logan
on the U.S. women's eight and Adam Kreek
on the Canadian eight in 2008. But the program was never quite as high as during a stretch from 1956 through 1964 when crews from Stanford backgrounds won a combined four Olympic races.
At the 1956 Melbourne Games, James Fifer and Duvall Hecht won the men's coxless pairs, and Dan Ayrault, Conn Findlay (Stanford's freshman coach) and coxswain Kurt Seiffert won the pair with coxswain. All trained together at Lake Washington near Seattle, in preparation for the type of weather they expected in Australia at that time of year.
It was during that training period that Hecht described a memorable day in their training regimen, as excerpted from the book, Stanford Sports, by Gary Cavalli:
"As the fall deepened and the weather turned blustery, we sought sheltered water for our long practice runs, and on days when the northwestern gales did not limit our distance, we often went for long pulls on Lake Washington.
"On this particular day ... it was still drizzling as we put our boats into the water. On the warmup out to Lake Washington, the skies dried, but did not clear, and there followed one of those enchanted spells when everything is held in abeyance .. the fading of the sunlight, the onset of the rain, the restraint of heavy wind ... so that we rowed fully aware of the transience of the moment, and had a sense of how memorable it was.
"There we were, at the peak of our physical prowess, technically as well trained as it was possible for us to be, moving across the absolutely flat waters of Lake Washington in a magic moment that might at any second break with another downpour or an onset of the wind ... I can feel once again the high exultation of the moment and the confident expectation of what the future held."
That confidence was justified.
At the 1952 Helsinki Games, Fifer and Hecht rowed the coxed pairs without much success. In 1956 they decided to go it without a coxswain and qualified by defeating the defending Olympic champions, Chuck Price and Charles Logg, in the final trials.
At the Olympics, Fifer and Hecht won every race decisively despite consistently understroking the opposition. As the pair returned to the boathouse following their gold-medal performance, they told their friends Ayrault, Findlay, and Seiffert to "go out and win." It didn't matter that the Germans were the heavy favorites in the pair with cox race.
"Determination made the difference," Seiffert said in Peter Mallory's treatise on Findlay on row2K.com, from which most of the accounts in this story are taken (include link). "Conn and Dan were not to be denied."
Poland and the USSR took the early lead on Lake Wendouree, with the Americans pushing hard at the halfway point. The European champion Germans never reached the U.S. boat, which passed fading Poland in the latter stages to win.
Seiffert, who stood 6-foot-5, weighed only 128 normally, but as a coxswain dropped even more weight for Melbourne, all the way down to 113. Seiffert celebrated by, "eating and eating and eating," he said. "I was back to my normal 128 in a couple of weeks."
Hecht became a pioneer in the audio book industry, founding Books on Tape, Inc., in 1975. He later sold the company to Random House Publishing.
Ayrault repeated as a gold medalist, winning on the men's four without coxswain in 1960 in Rome. And went on to a career in education, becoming headmaster at a Seattle private school and bringing his dogs with him to work every day.
* * *
In 1961, Ed Ferry was a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford with one year of rowing experience when he was paired with the demanding Findlay, now 30, who had gone through a series of oarsman and was seeking his third Olympic appearance in the 1964 Tokyo Games.
They paired together for four years.
"The chance of a lifetime," Ferry said on r2k.com. "In our first month rowing together, Conn turned to me once and said, `You'll have to row harder than that.' I knew that was the last time I would get to hear that sentence, as the next time I would be gone."
Ferry, a track star in high school, had arrived at Stanford on a football scholarship before switching to rowing. Even so, the 6-foot-4 Ferry was in terrific shape, sharpening his fitness while sprinting up the stairs and benches at Stanford Stadium.
"Early on, I had made a personal promise to myself to do ANY workout this guy proposed," Ferry said.
One such workout was to row from Redwood City to the Golden Gate Bridge. Three hours later, they made it, and then realized the boat was being pulled out to sea with the tide. So, they rowed as hard as they could to escape the swells and return to protected waters in San Francisco.
Their coxswain, Stanford's Kent Mitchell, slept most of the way. Mitchell kept his job as long as he kept his weight down. Findlay told him that if he weighed an ounce above 110 pounds, he was off the boat.
The Olympic final took place at the 2,000-meter Toda Bashi course, where they faced an 18 mph cross-headwind.
The Soviets took the early lead, by two-thirds of a length after the first 500 meters.
Ferry said, "I looked up and saw three boats behind us and thought, `Hey, if that holds, that's a medal for us.'"
They went from 32 strokes a minute, to 33 in a headwind, and up to 34 when it became a big calmer.
It was then that Mitchell realized something about Findlay, "The Old Man still wants to win."
With 400 to go, Findlay said calmly, "Well Ed, you wanna do it now?"
"OK," Ferry said, and the team brought its stroke rate up to a 36, blowing right past the Soviets.
"The physical conditioning for this exhausting sport proves that the human body can do much more than one realizes it can," Ferry said.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
Previously in the series: