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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 15 December 2013

27 October 2013

The last week or so has been memorable for me. Yesterday my Loyola Marymount University Men’s Crew traveled north to Sacramento to compete in the Head of the American, a regatta I had never been to before.

I got the chance to speak to quite a few of my high school recruits for admission next fall. Bright faces, big smiles. A lot of fine young men planning on applying to LMU Early Action in just four days.

Several of our team parents took the opportunity of our rare appearance in Northern California to join us as athletic supporters. For some, it was their very first chance to see a shell close up . . . and they loved it. More bright faces, big smiles, and a goodly number of family hugs. There is a fair amount of down time at any big regatta, and the chance to fill it with both casual and serious conversations with some of the good folks who have entrusted their children to me made the day sail by. Thanks to all of you for your friendship and support. You know you can call on me any time. I take my responsibilities as your surrogate very seriously. Special thanks to Jill and Roger Felix for taking photos, providing the delicious food to a herd of hungry young men and women and for sharing Trevor with us.

The weekend also provided a very special opportunity to spend a very special evening before the races bonding with Magda and V, my esteemed coaching colleagues at LMU. More bright faces, big smiles and a lot of beer. Oh, my!

So . . . is life good? Yes, it is. Is it all good? Well . . . that depends on what you mean. Life’s complicated, after all.

There was changing of the guard in Susan’s family. I won’t go into the details, but it was ultimately and unexpectedly life-affirming. It was hard, very hard in fact . . . but the way it all played out makes me respect anew those of us who get up every day single determined to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Which is why I was so disappointed in how the racing turned out for us at the Head of the American. You see, I am an idealist, and against all odds I yearn to stay that way. My assumption has always been that anyone who touches an oar or wields the tiller of a racing shell is automatically a cut above, a member of an elite class, a knight in shining armor. Oh yes, we all want to win, but we all so respect our sacred quest and our core values and our oh so worthy opponents that we would never, ever, ever, ever betray the common goal of competing with honor.

Well, I must force myself to admit that I know better. I am an historian of world rowing, for Heaven's sake. More than most, I truly know that rowers have as many faults and frailties as any other group. Indeed, monsters walk among us. I know that. I accept that because I must.

But what distress me so much more are the petty small minds, those who betray our ideals. Hell, I can be small and petty, too, and that simple reality saddens me greatly.

So what has happened to put me in this funk? LMU entered two men’s open coxed-fours in the Head of the American. As our B Boat passed through some debris on the course, their fin picked up a large tree branch that skewed them right off the course and brought them to a complete stop. Not surprisingly, this had a corrosive effect of the rest of their race. There were recriminations in the boat – disappointment and stress seldom bring out the best in people – things were said, things that turned out not to be true, and yet no apologies followed.

In a perfect world, there would be no branches on the course . . . but there are no villains here, no black hats associated with this incident. Perhaps our coxswain could have or should have done more to avoid the debris field – oh so easy to say with the benefit of hindsight – but the good judgment to make that kind of decision well only comes with time and experience. Isn’t every choice a coxswain makes a calculated risk, a weighing of alternatives in anticipation of an unknowable future? Aren't we all in the same boat? Every day?

For the A Boat? Oh so much worse . . .

To begin with, Stanford University had two boats in our race. Now Stanford is one of the legitimate big dogs in American Collegiate Men’s Rowing. They represent an ideal we can only aspire to emulate at LMU. I doubt if the Stanford and Loyola Marymount Crews have been mentioned in the same sentence in decades, but there they were in our race, one placed right behind each of our boats in the line at the start, each of their bow numbers one higher than our own bow numbers. The boat behind our A Boat was made up of guys from their last year’s Jayvee.

After the start, this Stanford crew initially began to close the gap on us . . . but soon we were edging away. Oh, my! That established the pattern for the rest of the race. If the water was clear ahead of us we could move . . . but on the dog-leg of the course, as we went flying by a much slower boat, this back marker coxswain abruptly turned into us, oars clashed, we lost much of our momentum, and Stanford cut our lead in half.

This had to be unintentional. Even their rowers yelled at their lie-down coxswain. He must have gotten confused or rattled or something by the surprise of our rapid approach. We took a risk by passing so close to them on the inside of a turn. In retrospect, it was probably the right call to make, but certainly this time it didn’t pay off. Perhaps our coxswain will be less trusting next time. It is healthy to be reminded periodically that head racing can be a contact sport.

If only that were the end of it . . .

For the entire last 700 meters of the race course, at least, another boat, another lowly back marker, planted themselves squarely in front of us and refused to budge. This time in front of the spectators it was clearly intentional and a direct violation of the explicit instructions given to every coach and every coxswain in the official meeting that preceded the racing. Further, this boat was from a program with which we have an historic personal link that goes back forty frickin' years. We thought they were our brothers and our friends. Of all people, we assumed we could count on them to do the right thing.

Here’s where my struggle with being an idealist and a role model for my team comes in. Before we launched, I instructed both my boats in the strongest of terms that they should act with complete integrity and promptly yield to any boat that overtook us from behind. In so doing, we would be according proper respect to a boat that had the same goal as us, namely going fast, and was doing it better than we were at that moment. Simple as that. This is the very core of our mission statement as a university, as a team, as a rowing family and as individuals. This is the core of who we are. Period.

Not surprisingly, mine is a team of idealists coached by another idealist, and they naturally assumed that every other coach gave the very same instructions that morning and that on the water they would receive just as they gave . . . respect . . . but alas, no.

In the real world . . .

Afterwards when I expressed to the offending coach the profound disappointment my team and I felt, he looked straight at me . . . and he smirked . . .

A challenge for a rematch was issued . . . and deflected – "We'll think about it." Can you believe that? – and no apologies were offered or even hinted at..

Why are apologies so very difficult for some people? (I'm afraid they can be difficult for me as well. Something for me to work again on tomorrow and every day of my life after that. Matter of fact, tonight I am not feeling particularly contrite about anything!)

Now if my coxswain had not been such an idealist, one of my idealists, I suspect she might have simply assumed that the boat ahead would not do the right thing and would have motored on by on the other side of the course. The trouble was that by pure happenstance we were pinned to the buoy line as we overtook our good friends, the noble San Diego State Aztecs, the black Resolute bow in the photo below, and in turn SDSU's options were limited by an extremely slow junior women's eight that had drifted back from the previous race. So LMU's only way forward was straight ahead, and in the photo you can see the wake from the recalcitrant back marker we had to contend with for the last 1,000 meters and more. Life sucks . . .

Our coxswain had cast her lot, indeed had cast the lot of her entire boat and mine as well, in the presumption that the boat ahead would do the honorable thing and yield. In so doing, her idealism empowered the other coxswain to block her. So be it. The world is full of ********, and the sooner you figure that out the better.

The results from last week's Head of the Charles shows that this is going to be a very good year indeed for Stanford University Men's Rowing. They placed third in the Men’s Championship Fours. They were the top college crew, four seconds ahead of the University of Washington, who have set the American collegiate standard in recent years. Kudos to their coach, Craig Amerkhanian, my good friend for 37 years now.

Yesterday at the Head of the American, a separate Stanford four won convincingly. My LMU four "couldawouldashoulda" been competitive with the third of this fall's impressive Stanford fours, the one that started just behind us. Not surprisingly, they ended up a well-earned second in our race. But behind the two Stanford boats in the Head of the American results, the irony was that after our two incidents, our two contretemps, if you will, we actually ended up fourth . . . FOURTH!! . . . and the boat that most benefitted from our misadventures, placing third, was the A Boat of the very team that intentionally obstructed us and then smirked about it!

Can you believe it? Oh, cruel destiny! Who says that crime doesn’t pay? The Shakespeare in me wonders if they are compulsively washing their hands tonight.

I think back again to what I told my team before they launched. I led them to expect to be given the right of way as was required under the regatta rules, rowing being such a noble sport and all, but not to be fools and assume they would always get it . . . and if they didn’t, they should go around with no hesitation and pass the crew with plenty of pent-up fury and disdain in their hearts. I believe I even sprinkled these instructions with some salty words.

In a prefect world, my coxswain would have had that choice to make.

It seems that my A Boat coxswain relied on my idealism more than my cynicism. She coxed as if this were a perfect world . . . and it’s not. A tough lesson to learn, but one thing's for darn sure. Neither of us will ever trust or respect that particular team or that particular coach ever again. That you can count on.

Otherwise, I will hang on to most of my idealism a little bit longer.