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Peter Mallory's Blog


By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

25 February 2011

The loneliest times of my coaching career have always come in the days right after the rowing season has ended. The team disperses, and I am left without a purpose. One particular day back in 1973 at the University of Pennsylvania stands out.

I wrote about it eleven years ago in my first book:

On one of those indescribable early June days in Philadelphia I sit outside the boathouse and stare at the horizon. The sun has regained its summer strength, and the pungent smell of blooming flowers dulls my senses. Trees hang heavy with new foliage rustling in the gentle breeze. The Schuylkill River oozes past Boathouse Row, and bugs buzz by in lazy circles.

It’s beautiful, but today I hardly notice, way too busy feeling sorry for myself.

“It is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The first year I coached, we lost two races during the season. The second year only one. This year we have been undefeated . . . and yet we have come in second at the Eastern Sprints for the third year in a row! In a squall, for Heaven's sakes. How could such things happen? I am overwhelmed by missed opportunities.

Practice has been over for more than a week. My kids have gone home for the summer, and I am alone . . . sitting on a bench overlooking the docks, feeling as empty as the locker rooms upstairs . . .

Some old guy walks by me, stops and stares out across the river.

Never seen him before. Businessman, distinguished, a touch of class in his stature. He's really old, probably in his forties, maybe six feet tall, trim, maybe 170 pounds. I don’t know.

He smiles.
I’m barely aware he’s talking to me.
Obviously a stranger . . . doesn’t know anybody in town . . . came down to the river on a whim . . . he was a rower once, but considering his age, it must have been a very long time ago . . . not a Penn man, though . . . but did he mention he rowed out of this very boathouse?
Interesting.
No . . . not really.
I’m too busy rerowing my life . . .

Wait a minute!
Did he just say he wished he could go out for a row?
In a pair?
With me?
Does he think I’m out of my frickin’ mind?

Come on! I wasn’t born yesterday! Rowing in a good boat really is better than sex . . . but rowing in a bad boat is . . . well . . .
. . . and a pair worst of all!

The most unforgiving of all boats.

Not a “double,” two athletes with two sculling oars each. Easy, elegant, symmetrical. In French, deux en couple. As in “coop-le” Even sounds nice. I imagine Catherine Deneuve cooing in my ear, “Voulez-vous ramer deux en couple avec moi ce soir?”
“Avec moi? Mais bien sur!”

No. Not a double. No Catherine Deneuve.

A “pair,” two athletes with one big, clunky sweep oar each, ungainly, one oar in front of the other, asymmetrical, retarded. I imagine Madame Defarge looking up from her knitting, spitting tobacco juice on the Paris cobbles, pointing at me and passing judgment:
”Deux en pointe!”
She puts all her derision onto the final “t” sound, and it grates my ear as I am led to the tumbrels.

A pair.
God-awful boat to steer, to balance, to row.
God-awful.

If I end up in Hell, which seems a perfectly reasonable presumption on this particular day, I fully expect to be directed to the bulletin board at the River Styx Boathouse, and if I’m very fortunate, I will be sent to the still-water tanks for a lifetime at steady state . . . or maybe I’ll be chained to a noisy rowing machine with a handle made of broken glass and the guy from the Ben Hur movie screaming and cracking his whip at me for the next thousand years.

That is, if I am very, very fortunate . . .

If I’m not . . . I’ll be assigned to row in a pair with a total stranger. Simple as that.

All this flashes through my mind as this lonely man with a kind face smiles down at me and suggests we go rowing . . . in a pair.
Him and me . . .
Him . . . and me . . .
What the Hell . . .

Literally.

Now wouldn’t this be the perfectly appropriate end to a perfectly horrible day in the midst of a perfectly horrible year? I deserve this! My mouth forms the words of acceptance as I listen, detached, from somewhere across the river.

I’m having another out-of-boat experience.

His name is Dewey Something-or-other. Now what the Hell kind of first name is Dewey, anyway? We shake hands. (He has a firm grip, I notice.) I find Dewey some really dirty clothes in the lost-and-found box. We pick out a couple of oars and put them out on the dock. Get this. He has never even seen modern shovel blades close up. Why am I not surprised?

We pick a coxless-pair off the rack, set it in the water, step in and push away. Just like that.

As we sit and tie in, Dewey asks me what style do I row. I look back over my shoulder and smugly tell him I can do them all: Conibear, Harvard, Wisconsin, Lake Washington, East German, West German, Russian, accelerated slide, steady slide, decelerated slide, explosive power, steady power, one hand, two hands, fast hands, slow hands, gradual roll, snap roll, no pause, pause at the catch, pause at the finish, I can do them ALL!

In short, I’m being a complete and total ass . . .

Nevertheless, soon we are gliding upriver deep in conversation and actually doing all those styles.

And having fun. You know, the boat feels okay for having some old fart in the bow-seat and my sorry ass at stroke. Soon we are three miles up the river. We discover we actually have something in common. He tells me he went to Stanford University, and Jimmy Beggs was his coach. Gentleman Jim Beggs? Why he was my freshman coach here at Penn! Is this a small world or what?

We swap affectionate stories. I never knew Jimmy had coached at Stanford. I’m starting to figure out this Dewey guy is okay after all. The boat is flying, and I’ve never enjoyed myself so much.

We are just about back at the dock when he lets slip that he once actually rowed in a pair with Jimmy Beggs as his coxswain. So I guess that explains why our boat is going as well as it is. This guy has a little bit of experience.

Alright, I have to admit it. This has been downright wonderful. This is the best pair I have ever rowed in, maybe the best boat I ever rowed in . . .

Can you imagine? Deux en pointe . . .

Wait a minute!

Where did you say you and Jim rowed your coxed-pair? Helsinki? As in 1952 Finland Olympics Helsinki?

That Helsinki?

Holy cow! I’m rowing with an Olympian!

Too soon we are back at the dock. Dewey is aglow. Magical afternoon. Can he buy me dinner? You bet he can! I want to hear more about Helsinki. I suggest Schnockey’s Seafood House, a Philadelphia tradition.

There we are in a booth sharing a huge pot of steamers, and Dewey continues his story. Seems his boat was a little off the pace at the Olympics, but he and his partner, I never caught the guy’s name, but they came away believing that they might actually have what it took to be competitive the next time.

My ears perk up. “The next time?” I ask.

The next time?

Dewey continues. Trouble was that Jim Beggs had to get back to grad school or something, so Dewey and the other guy became Navy pilots and got stationed somewhere so they could keep rowing. They embarked on a four-year Olympic odyssey, this time in a coxless-pair, and coincidentally spending the last few weeks before the Trials rowing out of the Penn Boathouse while Beggsy gave them a final tune-up.

“So,” I ask . . . “what happened?”

They went to Melbourne in 1956 . . .

. . . and they won.

They won? The Olympics? I have just spent the afternoon rowing a coxless-pair with an Olympic Coxless-Pair Gold Medalist? I nearly faint.

I imagine dying . . . and somehow I’m going to Heaven after all. I go to the bulletin board at the boathouse, and someone is waiting for me. I've been assigned to row a pair with Duvall Hecht.

All that actually happened! Couldn't make this stuff up. So that is one of my stories. Duvall's story and so many others are in my new book.

That excerpt is from my memoir, An Out-of-Boat Experience, which I wrote in 2000, a vastly different book from The Sport of Rowing. My first book is poignant and funny, but it also has a serious message that just may change your rowing forever. It is available on www.row2k.com/rowingmall/, and every penny you send them goes not to me but to support the row2k website that we all depend on every day. It's my gift to them. I will send your copy signed and dedicated according to your directions, so be sure to tell row2k what you want me to write.

Progress on my current project is going really well. Look for me and xerox facsimiles of all four volumes this spring at the San Diego Crew Classic, Harvard-Yale and the IRA.

And I'll keep sending out these newsletters telling you of our progress toward our October 2011 publication date. Thanks for all the reservations for the collector copy (which continue to pour in!), and thanks for all the kind words of appreciation and encouragement.

Look for my chapter on the Soviet Union on www.row2k.com on Monday.