Friday, January 24, 2014

Burnishing Olympic Gold, 50 Years Later

The victorious Vesper 8, posing in 1964. Bill Stowe is on right.

As Olympic rower Bill Stowe says at the end of his book, "All Together," about winning gold:
"There is no greater high and it can endure for years."
50 years, to be exact.
It's been that long since a motley crew from the Vesper Boat Club won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the eight-oared boat. Many of those men in that surprise upset will be honored tomorrow at a banquet  hosted by Vesper. For that occasion, I wrote a piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, which I'm reprinting below.   Interestingly, two of the rowers -- Bill Stowe and Emory Clark -- have written books about this seminal experience in their lives. (Clark's is yet unpublished). And all of them, every four years, at Olympic time, are asked to talk about their victory and show their medals, now touched by thousands of hands.

By Dorothy Brown

'Old men." "A curious crew." "A crusty bunch of adults." That's what the
press called the eight-man crew from Vesper Boat Club as they swept the
national trials and, in a huge upset, headed for the Tokyo Olympics.

The year was 1964, a half-century ago, and the ragtag Vesper crew had
just upended six decades of collegiate dominance of the Olympics'
premier rowing event. Their feat also placed Boathouse Row in an
international spotlight, secured its prominence as a coaching mecca, and
helped catapult the sport here and around the country.

Playing a significant role was Olympian Jack Kelly, brother of Grace and
son of John B., for whom Kelly Drive is named. Jack Kelly, a longtime
city councilman and Vesper officer, lured the nation's best rowers, even
arguing for "special assignment" for Olympic hopefuls in the military.

Who were these men?

Tom and Joe Amlong, a brawny pair of loud-mouthed brothers in their late
20s, one in the Air Force, the other in the Army; Hugh Foley, 20, and
Stan Cwiklinski, 21, quiet, hard-working students at LaSalle College; Bill
Knecht, 34, a father of six with a sheet-metal business; and three men
who had rowed in college - Marine Lt. Emory Clark, 26, and Boyce Budd,
25, (both Yale) and Navy Lt. Bill Stowe, 26, (Cornell).

Their 115-pound cox, Bob Zimonyi, was a 46-year-old Hungarian refugee
who often muttered his commands in his native language.

"A boatload of men will beat a boatload of boys every time," boasted
their diminutive, hard-driving coach, Al Rosenberg, after his "men"
outpaced the "boys" of undefeated Harvard and the University of
California at the trials.

Rosenberg, who died in December, will be missed Saturday<NO1>1-25<NO>,
at a banquet honoring the Vesper Eight and others who competed in the
'64 games. Theirs is an aging fraternity but their stories, to be retold
at the event, are a testimony to the championship spirit that continues
to draw elite rowers to Boathouse Row.

Athletes like Olympic-aspirant Vicky Opitz, 25, who trained at Vesper
before competing in the World Cup last year in Switzerland, where her
eight broke the world record. Her crew then nailed the World
Championship in South Korea.

"Part of my decision to train in Philadelphia," she said last week, "was
its incredible history as a mecca of rowing on the East Coast and the
stories that come out of there of people who are willing to push and
sacrifice to accomplish their goals."

In his diary, Emory Clark wrote of the pain and the joy of training on
the Schuylkill in the winter of 1964:

"You put the boat in and rain goes down your neck, but once you get out
and warmed up it's terrific - even if you are rigged low and you get
hung up every stroke and Al calls you on your release - I enjoyed it out
there tonight - lashing away at the water, cussing Zimonyi and counting
strokes.... Dark when we came in and still nasty. Wonderful. ... Pray
that the warm weather will see an end to our aches and pains."

Fellow rower Bill Stowe, in his 2005 book All Together wrote: "We rowed
six days a week in all kinds of weather, and we killed ourselves. When
we were not rowing, we weightlifted - tortured our bodies. ... We
greeted the sun in the morning and put it to bed in the evening. ... It
was both wonderful and dreadful."

It was nearly nightfall on Oct. 15, 1964, when, in a wind-delayed race,
the Vesper Eight churned its way toward the finish line, still 500
meters away. Suddenly, "there was a bright explosion and another, and I
had something else for my ravaged brain to focus on," Clark wrote.
"Could we have passed the finish line? Had I so miscalculated?"

Under flares bursting to light the way, Vesper streaked across the
finish five seconds ahead of the Germans. The interminable months of
workouts and weights and worry were over in 6 minutes, 18.23 seconds,
clinching gold for the United States and Philadelphia.

Dorothy Brown is a former editor at The Inquirer, and a member of Vesper
who rows only for fun.


C Quinn said...

Thanks for posting this great piece either moved or dropped it. It's too bad that the late Bill Stowe is cut out of the photo (he's to the right of Knecht, as I suppose you know).

Dotty Brown said...

Thanks for pointing out the problem with the photo. I have reposted it to show Bill Stowe. Sadly, he recently passed away.

C Quinn said...

Looks great! RIP, Bill. Here's US Rowing's in-memoriam article: