World War II brought global changes, collegiate athletics included. Training techniques were changing. Equipment was changing. So too were the students entering the University.
By 1950 the crew team was enjoying the first full year in a new, state of the art building – Conibear Shellhouse. George Pocock, now in his fifth decade with the team, had his own shop on site, and Al Ulbrickson had an office with a view. Hiram Conibear would have been speechless (momentarily).
But even though the complexion of rowing was rapidly changing, the fifties would be traditional in one sense: the events and results would be unpredictable. In fact, the decade served up one of the most improbable of victories, and would end with the retirement of two of the greatest legends in the sport. These events alone would thrust the program in a new direction, and would lay the groundwork for the modern age of Washington rowing.
With the equipment moved in the summer of ’49, and crew members reporting to the new shellhouse in droves during the fall, there was only one problem: there weren’t any docks. Even by the winter, with George Pocock now ensconced in his new shop (the northernmost boat bay of the shellhouse), the docks were not installed. Probably all the better for him, as he became comfortable in his new, modern surroundings, and produced two new shells, the Tyee and the Totem.
The men, however, would have to wait. The winter of 1949-50 is still the coldest on record in Seattle, and the blizzard of January 1950 is considered one of the major weather events of the 20th century in Washington State (see Washington State Top Ten 20th Century Weather Events.) The crewhouse opening iced over and stayed that way. A desperate Stan Pocock, in his first year as freshmen coach (Gus Eriksen had left for the head coaching job at Syracuse), had the freshmen lay a path with scrap lumber across the frozen marsh out to the lake so they could get on the water.
By mid-winter the docks were in and the varsity was out on the lake as well. To make up for lost time, Ulbrickson lengthened workouts and powered through spring break with two-a-days. A dual race with Wisconsin on Lake Washington in April was an opportunity for both schools to hone their racing skills; unfortunately, true to form, the weather was so miserable on the Seward Park course that Wisconsin’s varsity almost sunk – forcing the officials to stop the race, with Washington leading midway through. It was not raced over.
But the Dual on the Estuary, later in the year, featured the highest level of collegiate boat racing with both California and Washington boating exceptional, experienced crews. In the freshmen race, Washington prevailed by open water, but the JV’s could not overcome the traditionally quick starting Bears, losing by open water to a strong crew. The varsity also fell victim to Cal’s start, but slowly inched their way back. By two miles, the crews were even, and together sprinted to the finish with Washington winning by about a half-length. It was one of those rare three mile races where the crews were never separated by more than a few seats, Washington prevailing against a deep Cal crew on the strength of Ulbrickson’s unrelenting spring conditioning campaign.
The IRA’s were moved to the Ohio River at Marietta, Ohio in 1950 to alleviate the concerns as discussed in 1949. There were more places to stay for the number of competitors (albeit veteran’s housing with outdoor plumbing), and the river current could be controlled on race day using upriver dams. Well, most of the time that is. But not on June 17th, 1950. Due to torrential rain storms, the Muskingum River (which entered the Ohio at the one mile mark of the course) flooded. As it entered the course, it carried with it anything that could float (use your imagination). All the events would now have to be shortened.
Over a course of about one and a half miles (a little longer), the freshmen began the day with a two length win, never seriously challenged and completing an undefeated season. The JV’s followed with a surprise win in their shortened two mile event. The abbreviated (two mile) varsity race went bad at the start – Wisconsin, California, and Stanford pulling out to an open water lead. With less distance in the race, this could have been devastating for Washington, but the Huskies settled and maintained their position, watching as Navy hit a marker buoy and dropped out. The last half mile was all Washington, as Ulbrickson’s men just powered through the competition to win by three lengths going away. As an indication of the continued dominance of western rowing, Cal, Wisconsin, and Stanford finished second through fourth in that order.
The men of 1950 completed the fourth sweep of the national championships in the history of the program. The conditioning of all three crews was exceptional, but it was the experience in the varsity and JV boats that made these teams so unique. In fact, due to their 1947 post-season race as an (almost) all freshmen varsity, Norm Buvick, Rod Johnson, Bob Young, and Al Morgan – all members of the 1950 national champion varsity eight – received their fourth varsity letter. They, along with JV oar and 1948 gold medalist Warren Westlund, joined Hal Waller (1915) and Bart Lovejoy (1909) as the only men in the first fifty years to do so.
The varsity, left to right: Al Morgan (cox), Roger Baird, Rod Johnson, Norm Buvick, Ken Walters, Bob Young, John Audett, and Carl Lovsted. Tyee photo.
Stan Pocock took the freshmen job from Gus Ericksen and led the frosh to a fourth straight victory in the Steward’s Cup at the IRA. It was Pocock who in 1950 introduced the first ham’n’egger – the randomly drawn boatings and weekly intrasquad races that are featured just as often today. Tyee photo.
With the resurgence of the Stanford program in 1950 and a fourth place finish at the IRA, the team came north with California to race on the Seward Park course in the spring of ’51. Not since 1916 had the three schools lined up together for the traditional “triangular” regatta on Lake Washington.
The start was about as close as Stanford would come to the competition, but as a burgeoning club crew it was that much better that they were back. In both the freshmen and JV races, California stormed out in front, with Washington pulling back through the Bears to win by open water. In the varsity event, the Huskies were ahead by open water with less than a mile gone, and cruised home in 15:39. But the JV’s time of 15:29 – ten seconds faster than the varsity – indicated the challenge of their race and the depth of Ulbrickson’s squad.
Marietta was once again home for the IRA’s, and this time the Ohio River itself was utterly out of control. Upstate rains led to a thirty foot rise in the river in twenty-four hours. The stake boats in the current were useless – made more so when they washed away by the evening. Debris was everywhere. After the Navy Plebes crossed in front of a navigation buoy when lining up for the freshmen race, their boat was sunk in the collision. Rusty Callow – in his first year as the head coach at Navy (after two decades at Penn) – was at the wrong end of a trifecta of sorts: all of his crews either hit buoys or otherwise wrecked before even racing.
The races were again shortened to two miles, but with the course going downstream the “real” distance – i.e. the number of strokes required to get from the start to the finish – was significantly shorter. Overnight the race had become a sprint. With the freshmen race now postponed, the JV race started in near chaos, with California winning over a re-vamped Husky crew (two alternates were switched in two days before the race) in second. Navy sank after sheering off the rudder of the Princeton boat, the Princeton coxswain attempting to steer his crew down the swollen river with his hands.
The varsity race was even more bizarre. The stakeboats were rocking wildly in the current. As the starter screamed the commands, the boats were off, with Wisconsin moving to a length lead in the first twenty strokes ((1) – see photo below)). Washington put in a gallant effort, but could not make up for the lost time. The Badgers, coached by former Husky Norm Sonju (see 1925-1927) who had recently moved from an assistant under Stork Sanford at Cornell, finished the race in 7:50 – about half the time of a regular three miler.
The freshmen race was pulled off at dusk. The stake boats were somewhere near Cincinnati by then. At the floating start, Washington sunk their blades in to the water to meet not water, but the roof of a house. Thrashing wildly, they dislodged themselves, and in a race reflecting maturity beyond their years, coolly rowed back through every crew on the course, finally flying by MIT and Navy (Navy had borrowed another boat) to win in the last 200 meters.
Needless to say, that was it for Marietta. A town that had poured their heart and soul into putting on a national event just could not beat back the elements. Ironically, a year later while the crews waited out the delays on the windy shore of Lake Onandoga – the new site of the IRA’s – the Ohio River at Marietta sat blissfully at “pool stage”, lapping at the river bank like a pond.
Loyal Shoudy had died earlier in the year, and in his absence the banquet died too. But this would be the only year that would happen. The banquet was quickly revived in 1953, and would serve for another twenty years as a tribute to Loyal Shoudy, and as a tribute to each young man who represented Washington at the national championships.
The varsity tosses coxswain Tren Griffin into Lake Washington after the sweep at the Dual – turned Triangular after Stanford came north for the first time in four decades. Left to right: Ulbrickson, Baird, Cameron, Walters, McIntyre, Fletcher, and Lovsted (missing – Callaghan). Tyee photo.
(1) There are varying recollections of the start of this race. Jim Lemmon, in his book The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987, on pg. 45 states “In the varsity races Wisconsin, swept off the stakeboat at the start, won this rodeo…”. Stan Pocock, in his book “Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing, on page 83 recalls a picture where, “The Wisconsin boat was a full length ahead of the other crews, none of whom even had their oars in the water.” But Brad Taylor, Wisconsin historian, has researched this race, and says that the Wisconsin crew was under strict instructions not to jump, and they did not. Keep in mind the unbelievable conditions on that day as well. But, just for good measure, if anyone has a picture of the start of that race (1951, not 1950), we would like to include it here…
From Guy Harper ’54:
It was 1951 and our freshman year at the UW. The team that competed in the IRA at Marietta, Ohio that year, included cox Bob Witter, Stroke Guy Harper, 7 Keith Reilly, 6 Gordon Hardy, 5 Ted Frost, 4 Ivar Birkeland, 3 Skip John, 2 Roland Camfield, Bow Jim Howay.
The morning of June 16, 1951 was windy with the Ohio River clogged with all sorts of wood and logs that came downstream from the recent rain storms up river. The Frosh race was first however the Navy boat sank and our race was rerun later that day. The Navy Plebes were so good, that they beat their Varsity boat–so it was thought that Rusty Callow had the boat of his dreams. When our race started, we were behind several boats and Stan Pocock, following in a coaching launch, says his heart just sank–to the point that he didn’t want to watch the race and turned away. Half way through, however, George Pocock turned to him and advised that we were picking off the other shells one by one and that he may want to watch!
One by one Bob Witter, the cox, passed the other boats. We crossed the finish line first, followed by MIT and then Navy. The Frosh boat was the only Washington winner that year at the IRA Regatta. Stan was really delighted and he was the only crew coach that had never lost a race–with a 10 to 0 record! It was a most enjoyable return to Seattle with lots of newspaper articles.
We continue to enjoy the sport of rowing even to this day. In 1988, several of us formed the Ancient Mariner Rowing Club. This group attends races on the West Coast including Canada and has won several gold medals for their efforts. Together with several other rowing clubs, The Pocock Rowing Center was built. Today, many rowers of all ages and levels enjoy this fine facility. It is one of the finest sports ever created–thanks to the Pococks!
-Guy Harper Seattle, Washington, December 16, 2003
Since the revival of the IRA’s after WWII in 1947, Washington was undefeated in the freshmen event. For six years running the Steward’s Cup was home at Washington. The varsity squad was dominated by veteran oarsmen and national champions heading into another Olympic year.
So it was with confidence that the crews made it to the Estuary in April. California, however, had other things in mind, training with a vengeance throughout the spring. The Husky freshmen, in their opener, were defeated by a quarter length – the first time the freshmen had lost to Cal since 1941. The JV’s were subsequently defeated, leaving it up to a shocked varsity to hold off the sweep. They could not; California, stroking smoothly down the course, won by over four lengths. This was the first sweep by California in the history of the Dual.
A stunned Washington crew boarded the trains for home. A team with such extraordinary potential had face-planted so abruptly that it would take nothing short of a miracle to fix the psychology at the boathouse. As the year progressed, Ulbrickson became visibly frustrated and uncharacteristically explosive. By the beginning of June he had dismissed half of the team.
Gus Eriksen had convinced the IRA Stewards to move the national championships to Lake Onondaga at Syracuse after the two-year debacle at Marietta. The men stayed at the fairgrounds, and temporary boathouses were erected at a nearby park on the lake. The lake was long and the community supportive. The only problems were wind, stifling heat, and a sickeningly polluted lake; although after Marietta, if you didn’t hit debris the size of a house, you were happy.
Ulbrickson took only his varsity and JV, the freshmen staying home due to their loss on the Estuary, and was forced to make last minute changes to these crews due to injury. Although the races were delayed due to the wind, the JV’s rallied in their three-miler to come up short only to Navy. The varsity, never able overcome the temperature and humidity, nor shed the baggage heaped on them at the Estuary, fell to an almost unbelievable seventh place.
Navy swept the events that year, and the 1952 victory would be one of 29 consecutive wins by this crew known as the “Great Eight”. Rusty Callow, taking the head coaching job at Navy in 1951, had focused on this group as freshmen; he took them straight over to Worcester following the 1952 IRA’s for the Olympic Trials and they mowed down everyone on the 2000 meter course. Washington made the finals, but finished open water behind Navy and Princeton. Click here for more on a recent reunion of Navy’s Great Eight – an exceptional group of men coached by an exceptional man.
Ulbrickson, after the IRA’s, dismantled his varsity crew, taking four of his elite upper class oarsmen – seniors Carl Lovsted, and Al Ulbrickson Jr. and juniors Dick Wahlstrom and Fil Leanderson, added JV cox Al Rossi, and entered them in the four trials. The eight became an all-sophomore varsity, who, although losing at the trials, gained some important racing experience that week.
The four faced off against tough competition, including five members of the 1948 squad (including Warren Westlund and Bob Will) returning to the trials as a Seattle Athletic Club entry. Through two preliminarily races the crews advanced, to ultimately meet in the final. Ulbrickson’s handpicked crew finally defeated their older brethren in the final, and were off to Helsinki as the third crew representing Washington at the Olympics.
In Helsinki, the four went on to win the the bronze medal in a close race, falling to Czechoslovakia and Switzerland in the final. The “Great Eight” won the gold, as did Charlie Logg Jr. in the pair, son of the former Washington captain (1921) and longtime crew coach at Rutgers.
George Pocock, forty years after his first visit with Hiram Conibear in 1912, now at work in his new shop on the second floor of Conibear Shellhouse. Tyee photo.
Carl Lovsted sat down in 2013 to talk about his Husky career and the impact Washington Rowing had on him. He passed away in November of that year, and this video was put together in March of 2015 for a boat dedication in his honor. Here is some of what I wrote on his passing:
“Carl’s impact on the Washington Rowing program is immeasurable. His generosity, from the scholarship endowments he created to “chief coffee maker” at the Steward’s Enclosure, was boundless. He will, however, be remembered by most for his strength of character, and as the embodiment of what it meant to be a Steward of the program. “I got so much out of the experience that helped me in my life that I’ve always thought that I was simply acting on my responsibility. I still do,” said Carl in a 2008 interview.
Carl Lovsted was a friend of Washington Rowing, and in so doing became a friend and mentor to many, many people associated with it, across multiple generations. As is the case with exceptional people, his loss will not only be felt personally by the many he touched in his life, but by the entirety of our program.”
It is important to add here that Carl would likely feel uncomfortable with this amount of attention drawn to himself: he always stressed whenever he talked about his rowing career, how important his teammates were to him and that without them, none of the success he enjoyed would have been possible.
Determination mixed with trepidation is probably a good way to describe the mentality at Conibear in the fall of ’52. Even though Washington was represented at the Olympics, most all of the confidence this team had was doused on the Estuary in 1952. Ulbrickson was equally unimpressed; his back and other ailments were allegedly causing him a significant amount of discomfort at the time and that didn’t help either.
By the springtime, the men had moved surplus bunk beds into the lounge area of the shellhouse and many of the squad moved in for spring break. Although feeding the men was a problem (a former merchant marine took up the duties during the week), Carmelita McDonald, a friend of an athlete’s mother, took on the challenge for the rest of the year. (1) Room and board was now available at the crewhouse for the first time since Conibear’s men moved into the old lighthouse on Lake Union in 1910 – and was an instant morale booster.
The crews met California on Lake Washington with revenge in their eyes. The freshmen and JV’s won soundly, and the varsity, likely being reminded on virtually every stroke of their stinging defeat on the Estuary a year earlier, punished the Bears by seven lengths.
By late May the third boat and the JV’s had improved enough to be matching the varsity’s speed. By the time they got to Syracuse, Ulbrickson felt compelled to race off his varsity and JV’s; he did so Thursday night before the races on Saturday. The three mile race ended in another “tie” since it was so dark and the boats were close. The varsity got the nod this time, but “that contest cooked the varsity’s goose” says Stan Pocock (2).
The varsity turned in a good race on June 20th, falling short to Navy’s “Great Eight” and an improving Cornell squad. But the strong and experienced JV’s dominated their race start to finish, and the freshmen returned the Steward’s Cup back to Washington with an open water victory over Cornell and Princeton. The combined finishes were enough for the men to bring home the Ten Eyck trophy – the award for overall highest placing team at the IRA.
The team had turned the corner over spring break and never looked back. Most impressive, and a hallmark of Ulbrickson, was the depth of this squad. He would take that depth – and that momentum – with him into the next year.
A familiar pose from Ulbrickson, with George and Stan looking on. Guy Harper scrapbook.
The varsity prior to the Cal race. Guy Harper scrapbook.
1) Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing; Stan Pocock; pg. 95. 2) Ibid, pg. 99.
With a new (plastic) roof over the shellhouse porch and bunk beds lining the boat bays, Conibear Shellhouse became the official home to the crew team. It may not have been the warmest place to sleep, and loud snoring tended to echo across the concrete walls, but nothing could beat waking up to the smell of fresh cedar emanating from George Pocock’s shop.
The strong bonding of this team showed on the Estuary in May, when an underdog freshmen squad defeated Cal by two lengths, and the varsity stroked to a lop-sided win, winning by over six lengths. Cal avoided the sweep by defeating the JV’s.
The racing at Syracuse on June 19th was typically hot and humid. The freshmen turned in a fierce effort, falling only to Cornell, but the JV’s had to settle for fourth after a line-up change and an inability to manage the steamy conditions. The varsity fell for the third straight year to Navy, with Cornell beating them to the line for second by about a half-length, although after the race Navy would be disqualified for having an ineligible coxswain.
It was a difficult way to end the season but the results underscored the resurgence of east coast rowing, as Stork Sanford’s Cornell crews won both the JV and freshmen events (and varsity, if you count the Navy disqualification). Even so, Washington was close on the heels of these crews in all but the JV race, maintaining their reputation of being in the hunt at the end.
The armada enters the cut. Guy Harper scrapbook.
1) The University of Washington website: Liberal Arts Quad
Another huge turnout at Conibear in the fall of 1954 spoke to the continued popularity of the sport in the northwest. Over 200 freshmen aspirants showed up at the crewhouse in October to try their chances at the eight seats available in the first boat.
The theme for 1955 might as well have been “eight seats”, for throughout the racing season Washington crews consistently were finishing races with less than eight men operating at full capacity. It began against Cal at the Dual on Lake Washington May 14th. The Varsity and freshmen won in dominant fashion, by over six and nine lengths respectively. The JV’s raced their three miles neck and neck and came storming into the last 300 meters even, when the Washington bow man crabbed and was ejected. A quick thinking Ivar Birkland, the Washington lightweight coach following the race in a launch, dove in to keep the exhausted young man afloat – while watching California row on by for the win.
The Western Sprints were inaugurated in 1955, the purpose to provide a larger schedule of races for the western crews and to promote the growth of the sport at other schools. (1) The shortened sprint distance of 2000 meters was chosen in an effort to level the field for those programs without miles and miles of practice water. Ulbrickson raced off his varsity and JV teams, with the JV squad winning the 2000 meter challenge and a trip to Los Angeles.
So just two weeks after the Cal Dual on a sweltering Newport Harbor, USC, UCLA, Washington, Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, UBC, and a specially invited Navy crew faced off for this varsity only event. Washington cruised through the prelims with the fastest time, but met their match that same day in the final against Navy, who won by about a length. The fading Huskies, punished by two races in the heat of the day, were even nipped at the finish by a resurgent Stanford squad.
On to Syracuse, where by now one would think the team would be prepared for the weather. But in the varsity event, this time the number two man fainted from heat exhaustion midway through the race, and the crew limped in for fourth place. The freshmen led their race handily from start to about 10 strokes from the finish, where Cornell, on the other side of the course, snuck by to win by feet. The JV’s, delayed an hour due to a lightning storm, could garner no better than fourth, also falling to Cornell, who swept the regatta.
Washington’s results at Syracuse were beginning to fall into a consistent, frustrating pattern. Always competitive, often ahead into the final mile, only to drop back severely by the finish due to exhaustion. There were stories of men found stumbling through the woods foaming at the mouth after races, and every year there were at least one if not more debilitated so severely mid-race that it affected the efficiency of the team. And although the heat of Syracuse was similar to other previous IRA venues, it was the humidity that was crushing. Hydration, physical preparation, and pre-race strategy were to become high priorities, but unfortunately for these men, not high enough in 1955.
The year ended in bitter disappointment for the team. This was a strong, experienced, and deep squad that did not meet their fullest potential by the end of the season. The frustration at that was palpable at a moribund Loyal Shoudy banquet. No pep talks would change it – only the opportunity to get back on the water and prepare for another year.
From the 1955 Tyee, one of the first of many Joseph Scaylea photographs to capture the sport. Tyee photo.
Stan Pocock resigned to pursue his passion for boat building after the 1955 season. In his six seasons as freshmen coach, his crews won five Cal Duals, three national titles, and two second-place finishes at the IRA. “Winning as an end in itself was not the goal” said Pocock. “Trying to win was what counted.” (2) Tyee photo.
1) Masters Thesis: The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr., pg. 168. (2) Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing; Stan Pocock; pg. 64
Fil Leanderson, freshmen coach at MIT under Jim McMillin (1934 – 37) was hired by Ulbrickson to replace Stan Pocock as freshman coach at Washington in the summer of 1955. An ample group of young men waited for their opportunity in Old Nero to learn the ropes from this veteran oarsman turned coach.
By spring the freshmen had a consistently fast squad, as did Ulbrickson’s varsity. On May 12th the team met Stanford on Lake Washington for their first test of the year. All three Washington crews won in dominant fashion, the freshmen and JV’s by over twenty seconds. A week later the men traveled by rail to the Bay Area to meet California; this time the Washington crews won by over ten seconds in each race, although Al Ulbrickson called the windy, rough conditions on the Estuary the “worst water I’ve seen in twenty years.” (1)
On May 28th, the team returned to meet the University of British Columbia on the Montlake 2000 meter course. UBC had earlier won the Canadian National Games and finished runner-up to Canada’s 1956 Olympic entry over 2000 meters. Washington, training for the three mile distance since winter turnout began, was a decided underdog. UBC cruised to an early lead, but the Huskies held close enough that by the time the crews entered the Cut they were even; now in command, the varsity opened up their lead to win in 6:02.6, with UBC crossing the line at 6:07.8. It was the third open water victory in three weeks for the team.
Once at the IRA’s though, Ulbrickson said “We did O.K. on the west coast but I can see we’re in a different league now.” (2) They were. On June 16th, in a biting headwind (but cooler conditions – in the seventies) Cornell’s varsity cruised to a third straight victory in the Challenge Cup, winning by lengths of open water over the closest runner-up Navy, with Wisconsin battling Washington to the line for third. The freshmen finished third behind Vic Michaelson’s (1938-40) Syracuse yearlings and second place Navy.
The JV’s were the story of the day for Washington. The crew fought hard against the headwind for a grueling three miles and drove home past Cornell to win the Kennedy Cup, completing an undefeated season.
Ulbrickson stayed with his varsity crews for the Olympic trials scheduled for June 28 -3oth on Lake Onondaga. At the trials, the varsity set a course record in their repechage of 6:19.9 over the 2000 meter course to advance to the finals, but were defeated by Yale, Cornell, and Navy (the Great Eight back to defend their title) in a windblown final. Favored Cornell, as legend has it, raised their riggers an inch just before the final in an effort to avoid the heavy chop, but then were losing water over the blades on the drive. Yale, soundly defeated by Cornell at the Eastern Sprints only weeks earlier, won the trials and ultimately won the gold over Canada by a half-length at the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia nearly five months later (the games were in late November).
Ulbrickson also entered a four from the JV boat, and the crew advanced into the finals, but were defeated by a West Side Club crew and Princeton.
Notwithstanding the JV victory at Syracuse, western rowing was now consistently taking a backseat to the eastern schools. Ebright – the master of the sprint race – did not even enter the trials, Cal finishing a dismal tenth in the varsity final at Syracuse and sixth in the JV’s. Stanford was on their way up, but were still a club crew, unsponsored by the university. First Navy’s Great Eight, and now an exceptional run by Stork Sanford’s Cornell squad (the trials loss would be their only loss in four consecutive years) and the Yale Olympic crew put eastern universities firmly on top of collegiate rowing since Washington’s sweep at Marietta in 1950. Something needed to give for the Washington program – and it would come via the most unlikely of events.
The best race of the year for the varsity, the crew comes back on the 2000 meter Montlake Cut course to defeat a fine UBC team (center) and the Husky JV squad. Tyee photo.
1) Masters Thesis: The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr., pg. 170. (2) Ibid; Syracuse Herald Journal, 6/12/56, p. 23.
Athletics at the University of Washington took a decided turn on August 20, 1956. An announcement out of Denver, Colorado from the NCAA Council stated that due to football recruiting violations, “the University of Washington shall not be eligible to enter athletes or teams in National Collegiate Championship competition and the invitational and like events which cooperate with the NCAA…”. The ban would last two years.
It was not unforeseen. Twenty-five football players at Washington were implicated in a pay for play scheme in the mid-50’s that touched off similar findings at USC, UCLA and other schools. It was one of the most widespread scandals in college football history, and led to the final report in August of ’56 by the NCAA. However, the Pacific Coast Conference (the precursor to the Pac-10) and administers of the punishment, distinctly kept rowing out of the ban due to the uniquely amateur status of the sport, the fact it was not NCAA governed, and because the IRA was the one opportunity for west to meet east in rowing. So with that exemption, the crew prepared for the coming season with the same resolve and dedication that had produced champion crews of the past.
By February, with the team now in full workouts, news began to leak that the IRA was preparing to ban Washington from the regatta. The news was stunning; neither the NCAA nor the IRA had ever communicated that they would not accept the Pacific Conference ruling. On February 16th the IRA made it official: they would not invite Washington for the 1957 or 1958 regattas.
Seattle newspapers erupted at the story. The legislature in Olympia drafted a resolution calling for the ban to be overturned. Three separate appeals failed. The NCAA and IRA, in attempting to explain their actions, ended in the now infamous quote from the president of the NCAA – “The innocent have to suffer with the guilty.” To that, the Seattle Times responded that the NCAA “and a faint-hearted response by the stewards of the race are the sleazy combination which, to put it bluntly, gave the Huskies the works.” A seething Al Ulbrickson was direct: “It’s a lot of double talk. That’s it. We’ve had it.” (1)
It was a bitter pill to swallow. The timing was bad, the justifications weak, and the verbal attempts to explain it worse. The team sat there in the spring of 1957 dumbfounded at the fact that most of their junior and senior teammates would not row in the IRA’s again.
Ulbrickson had his work cut out for him, but the challenge and injustice seemed to re-ignite the fire inside this great competitor. His crews met California on Lake Washington in May and won by seven lengths in the varsity, seven and a half in the JV, and five in the freshmen races. One week later at the Redwood City Yacht Harbor, the crews mowed down Stanford by over five lengths in the varsity, seven in the JV, and seven in the freshmen races. It was an utterly dominant performance.
The crews stayed in training in hopes that their efforts would sway the decision makers at the IRA’s. It did not. After realizing their fate, the team cleaned out their lockers and left for summer jobs.
Stanford’s varsity, five lengths behind Washington a month earlier, would go on to place third at the IRA’s behind Cornell and Pennsylvania; there were no west coast entrants in the JV or freshmen events. Stork Sanford, Al Ulbrickson’s classmate and friend, then took his victorious Cornell varsity to Henley and won the Grand Challenge Cup later that summer.
That Cornell victory in England was a big story. Al Ulbrickson heard about it first hand, and went up to Orcas Island in the summer of ’57 to ponder his options for the coming year.
The 1957 undefeated varsity, bow to stern: Les Eldridge, Dick Erickson, John Nordstrom, Phil Kieburtz, Chuck Alm, Ross Holmstrom, Andy Hovland, John Fish, and John Bissett (cox). Tyee photo.
1) Sport Magazine, June 1958, p.40
Al Ulbrickson had a whole summer on Orcas to study his options for 1958. It was clear that neither the NCAA nor the IRA had any intention of lifting the sanctions on Washington. He had felt since the 1956 JV victory that his crews were on the upswing, but the frustrations of that season paled in comparison to having a dominant squad in ’57 that was, in his mind, so unjustly punished. An alternative was not just required, but demanded.
It is unclear when the first whispers of a trip to Henley emerged, but by the winter the Stewards and Ulbrickson had agreed that if the varsity was worthy (i.e. undefeated), they should be sent to England. No Washington crew had ever raced at the Henley Regatta (the ’48 four won the Olympics at Henley but not as part of the Henley Regatta), and “On To Henley” became the rallying cry of the entire team.
In May the crew traveled south to meet the Bears on the Estuary for their first test. The freshmen and JV’s won handily, with the varsity cruising to an almost three length win to complete the third sweep in as many years. Stanford subsequently came north and, along with a visiting UBC squad, were defeated in record times (wind aided) by all three Washington crews over the Seward Park course. The varsity won in 14:07.1, and the JV’s in 14:15.5 in their respective three-mile races.
The final race of the year came on May 31, with Washington facing UBC at the 2000 meter sprint distance, along with OSU. Cruising down the Montlake Cut, Washington prevailed by a length over UBC, with OSU losing their stroke to a catapult-like crab in the final sprint. That win sealed the deal for the varsity: they would go to Henley.
The Stewards organized a classic “On To Henley” fund drive, similar to the first IRA drives set up by Hiram Conibear, and raised more than enough to send the varsity. The Seattle community, equally frustrated with the sanctions heaped on the team, were generous in their gifts and eager to see the team compete overseas. It was also about this time that it was becoming known that the Leningrad Trud Club – the Soviets – would be racing at Henley as well; in a behind the scenes negotiation, the U.S. State Department began working with State of Washington, University, and Soviet administrations to broker a post-Henley, “people to people” race in Moscow.
The deal done, the invitation to race in Moscow came after the crew was already at Henley. It was a good thing too, since morale was not high among the men. The weather was awful; it was constantly pouring, and the day before the draw the grounds men had pumped 10,000 gallons of water from the participant’s tents. It was cold and windy and wet, and some of the men had colds. Even so, Ulbrickson said “the crew is in good shape physically.” Coxswain John Bissett quipped “You can say we are ready.”
“Thunder and lightning signified the clash of the giants in the first round of the Grand” noted The London Times rowing reporter. (1) Maybe so, but this race was over in a hurry, with the strong Soviet crew blowing out of the gates to get a three-quarter length lead by the quarter mile, and lengthening to, in Henley terms, a virtually insurmountable one length lead by the half mile. The Russians then cruised down the thin course gradually drawing out to an open water win. “We’ve rowed in worse weather than this” said Ulbrickson. “We simply never got relaxed and swinging. The boys were too tense. They wanted it too much. They were trying too hard”. (2)
The Russians, never challenged in two subsequent races, went on to win the Grand by two and a half lengths. After digesting the loss, the men began to focus on the trip to Moscow, and after a few more days of training on the Thames, flew east. The Swiftsure, the team’s shell, was flown to Helsinki, then taken aboard a Soviet train to Moscow.
Once behind the Iron Curtain, the men were treated like VIP’s. They were escorted on sight-seeing trips and were the guests of honor at various receptions and events. Even so, the training on the open, choppy Khimki Reservoir was intense. Ulbrickson was also visibly upbeat, seemingly more relaxed. Maybe stroke John Sayre translated the thoughts of his coach when he said “We love that rough water – it felt just like Lake Washington.” (3)
On July 19th, the Huskies lined up against Leningrad Trud – their adversary from Henley – and five other top Russian crews for a 2000 meter race across a wind-blown and choppy Khimki Reservoir course. Into the quartering headwind, the crew got a much cleaner start than at Henley, with the Soviet Army crew and Leningrad only inching out into the lead. Stroking at a thirty-four, Sayre maintained a solid run and the crew began to move out to a lead. By midway, they were up by a half-length over Leningrad with the rest falling back. In the final 1000 meters, the Huskies pulled away to win by open water. “The boat was really singing” said Bissett. “The boys rowed it perfect.”
The Soviet crowd cheered the Washington crew with a standing ovation. The team was showered with gifts at a post event function. The men had numerous pictures taken with their hosts. Ulbrickson called the anonymous donor of the Swiftsure to see if it was OK to leave the shell as a gesture of goodwill. It was. He did. It was a “people to people” event that rang true in both countries.
But though the political significance would be left to the politicians to debate, the athletic significance was clear. The victory was a stunning comeback for Washington in many ways: from the defeat at Henley to victory in Moscow; from the depths of a dubious probation to international acclaim. Years later Ulbrickson, explaining why he considered this season the highlight of his career, said “One item made the Moscow race a little more gratifying…we came back from a decisive defeat. No coach could have asked for more.” The athletes that rowed the Swiftsure that day carved their name into the Washington Hall of Fame; inducted in 1984, it was this crew that opened the doors of international competition to all future generations of Washington oarsmen.
The 1958 Cal Dual varsity, left to right John Fish, Andy Hovland, Ross Holmstrom, Chuck Alm, Phil Kieburtz, Gene Phillips, Dick Erickson, John Nordstrom, John Bissett (cox). Tyee photo.
1) Henley Royal Regatta, A Celebration of 150 Years, Richard Burnell, pg. 134. (2) The Seattle Times, 7/3/58. (3) Ibid, 7/16/58.
“When I rowed and lived at the crewhouse, life was at its best. Fall rowing was fun and at times wet and cold. I only weighed 165 lbs but had the chance on a Friday in October to row #2 in a boat with, I believe, Lou Gellerman, Chuck Alm and Dick Erickson. It was a late fall afternoon, flat calm with a little haze in the air. Remember back then there was no 2000 meters it was either 2 or 3 miles. That day we rowed up to Sand Point Air Station. As we were resting we all got to talking about what we were going to do tonight a date, a beer or two at the U Way tavern etc. There were 7 boats in our group. We headed back for the shellhouse and stopped at the light on the point entrance. We were the # 1 boat. The haze had become a little more intense. Coach Al said he was going to start with the # 7 boat down the line, we were last to start. We caught everyone and to this day I can remember that there was not a sound but the swoosh of the blade in the water and the bubbles under the hull. No oar lock noise no rocking. We were 8 guys rowing in perfect timing, heads in line and hull speed. I was too small for varsity but rowed lightweight and got my letter. I still wear my VBC cap. That one Friday afternoon in October to me is what rowing is all about.”
In the 1950’s the northern edge of the crewhouse property bordered the southern edge of the Montlake dump, a huge, open-air garbage facility. Dump workers often parked bulldozers near the crewhouse. “Most of the guys learned how to drive a bulldozer” said Dick Erickson. “And I’m sorry, but if you’re going to leave a bulldozer sitting 100 yards from the crewhouse… why it was just a natural thing to wonder ‘Gee, how does it work?'” They wondered too how a seaplane worked after it was discovered that a student flew one to school and parked it near the crewhouse. “Not only did we learn how to start it but that thing was taxied around Laurelhurst one day,” Erickson said.
-Dick Rockne, The Seattle Times, 6/2/95, “Husky Fun House”
A resurgent group of men met Ulbrickson at the crewhouse in the fall of 1958. The Seattle community had welcomed the 1958 crew back as heroes; there were award ceremonies and man of the year banquets and various events hailing the victory in Russia. Every politician worth their salt, at the height of the Cold War, wanted a photo op. The Washington crew team was very, very popular, and so was Al Ulbrickson.
The crew also knew that 1959 would be the first year to get back to Syracuse. Freshmen coach Fil Leanderson, and his assistant coaches John Bissett and Dick Erickson, had the men out of Old Nero early, with eleven shells of freshmen on the water within two weeks. Frosh turnouts then went to two afternoon sections, one group at 3:15, and the other at 4:35. Leanderson would take three shells, and Erickson and Bissett would take two boat’s worth in the barge, and the oarsmen would rotate from day to day.
In January came the announcement that Al Ulbrickson had decided to step down as head rowing coach at Washington. In his letter of resignation, Ulbrickson noted “After last summer’s campaign, I felt emotionally bankrupt and without the enthusiasm necessary to do the type of work I want to and to which the University and and the rowing squad are entitled.” He continued: “I am deeply appreciative of the confidence and the trust (the University) have place in me over the years. This goes double for the thousands of parents who have allowed, and encouraged, their sons to row, and to those same sons who made our rowing so successful. It is to justify this confidence, more than any single cause, that I have decided now is the time for change.” (1)
That just about said it all. Disbelief and shock among his current and former oarsmen was met with the understanding that after thirty-two years of coaching, Al needed a break – particularly given the spectrum of events of the last two years.
So it was that Fil Leanderson, the Olympic bronze medallist from the 1952 crew, former captain, former MIT freshmen coach, former lightweight and freshmen coach at Washington, ascended to become the sixth head coach to lead the program. Leanderson hired John Bissett, the 1958 varsity coxswain, as his assistant and freshman coach.
The team didn’t lose a beat. In their first race, they swept OSU at the sprint distance on Lake Washington (the varsity rowed the 2000 meters in 6:14, and in the JV event, as a testament to the depth on this squad, the third boat won the event). The team then swept the Beavers again on the Willamette a few weeks later. At the traditional three mile Dual with California, the team romped to open water wins in all events. On May 16th, the crew traveled to Redwood City to meet Stanford at three miles, winning by no less than seven lengths in each event.
The men left for Syracuse confident after such domination on the coast, but they wilted under the heat again. The varsity lost a member to exhaustion in the last mile after leading by open water through their race, limping home in fifth with seven men. The JV’s also faded badly, with California cruising by to win. The frosh lost to a good Cornell team, and rowed a strong race to finish second.
It was a tough way to end the year for Washington. The crews just could not shake the bugaboo that had chased them since the IRA’s moved to Syracuse in 1953. Even so, in his first year as head coach, Fil Leanderson still took home the Ten Eyck trophy for overall team performance, a deserved accolade for this deep and dedicated group of men.
For Ky Ebright, the master of the sprint race and thirty-five year coach at Cal, these would be his last races as head coach. Forced into retirement at age sixty-five, Ky stepped aside as Jim Lemmon, his assistant since 1947 and freshmen coach since 1954, became head coach at Cal.
Thus came the end of the Ulbrickson-Ebright era – a remarkable time in the history of collegiate rowing. These two men and their crews dominated the sport from the late twenties to the early fifties, combining for thirteen varsity national championships, six west coast sweeps at the IRA, and five separate Olympic gold medals and one bronze over five Olympics. Their competitive drive made each program work that much harder. Yet it is difficult to encapsulate the success these men had. Beyond the quantifiable came the thousands of young men, those that never sat in a varsity boat, leave the sport better men for the experience. Surely that is the legacy these coaches wanted, and that which truly defines them as great.
The Washington varsity powering to a lop-sided win over Stanford on the Redwood City course on May 16. Tyee photo.
The IRA varsity, left to right: Hank Schmidt, Dave Fulton, Ed Argersinger, Jim Christenson, John Wilcox, Fred Raney, John Lind, Bob Svenson and Ed McRory, cox. Note some familiar, second generation names in this crew. Photo courtesy John Wilcox.
Al Ulbrickson was a winner. He established that early on as stroke of the IRA National Champion 1924 and 1926 Washington varsity. His hallmark was his quietness, prompting the local papers to crown him the “Dour Dane”. Yet dour he was not; tough, driven, intense, maybe. But not dour. Highly admired by the men he coached, at his retirement one of his former athletes wrote: “With your uncompromising way of life as an example, your honest urging to ‘give the best that’s in us’ – stressing the need for teamwork…this lasts much longer and sinks much deeper into the lives of the men you have touched…perhaps our practice of these values is the greatest tribute we can give.” (3) Tyee photo.
1) Masters Thesis: The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr., pg. 180. (2) Ibid, pg. 181, (3) Ibid, pg. 182.
Sources for the 50’s: University of Washington, The Tyee, 1951 -1960; VBC Log Book, 1936-1955, MSCUA; VBC Log Book, 1954-1955, MSCUA; Henley Royal Regatta, A Celebration of 150 Years, Richard Burnell; The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987, Jim Lemmon; Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, Gordon Newell; “Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing; Stan Pocock; Masters Thesis: The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr.; Sport Magazine, June 1958; The Seattle Post Intelligencer, various articles (specifics available on request); The Seattle Times, various articles (specifics available on request); A Short History of American Rowing, Thomas Mendenhall; Interviews with Stan Pocock, Irma Erickson, Art Griffin, and Carl Lovsted, 1/03.
Special thanks to Stan Pocock and Al Ulbrickson for providing the key sources of information for the 50’s, Guy Harper, Carl Lovsted, and to Andy Hovland for compiling the balance of information and pictures for the 1958 season.
The history content on this website is copyrighted © 2001 – 2015 by Eric Cohen, ’82, Team Historian.