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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

9 May 2011

I have been telling people that I have been writing my new book, The Sport of Rowing, for seven years. It’s actually been more like 46 years. It goes back to a promise I made to myself in 1965 when I was rowing for Undine Barge Club in Philadelphia . . .

Our neighbors, Vesper Boat Club, won the 1964 Olympic Eights title last year, so every stud in the country is trying out for their boat in 1965. We lightweights at Undine spend the entire summer doing 500 after 500 meter piece of interval training against not the Vesper lightweights but against the Vesper second heavyweight eight.

How cool is that?

We lose by a seat, win by a seat, back and forth, rowing 40 strokes per minute the whole way, times around 1:25 . . . darn fast for anybody in a boat back then . . . flying for lightweights!

We have a simply wonderful crew. For example, a few years ago our stern pair won the Philadelphia Scholastic Quadruple Sculls Championship . . . in a double! We have the best and most experienced boat on Boathouse Row. Everybody's a star!
Except me. I am the baby of the boat, 20 years old. I rowed 6 in the Penn Varsity Lightweights this past spring, but I have only been rowing for just over a year.
All summer long we train and compete in singles and doubles, but we never actually get to enter our eight in a big race, a race that actually counts. Can’t go to the Canadian Henley, that greatest of spectacles on the North American continent. Somebody has a job conflict or something.
So it all comes down to the U.S. Nationals on Hunter Island Lagoon in the Borough of the Bronx, not fifteen miles from the Empire State Building in Manhattan. You can just make it out in the distance on a clear day.
Final only. Six boats. One shot at immortality.

Now Hunter Island Lagoon hosted the U.S. Olympic Trials just a year ago in ’64, and a special buoy system, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, is still installed on the course.
It has been only a few years since the Albano Buoy System had been introduced at the 1960 Olympics, and just like on Lago di Albano outside Rome, the six lanes of Hunter Island Lagoon are separated from one another by rows and rows of buoys spaced out every ten meters or so. In these early days, each styrofoam buoy is a heavy and cumbersome affair sporting a snappy triangular orange pennant atop an 18-inch dowel. Makes for quite a spectacle, I must say, as the breeze sweeps across the course from nearby Long Island Sound.

It’s a lovely August dawn, not a cloud in the sky as we strip to our skivvies to weigh in under the trees in front of New York Athletic Club. I am nervous, keyed up. I have been preparing for this day for a whole year. It had seemed like it would last an eternity, but now it’s unfolding with increasing alacrity.
I am sliding down a rabbit hole.
This afternoon as we row to the line, I feel like puking. I settle for peeing in my pants.
We have been assigned one of the middle lanes. From the starting line I turn around and scan down our lane, and it looks like a bowling alley with flags . . . all the way to a point on the horizon.
Are you ready? . . . Row! In 20 strokes we are open water ahead. Just like that . . .

Oh my! All the nervousness washes away in an instant. I am in the 2-seat and can see everything. After our start we settle to a low 35 strokes per minute. After all those 500s, this is the lowest we have ever rowed this boat. Everything . . . is . . . in . . . slow . . . motion . . .
Our opponents colorful jerseys, their painted oars glinting in the sunlight. How bright they are! How they scramble! I listen with amusement to all the coxswains. They have come from all over the U.S. and Canada just to entertain me!
I float overhead. I observe myself and my teammates from far above . . .

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

At 1,000 meters we have at least three lengths. My mind is wandering as my senses take everything in. I am very, very pleased with myself.
As I survey the course behind me, the flags on the buoys are snapping smartly to the left. It is mid-afternoon, and there is a pleasant but persistent onshore breeze from the Sound, but I am looking forward to my Gold Medal. On it is a rather crude bas-relief rendering of a 30-year-old professional oarsman named John Biglen, based on an 1874 painting by Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia. I can feel the heft of the medal in my hand, the texture, an alloy of some sort coated with a gold frosting, rather cheap, light. I resist the temptation to bite it. Rather common for something of such symbolic and emotional import. The ribbon is red, white and blue. What else?

I will get the medal framed atop a photo of the boat, my National Champion boat. I carefully select the place I will hang it above the couch in my living room. I imagine taking the subway to Center City Philadelphia and walking up Walnut Street to that nice framing shop. Gold frame, of course. I select the mat material, perhaps a creamy parchment color to highlight the wood finish of our oars.
Ouch! Look at the estimate! $35.00? This is going to be expensive . . . but it’s well worth it, don’t you think?

I remind myself we will have to pose for that photo of the boat after we get back to shore, probably under the trees with the late afternoon sun streaming through the branches and the boat and the water in the background. Oars up . . . no, oars down in front of us. Arrange them carefully.
Make sure the photographer doesn’t chop off the blades. Can’t ever trust the photographer, you know.
“Everybody smile! One more, just to be sure. Good! Congratulations, everybody. I’ll make copies.”
I’m thinking to myself: Peter Mallory, Gold Medalist, United States Champion! Dammit, life is good! I am already taking off my shoes, standing on the couch, hammering the nail into the wall . . .

Now in my life until this moment, halfway down the course in the Bronx, New York, on a sunny August day in 1965, I have actually coxed longer than I have rowed, coxed at Kent School and then my first year at Penn. Hell, I have coxed longer than our coxswain, longer even than Saul Berman who now holds our fate in his hands.
The coxswain inside of me notices that the wind has pushed us a bit sideways during my reverie. Our starboard oars are kind of close, soon perilously close to the buoys . . . and Saul isn’t correcting.
Is his mind wandering? Is he, too, having an out-of-boat experience?
He’s my good friend. We will be roommates in another year. Should I call out a warning to him?
But all summer we have been a team of chiefs and no Indians, everyone with an opinion, me worst of all, and all summer we have struggled to keep the talking in the boat to a minimum. Reluctantly I keep my mouth shut and hope for the best.
Closer and closer we come . . .
Finally it happens. All four starboard oars, one by one, each in its turn, strike hard on one of the infernal, immovable bouys – bang, Bang, BANG, BANG!

The boat shudders to a complete halt. We are in total shock. Our rhythm, our reveries have been blasted to pieces. We start again, but our composure has been shattered, and the field is already nipping at our heels. Detroit gets by. Can we rally?

In the final 500 meters, I’m getting used to a new idea: Peter Mallory, Silver Medalist, United States Runner-Up . . .
Doesn’t work. We never get around to taking a picture of our almost-marvelous boat. For us there were only two places in that race: first and . . . well, you know, oblivion.

And so on that day 46 years ago I swore to myself that I would embark upon a quest, a journey. I would row at least one more summer, one more Nationals, and earn the Gold Medal that had slipped from my grasp in that steady crosswind.
I wonder what I would have thought back then if I had known how far I would eventually have to travel on that journey, how many continents I would have to cross, how many labors I would have to perform.
The story of my 1965 boat became a part of my first book, an amusing account of my life journey titled An Out-of-Boat Experience, but the vow ultimately led to my second book, The Sport of Rowing.

p.s. I finally got my Gold Medal . . . but it took 24 more years! And it was worth the wait.