The 70’s had begun with a stunning upset win at the IRA’s, progressed through uncharted international territory that included victories at Henley, and ended with a team loaded with talent but unable to secure a victory over a resurgent California squad.
The program had come a long way in those ten years under Dick Erickson, but in so many ways found itself back to the heart of the matter: winning the battle on the west coast. By the time 1980 rolled around, all of the national and international success had quickly faded into the background. The focus was back to fundamentals.
But in the ever changing environment around Conibear Shellhouse, there were other changes afoot. With the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the advancement of the women’s crew program, there were issues beginning to creep up about an all-male athletic dormitory. In addition, with the economy in a protracted slowdown, funding for non-revenue generating sports – like rowing – was becoming increasingly sparse.
Training methods also continued to change, as did dietary concerns. Optimization of athletic performance was becoming more complicated, the student body itself was dramatically changing, and drugs were finding their way into intercollegiate athletics. As a coach, it was no longer enough to focus on “on field” performance of the college athlete; it now was an around the clock responsibility ranging from academic eligibility to personal responsibility of the student.
Through all of that, Dick Erickson was still able to maintain a perspective on what was most important to the men in his program. The self-described “opportunity-ist” was still offering up the opportunity at a breathless pace. And as the seventies – and now the eighties – would bear out, he was not afraid to change himself, or break with tradition, to achieve the goals established by the many that came before him.
The third trip to Egypt was highlighted by the crew rowing to a one and a quarter length win in Cairo over Trinity College of Dublin and a crew from Leander. John Menefee, the lone sophomore on the trip and the stroke of the undefeated frosh crew from a year earlier, managed to slip and fall off of the Great Pyramid of Giza, twisting his ankle in a pre-race sightseeing trip, but rowed the race anyway. “This was a good test of character for our guys and it looks like we’ll be pretty strong this year” said a hopeful Dick Erickson.
Erickson had his varsity set by early March, but he was now hedging his bets by saying “I’m nervous about it – the crew can feel the anxiety on my part in the turnouts”. Days later came the news that due to heavy rains several sewer mains had broken in San Diego, filling Mission Bay with raw sewage, and canceling the Crew Classic. Erickson scrambled to set up a regatta on the Cut, and Wisconsin agreed to come out along with the Canadian Olympic team the first weekend in April.
But that was not the end of the anxiety for the coach. On Class Day, the juniors and sophomores rowed a vicious race down the Cut, the juniors winning by about five feet in 5:52. That would have been great except that Erickson’s varsity boat was loaded with seniors, who finished well off the pace and behind the frosh, lengths back. “They opened my eyes” said the coach, “but not the right way.”
By the time Wisconsin got to town Erickson had stuck mostly with his veteran boat, and the crew raced well, defeating the Badgers. The problem was the Canadian Olympic team – which included Husky Marius Felix on a one-year leave from school – that mowed down everyone in the race, finishing lengths ahead of the second place Huskies. Erickson remained uneasy.
But the real test for the crew would come on the Estuary against California April 27th, and everyone knew it. The varsity was a veteran group, but California took command of the featured event about 600 meters in with another “flutter”, and by the finish had open water on Erickson’s top crew. “The bottom line of the whole thing is Cal has some real, real momentum with its program now. Let’s face it. Steve’s got it going. Cal’s hot right now,” said the perplexed Husky coach.
The silver lining in that race was a young JV boat that would not quit against a tough Cal team, coming back from almost a length down to lose by what Erickson called “six inches”. And when the team returned to practice the next Monday morning, the tongue blade board was radically different. Erickson, now five days before Opening Day, had built an almost entirely new, vastly younger (four sophomores) varsity boat. Erickson had said after the Wisconsin race that “the overall depth is better than it’s been in the past several years. There are guys in the third boat which I’m sure could be a help to the top boat.” And so he would put his instincts to the test, moving senior Greg Guiliani from the third boat stroke seat to the varsity stroke seat on the day before the Opening Day regatta.
UCLA was invited up to race, with a reinvigorated team now coached by Bob Newman. Orange Coast College also made the trip, and stunned the partisan crowd enjoying the sunshine on the Cut by beating both the JV’s and the freshmen in brand new Carbocrafts – lightweight, carbon-fiber shells revolutionizing the boat-building world. The UCLA varsity was primed against an awkward and unfamiliar varsity, the Huskies prevailing but only after squeezing the Bruins into the south wall of the Cut and fading at the end, winning by about a third of a length. The Bruins did not protest, and referee Bob Moch said both crews were at fault, but UCLA coxswain Sarah Hartley noted “I don’t think it was very nice”. “The next time we’re up here they better take us serious” said Newman, “we’re definitely on the way back.”
So Erickson could add UCLA back to the list of crews that were now threatening his once ironclad domination of the west coast. If Erickson was under strain in 1978, he hadn’t seen anything yet.
After watching Orange Coast row the Carbocrafts to victory, and having seen the same type of shell rowed by the Canadian Olympic team, Erickson began to seriously consider his alternatives. After talking with UBC, who owned one of these shells and was racing at the non-Pac-10 Western Sprints the weekend before the Pac-10’s, Erickson arranged to have the UBC crew leave their shell at Redwood Shores on the way home, along with their Karlisch oars. He then took his young varsity to California two days earlier, arriving on Wednesday afternoon in time for a row in the new shell. By Thursday afternoon the men were beginning to move the boat, and by Friday afternoon were suddenly going faster than any time during the season. “I owe it to them to try something” said the coach. “Although we realize the problems as far as tradition is concerned”. That comment was in direct reference to the fact that no Washington crew had rowed a race in the United States in anything but a Pocock-built shell – with Pocock built oars – since 1912.
With growing confidence the young team demolished Stanford in their first dual heat, setting up a re-match in the semi-finals with the same UCLA squad they faced two weeks earlier on the Cut. The team got a decent start, but then just rowed away from the Bruins into the afternoon headwind and won by almost three lengths without a sprint. “I don’t think they’re afraid” said Erickson “they’re excited”.
The final against Cal on May 18th, 1980 – scheduled about the same time as Mt. St. Helens was erupting – was run under perfect conditions. Dick Erickson wasn’t on the course. “I was more nervous than I have been in years. I just stayed inside this building and smoked my pipe” he said later of the official’s building about 1200 meters into the course. The start was not clean for Washington, but the team recovered enough to trail by only a seat at 500 meters. It was in the next 500 that Cal put on their now legendary burst, but this time the Huskies, under-stroking the Bears, stayed right with them with a power 20. By 800 meters Washington was still even or slightly ahead, and by the time they went by Dick Erickson – still smoking his pipe – the varsity was ahead by about two seats. Powering down the length of the course, the young Washington team won by a third of a length in 5:42.17, ten seconds faster than the course record set a year earlier. “I couldn’t go that fast in my ******* truck!” was what Erickson had to say after the race. Guiliani said “When you’re even with Cal at 1000 meters, they are not rowing their race.”
The frosh and lightweights won Pac-10 championships that day too, only the JV’s falling to a deep California squad. But it was the varsity win that stunned the partisan crowd and saw a young team break the psychological barrier from losing to winning, an accomplishment that Erickson considered the sweetest. “We wanted to win so bad” said the coach, “we were willing to do almost anything. I’m so excited I don’t know what to do.”
This race would not end the season for the Huskies, although it should have. The next week they flew to Madison to re-race a Badgers team bent on revenge, borrowing a Schoenbrod shell (Wisconsin rowing a 200-pound Robinson) and lost to an aggressive Wisconsin varsity on a mid-day race course rolling with boat wakes by a length in a lackluster performance. “Our guys looked like they were waiting for that next tip to port or tip to starboard when they would have trouble getting their blades out of the water” said Erickson. “I don’t think this loss was really an indication of the kind of season we had.” It was an unfortunate way to end a turnaround season, but the disappointment did not last long. The magnitude of the Pac-10 victory “will make things a lot easier around our boathouse over the next year” said Erickson.
And to round it out, 1980 was an Olympic year, with Bob Ernst named women’s sculling coach and Chris Wells and Chris Allsopp making the Olympic team. Marius Felix was a member of the Canadian Olympic team. But the Moscow Olympics were subsequently boycotted by the U.S. and Canadian governments due to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, and the men did not compete there. “That boycott was one of the most unjust things that’s ever happened to American athletes” Ernst said later that same year, “I cannot rationalize (it) in my mind.”
Also that summer, Scott Carter, Mark Florer and John Stillings were named to the world lightweight team, where the eight finished fourth at the world championships.
Heading under the bridge, the Washington/UCLA race was certainly entertaining for the large crowd lining the south side of the Cut on a sunny and warm May day. This was the last Washington varsity crew to row in a cedar Pocock shell in a major event on Lake Washington, a tradition that dated to 1912. Tom Cohen photo.
The varsity crew left to right: Charlie Clapp, John Zevenbergen, Frank Davidson, Al Forney, Gary Dohrn, Eric Watne, Al Erickson, Greg “the Goog” Guiliani, Eric Cohen (cox). Dohrn was in the second freshmen boat the year before, prompting Erickson to say “he has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse in one year.” Tom Cohen photo.
Coxswain Eric Cohen gets a bath. Erickson drains his hat. Tom Cohen photo.
From Andrea Pace ’80:
Early one morning during fall practice 1980, the women’s boats were rowing close to landmarks as there was an incredibly heavy fog sitting on the lake. We were heading into the mouth of the Montlake Cut on the Lake Washington side. It was beautiful and very still but hard to see anything past the bow ball. We heard a boat coming up from the stern. There was the men’s heavyweight eight, completely nude, rowing by as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We laughed and yelled. They just cruised right by, barely cracking a smile. What we could never figure out was how they got their clothes off and how did they know where we were? I guess it was a perfect day for nude rowing. Of course they denied it all. Charlie Clapp was in the boat. When we asked him about it later, he just smiled.
Bob Ernst assumed the role of head women’s coach at Washington in the fall of 1980, handing the freshmen reins to Gil Gamble, a varsity oar in the 1974 and 1975 campaigns at Washington and former Green Lake coach. It was not the only coaching change on the west coast however, as Steve Gladstone, after eight seasons at Cal, stunned everyone by announcing his resignation after the 1980 season. He was replaced by Mike Livingston, a former Harvard Olympian (1968), a man that would bring a unique coaching style to California producing some exceptional results.
Back at Washington, the fourth consecutive trip to Egypt in December of 1980 was perhaps the most intense, certainly on the water. There in Egypt to compete was the U.S. Olympic squad (the team had spent the year traveling to various international regattas instead of competing at the Olympics) and Harvard, along with the regular contingent of international teams. At Luxor, the Huskies were narrowly defeated in a terrific race, losing to the Olympic team by a few feet. At Cairo a week later, they again raced at the heels of the Olympic squad, losing in the sprint, but in both cases decisively beating their collegiate contemporaries in Harvard. “The guys did a heck of a job. Only inexperience kept us from winning. We rowed better than the U.S. team”, said Erickson upon their return to Seattle.
In January, the team christened a new shell, the Tom McCurdy II. A fundamental change had developed during and after the win at the Pac-10’s in 1980, and there was no going back for the team or for Erickson. Through the generous gifts of the McCurdy family, Erickson found and purchased a new Empacher shell (Kevlar honeycomb), and brought in Dreissigacker oars for the first time to Conibear Shellhouse. The Seattle P-I called it a “major departure for Washington Rowing”, noting the team had rowed in exclusively Pocock built shells “since the days of Hiram Conibear”. And although the weight issue (it was about fifty pounds lighter than a conventional shell) was most talked about, it was the stiffness, durability, and deep hull design of the shell that made it “state of the art” in Erickson’s words.
On to Class Day which Erickson described as “the best Class Day race I’ve ever seen.” He was referring to a virtual remake of the 1980 race, the now Seniors and Juniors dueling within feet of each other both laterally and in the margin of lead the entire 2000 meters, the seniors pulling out the victory in the last ten strokes. Referring to the entire team, varsity stroke Marius Felix noted “they’re a bunch of animals when it comes down to racing. They almost become barbaric out there.”
San Diego was in its prime as a premier collegiate rowing event, witnessed by who was now making the trip. Yale, Harvard, Cal, UCLA, Brown, Penn, Wisconsin, Northeastern; they were all there in 1981 and all were given a decent shot at winning. Just making the finals, which all of the Washington crews did, was a statement.
In the finals, the frosh began the day with a two-second loss to a tough OCC, but the JV’s had an exceptional race, winning the JV event over California, Harvard and Yale. The varsity, in a now screaming tailwind not particularly suited for the new shell or a crew which averaged 6’5″ and 205 pounds, started ugly. In the Mission Bay chop Harvard and Cal made early moves, but by midway the race had settled to a Washington – Yale dual, the two shells headed down the course together. Washington, leading by about a half-length with 500 meters to go, saw the Yale crew make an early sprint and move up dramatically, but re-grouped, held off the sprint for another ten strokes, then powered into the finish, winning by three seconds over Yale, with California open water behind Yale. “It was an all-timer” said Erickson of his top two crews, “they did what they had to do, with control.”
The next major race of the season would not come until a month later, when California came north with a vengeance on Opening Day. In short order the Bears exacted revenge for losses at San Diego by defeating the freshmen by open water and then, surprisingly, the JV’s. In between, a tough lightweight team was soundly rocked by OSU. “By that time, I was on the horn yelling down here on the radio to get next to that varsity coxswain and tell him California’s got blood in their eyes and they better be cool” said Erickson after the races. It was likely unnecessary, as the experienced oarsmen in that shell knew Cal would come to race, and they did. Up by three seats in the first 500 meters, California could not hold off a power twenty by the veteran Huskies shortly thereafter, and the crew then just began to pull away from the Bears, winning by open water in front of one of the largest crowds on record for Opening Day. The varsity “shifted gears at 600 meters and boom! They were out of there” said Erickson but, “Cal really came to win races. They really rowed hungry.”
The Pac-10s upped the pressure on the team as Erickson was now loudly calling this crew “the best I’ve had”. He was also aggressively making the point that a win at the conference level would assure a trip to Henley. “He’s putting a lot of pressure on us” said six-oar John Zevenbergen, “He tends to go a little overboard.” Meanwhile, the Pac-10 imposed a minimum weight limit on Washington’s shell, the crew forced to add thirty-five pounds of lead line to the bottom of their boat. Further, with the cutbacks now hitting the sport hard, the team was forced to take travel by bus to the regatta, an excruciating 17 hours non-stop. And if that wasn’t enough, the varsity was somehow set-up into a strange bracketing that had them dual race the two toughest crews there; Cal, in a surreal evening semi-final won by the Huskies by a length, then a five-second win over a tough UCLA crew the next day in the final to secure the trip. The frosh, JV’s and lightweights did not win, confounding the coach who very much wanted to take a JV team with him to Henley. “Our (JV) guys rowed well. But I’ve got to come up with something better”, said the coach.
He did and he didn’t. The JV’s, who had pushed the varsity all year and won at San Diego, deserved the trip in Erickson’s eyes if the varsity went. And the varsity was going. “You can’t win at Henley if you’re not (there)” said Erickson. So off to England the team went in late June, the varsity entered in the Grand, and the JV’s in the Ladies’ Plate (second highest event behind the Grand), the first entry in that event for any Husky Crew.
The varsity drew a bye in the first round of the Grand, watching as every American crew there – save for them watching on shore – were trounced by British competition. The JV’s meanwhile, rowing better each day, advanced through the first two rounds over Isis and then Downing College. Erickson spent hours rigging and re-rigging the varsity Carbocraft, and was never completely satisfied, publicly pining for an Empacher. But on Saturday, the pent-up varsity finally got their chance against Leander Boat Club – another moniker for the British National Team – and a team with a good memory. Washington was rocked off the start, the British gaining on the Huskies stroke for stroke, going the distance and winning by over a length of open water. Len Robertson, the British Olympian bow oar said after the race “we know what Washington can do…we went hell for leather – we couldn’t afford to slow down.” Erickson said “They were just mowing us down. I’m shocked. Let’s face it (they’re) better than we are.” Regarding the Empacher the Brits rowed to victory, Erickson said “At this level, it really makes a difference. I won’t do that again.”
But the races were not over, as the JV’s continued to advance through Nereus College of Holland and then, on Sunday morning, Trinity College of Hartford to advance to the afternoon final against none other than two-time defending champion Yale. Yale, whose eastern sprint champion varsity had begun a war of words with the Huskies before even leaving the states, was knocked out of the Grand decisively by another British crew before Washington even raced, leaving the grudge match to be settled by the JV crews. The Washington start was not pretty, and Yale quickly moved out to a half-length lead that they then extended to almost a full length at Fawley, halfway down the course. But they were also over-stroking their rivals as the Huskies took a power twenty and began to slowly move back. The Huskies were now closing on Yale, and by the enclosures the teams were even. In the sprint to the finish, Washington pulled ahead by about six seats, and crossed the line as Henley Champions.
After the excitement had worn down, Erickson said of this comeback crew that had rowed in the shadow of the varsity team all season: “This win means a lot to our program. It’s a testimony to those who don’t make the first team in any sport. It’s incentive to keep trying. There are rewards down the line.” That night, the rewards were a cold pint hoisted by the entire team in honor of this crew.
That summer, the men were invited to the national camp, where ultimately Charlie Clapp, John Zevenbergen, and Al Forney (alt.) made the team, Clapp and Zevenbergen winning bronze medals in the eight at the world championships.
Coach Dick Erickson in his glory in 1981. Dick Erickson collection photo.
The Egypt trip team, left to right (back): Uglesa “Jan” Janjic, Al Erickson, Al Forney, Guy Lawrence, Dave Lauber, Greg Hoffman, Gary Dohrn, Blair Horn; front: John Christensen, Charlie Van Pelt, Gary Evans, Mike Crustolo, Nabojsa Janjic. The eight from this team lost to the U.S. Olympic eight by four feet in Cairo. Husky Crew photo.
Due to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October, Erickson was forced to cancel the Egypt trip for the first time in five years. He had tried without success to work with the State Department, but the trip was deemed too dangerous due to the instability of the region.
His crews continued to work hard through the winter, and by mid-February had rowed one of the fastest 500 meter times on record on the Floating Bridge course in 1:22. By Class Day Erickson was almost overwhelmed with the talent on this team, saying “I’ve got more guys rowing better right now than I ever have.” The juniors defeated the seniors, but immediately following lost the varsity stroke to eligibility issues. Erickson was forced to shuffle all of the line-ups with a week remaining, the squad traveling to San Diego an unknown quantity, Erickson calling it a “real cold-turkey race.” Once there, the freshmen finished 3rd to Cal and OCC, the JV’s finished fourth, and the varsity finished 3rd behind California and Yale, about two lengths behind Cal. “They gave us an old-fashioned country whipping” said Erickson of California.
The men then had three weeks to re-build before meeting California on the Estuary. This time it was Washington to arrive with blood in their eyes, the frosh losing, but the JV’s holding off a Bear challenge to win by a half-length in a surprising upset. The varsity race was a classic, with the boats dead even through the first 500 meters, with Cal then taking charge through the mid part of the course to lead by almost a length. But in the final 500 meters the Huskies came charging back and were virtually even with ten strokes to go, Cal then hanging on for a one-second, Estuary course record victory. For an impartial observer, it was, by any measure, a spectacular race. “I’m not nearly as disappointed as the guys are” said Erickson. “They proved so much to me and themselves.”
Opening Day was perfect, and the varsity raced the JV’s, the University of Victoria, and San Diego State in the last race of the day, the JV’s getting a slow start when they could not hear the starter. The varsity jumped to an early lead and sat on the other crews in a less than spectacular race, winning by about six seconds over the JV’s, followed by Victoria.
Two weeks later the Pac-10’s would provide the opportunity to settle the score with California, the team again forced to take the grueling 17-hour bus ride to California due to budget constraints. Less than a day after arriving they were racing. In the finals, the powerful Bear frosh team (that would go on to win the IRA) whipped the Husky freshmen, and this time the Bears exacted revenge by beating the JV’s in their final. The varsity, seeded second this time but again, like 1981, forced to row against the two toughest contenders in separate races, had to come from behind in the sprint to defeat a tough UCLA team in an afternoon semi-final and headwind. It was not the most perfect set-up to meet a fresh Cal squad that had breezed to a lopsided win over Stanford. The next morning in the final, California opened up a lead by the 700 meter mark and never looked back, winning with a tailwind in 5:38 to Washington’s 5:42. “Cal really put a number on us” said Erickson, calling Cal “one of the best if not the best college crew in the country.” The sweep was the first for Cal at the Pac-10’s.
1982 marked the first time the Cincinnati national championship regatta would be held, but Erickson decided he would not take his crew back. For California it “turned out to be a disaster” in the words of their coach, Mike Livingston. Conflicts with exams, various snafus, and a team that had peaked at the Pac-10’s led to the Bears finishing fourth behind Yale, Cornell, and Syracuse (1). That was equally disappointing to the Huskies, a squad looking for an opportunity to peak when the season abruptly ended.
It was a disappointing year, made more so by the depth of talent (including four former or future Olympians) on this team that was wasted. Said Erickson after the season, “They had all the makings of one of the very finest crews we’ve had here. (But) to quote George Pocock: ‘the festering lily smells worse than the ragweed.'” Whether he included himself in that analogy is unclear, but he also added “it won’t be a trend.”
That summer, Don Scales (lightweight 4-), Al Forney and Charlie Clapp (senior 8+) all made the U.S. National Team.
The Class of ’82, senior photo. A picture paints a thousand words. Husky Crew photo.
Due to fewer crewmen choosing to live at Conibear Shellhouse, by the fall of 1983 there were now four football players and fourteen swimmers living with the crew at Conibear. Although in previous years there were one or two vacated rooms that were occupied by non-rowers, this was the first year that the VBC Commodore was overseeing a dormitory of a truly mixed group of athletes, a trend that would continue.
The Egypt trip was resurrected in the fall of 1982, with a group of thirteen oarsmen and two coaches leaving Seattle on December 17th. The typical Egypt adventure would await: their oars were lost somewhere between London and Egypt and the boat they borrowed in Luxor had to be wired together with barbed wire Erickson clipped from a fence. “I had quite a discussion with a couple of guys carrying AK-47’s…” said Erickson of his fence clipping escapade.
Rowing now with borrowed Egyptian oars and a boat wired together, they lost to the West Germans and the Egyptians at Luxor, prompting Erickson, upon arrival in Cairo, to go search the airport. Tucked into a corner was the box of Washington oars, and following some simple “negotiations”, Erickson had the oars packed in a truck. But that would not end the adventure. That evening, while practicing on the Nile, a motor launch ran over the back of the Huskies shell, cleanly separating two feet of the stern – tiller and all. The crew made it back to shore before sinking, Erickson spending Christmas Day repairing his craft. The crew would subsequently win a few days later against the same teams they had faced in Luxor, prompting an upbeat Erickson to say about this young team, “I got a chance to learn a lot about them”.
He also noted this about the trip: “It will have a profound impact on the way these educated young people view the world. We will share a Christmas they are not likely to forget.” An educator at heart, ask any of those men today, and odds are good they have not forgotten.
Turnouts throughout the spring brought a new wrinkle to the varsity squad. By the time spring break was completed, Erickson now had five of the nine athletes in his varsity boat that were junior college transfers from Orange Coast College. Erickson looked forward to San Diego with a shell full of veteran athletes that “have nothing to lose.”
But by the time the team was in San Diego, Erickson was seething over the prospect of facing the University of Victoria, purportedly a Canadian pre-Olympic training center that Erickson strongly argued did not meet the eligibility requirements of American universities, threatening to boycott the San Diego regatta in the future. That dispute momentarily faded into the background when, in the varsity final, Washington failed to hear the start, went off course while dueling it out with Victoria, then rowed directly into one of the large buoys off of the course, smashing a starboard rigger and deflecting into the Victoria lane, the stunned race officials abruptly stopping all of the crews at 500 meters, far past the set breakage distance of 100 meters. In a further unorthodox move, and after Washington was allowed to replace their rigger, the officials decided to start the race over, and in the subsequent re-row thirty minutes later, Washington won the event. Victoria (a half-length behind in second) and California (fifth) both filed protests, but these were dismissed, Washington declared the winner in an event that had bitter overtones from the beginning.
But the good news for Washington was that, regardless of the strange outcome at San Diego, they knew they had legitimate boat speed in the varsity. By Opening Day this team was rock solid, and rowed the windy and rain-beaten Montlake course in a flawless performance, beating Cal by two lengths. The JV’s, in the best race of the day, defeated both Orange Coast and California by about a half-length in a new composite-fiber Pocock cab-over eight, particularly significant since they were soundly defeated by both crews at San Diego. The freshmen also won in a tight contest, completing the sweep for the Huskies on the Cut.
An improved Cal squad met the Huskies two weeks later at Redwood Shores. The freshmen defeated Cal in a semi-final and were set to race an undefeated UCLA squad (who had also won at San Diego, an event the Husky frosh did not enter), when a rigger broke on the UCLA boat midway through their semi-final against Washington State. As fate would have it, Washington then faced the Cougars and easily defeated them for the championship, UCLA and Cal racing off for third in the best race of the day, Cal winning by .2 seconds (1).
The JV’s met Cal in the final, and the crews battled neck and neck through 1000 meters before Cal moved ahead to win by a length in 5:49 in a now brisk tailwind. The varsity also met Cal in the final, but this time Cal did not fade, staying very close with Washington through 1000 meters and going under the bridge only a quarter length down, but the veteran Huskies poured it on in the last 500 to win by three-quarters of a length in 5:37.3, the third course record in four years. This win also secured a spot in the Cincinnati regatta, the second year this event would decide the national championship.
The team left for Cincinnati four days early to get acclimated to the humidity and temperatures. “It’s going to be a very emotional, very dramatic event” said Erickson. On June 14th, Washington, Harvard, Yale, and Brown launched for the final but were forced into a lengthy delay due to breakage and course problems. Once started however, Washington jumped to an early lead and gradually moved ahead to a length over second place Harvard at 1000 meters, firmly in command. With 500 meters left, the Huskies were still in front by three quarters of a length, but Harvard began to move back. In a torrid sprint coming into the finish both crews rowed into random boat wakes, but Harvard continued the push and crossed the line .4 seconds ahead of Washington to win the championship. “It’s a tremendous disappointment to come this far, be so close and then lose it on the last shot as time runs out,” said Erickson. Said senior coxswain Lee Miller, “We hadn’t really had to sprint many of our races and we really didn’t pull it off smoothly. We raced a really good race… but they just taught us how to wind it up.”
It was an excruciatingly painful way to finish a season that Erickson encapsulated earlier by saying “we have nothing to lose.” Unfortunately by Cincinnati they did – and ultimately it was, as he had also foretold, an “emotional and dramatic event”. Just not the right way.
The following Huskies made the 1983 U.S. Pan Am squad: John Stillings, 8+, gold; Ed Ives, alt.; Rick Clothier and Chris Allsopp, coaches. Members of the World team included Lee Miller, lightweight 8+; Al Forney, John Zevenbergen, and Charlie Clapp, senior 8+.
Not sure of the exact date here, but the socks and the visors say 1983. James Bratsanos photo.
Dick Erickson hits the waters of Mission Bay, along with Betsy Beard and Lee Miller, following the V8 sweep at San Diego in 1983.
The V8 with the bucket rig on the first stroke at Redwood Shores, left to right: Brad Clancy, Jim Dahl, Pat Gleason, James Snody, Todd Landweur, Blair Horn, Dave Zevenbergen, Ed Ives, and Lee Miller.
Blair Horn, 1983 captain. One year later, Horn would stroke the Canadian Olympic Men’s 8+ to the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
By the time Class Day rolled around, Dick Erickson was saying “this is the culmination of an incredible amount of work. Now all we’ve got to do is get the right guys in there who won’t be intimidated by the crimson shirts and the California blue at the starting line in San Diego.” Since this was a very deep team, it was unlikely he had too much trouble finding those athletes out of this group.
California had a new coach in Tim Hodges, and although highly successful as frosh coach, as a varsity coach he was an unknown. Meanwhile in Seattle, varsity oar Ty Graham got the chicken pox, and on race day at San Diego, Jim Snody showed up with the same highly contagious virus, and Erickson was scrambling. But his now makeshift varsity won their heat handily, and in the finals rowed away from the pack with a low stroke rate and a disciplined race plan – “nothing fancy” said Erickson – defeating California by three seconds, followed by Navy, Princeton, and a way back Harvard and Yale. The JV’s also won, outclassing their nearest competitor, Harvard, by open water. “The strength of our squad showed here,” said Erickson. For a race this early in the season he noted, “I’ve not seen a varsity and a JV that rowed under such poised control.”
On April 29th, the team traveled south for the dual on the Estuary. The freshmen, in their first serious trial of the season, were defeated by six seconds by the Bears. But the JV’s racked up a thirteen second victory, followed by a ten second win in the varsity race, the crews rowing away from Cal with each stroke in the last 800 meters in a powerful display. “Our crews are for real” said a surprised Dick Erickson. “They probably race better than they practice, which irritates me” said Erickson after watching the dominant performances of his varsity team at Cal.
Opening Day a week later was mostly for show, although the JV’s, loaded with seniors, finished their event with a faster time than the varsity in theirs. Not unlike the crews of the thirties, forties and fifties under Al Ulbrickson, this squad was deep enough to race head to head all season long, a real advantage for Erickson and competitive training.
The Pac-10s moved to Lake Natoma at Sacramento in 1984, breaking the five-year hold of Redwood Shores on the event. In addition, the race format changed in two ways; one, the races were no longer dual format, instead six across: two, the top three places in the “Pac-10’s” (held on Saturday) would now race against the top three qualifiers from the “Western Sprints” (non-Pac-10 schools, also held Saturday) for the west coast championship on Sunday. Supposedly, the winner of the Sunday varsity event would go to Cincinnati, although that was not consistent with previous years when the pac-10 champion went, and was about as clear as mud prior to the team’s arrival. The upshot was a race format that created two chances for Washington foes to try to knock them out, prompting a bewildered but confident (and now used to such last-minute machinations on the west coast) Erickson to say “we’re ready. We’ll do whatever you want to do.”
On Saturday, Washington won Pac-10 championships in the JV, lightweight varsity, and varsity events in solid fashion, all by open water. In fact the varsity race was almost sublime, a fierce yet controlled effort that varsity coxswain Mike Teather described as “a beautiful race – the best we’ve ever rowed”, the team finishing in 5:52, rowing in 95 degree heat and a light headwind.
On Sunday the team had to go out and prove it again, the varsity rowing another almost perfect race, this time winning by an even wider margin over Cal, even though Cal was close with 500 meters left. The lightweights won as well, but this time fighting off a strong bid by San Diego State to win by a deck. The JV’s also won convincingly, and Erickson was glowing about the gritty and professional way his team performed. “They not only won, but they won big. It’s been a long time since we’ve won races by that much,” said the coach.
To prepare for the Midwest weather, the team came home and spent time rowing ergometers in the locker room, where Erickson had the showers running on hot to replicate the heat and humidity on Lake Harsha. In between pieces, the guys would spend time in the drying room, a special room filled with heated air to dry the clothes of the men during the winter and spring.
But Cincinnati on June 16th was almost an anti-climax, with Brown, the winner of the Eastern Sprints, dropping out due to two of their men heading for the Olympic trials, and Rick Clothier’s tough Navy varsity, winners of the IRA regatta, unable to participate as members of that crew were headed for duty (Clothier made every effort to delay assignments to no avail). Only Yale – fifth at the Eastern Sprints, but as winners of the Harvard/Yale race invited – were able to make it, setting the national championship as a dual race: Washington vs. Yale. Washington jumped to an early lead after a solid start, up by a half-length 250 meters in, and powered away to lead by a length at 1000 meters. Not forgetting their experience in 1983, the crew stayed focused in the last 500 meters to win the Herschede Trophy and the free airfare to Henley that the came with it. “It’s just a big relief that it’s over,” said Erickson.
The crew then came back home, only to depart a few days later with their JV teammates and two spares for Europe. Their first race, on June 24th in Amsterdam, Holland, would be against Dynamo Club of Moscow, a composite Russian club crew made up of collegiate and elite oarsmen. The Huskies, rowing in a borrowed wooden craft and rocked by jet lag and a frantic schedule, could not match the speed of the Russians, defeating the remaining Dutch crews in the race but falling to the Russians by over a length. “We should have paced ourselves better” said coxswain Mike Teather. In a follow up race two days later, the margin of defeat was about the same, but the crew rowed a much stronger body of the race (after a poor start), prompting Pat Gleason to say “we know the Russians have one of the fastest crews in the world. It built our confidence a lot to do as well as we did against them. Now, when we face the British National Team at Henley, we’ll have confidence all the way down the course.”
Once at Henley the crew was unhappy with the Carbocraft they were rowing, Erickson finally landing an Empacher after the Thursday races, the coach “waving money” (and throwing in some highly coveted Dreissigacker oars) at the first crew to lose who rowed one of these coveted crafts. “This will remove all the excuses about why we can’t compete out there,” said the coach.
Meanwhile, after advancing two rounds into the Ladies’ Plate, the JV’s faced a Brown team made up of varsity and JV oarsmen. The crew got a good start and led through the mile mark up by three-quarters of a length, but Brown was able to move through them on the sprint and won by two-thirds of a boat length, setting a record for the event in 6:23 on the swift and wind-aided Henley course.
The varsity, now clicking in the Empacher, defeated the Danish national lightweight team, Bagsvaerd- Kvik in a tougher than expected semi-final. Later, in the other semi-final of the Grand, the British national team (Leander and London) easily defeated Penn, setting a course record in that event (6:10) on the speedy course.
The men were confident for their last race on Sunday, but the Grand Challenge final would end the talk of an upset early, with Leander getting a one length lead by the Barrier and extending it to two and a half at the midway point. The crews stayed within about that margin the rest of the course, Leander rowing a 6:22 in more Henley-like conditions. Still, the British “rowed like a machine” said Yuri Zaplatel, an assistant to Erickson and veteran of European rowing, saying, “We lost to a better crew.” Always tough to go out on a loss, it may have been magnified given the confidence and swagger of these Huskies to lose by that margin.
That summer, rounding out the year for Washington rowing, Don Scales rowed in the U.S. lightweight 8+, and six former Huskies competed at the Olympics in Los Angeles. Bruce Beall rowed in the U.S. quad, Ed Ives and John Stillings won silver in the 4+, Al Forney won a silver in the 4-, and Charlie Clapp won a silver in the U.S. eight while Blair Horn won a gold for Canada in the same event. “As far as the men go, I think it is an indication of the kind of training we got at Washington under Dick Erickson,” said John Stillings, coxswain from 1975-78. “You just didn’t make the team – you were taught a lot of self-reliance. I know I appreciate him a lot more now than I did when I was rowing for him.”
Al Forney, silver medalist in the U.S. straight four, and Blair Horn, gold medalist in the Canadian eight, pose with Husky fans at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics. Tom Cohen photo.
The JV’s at Henley racing stroke for stroke against Brown, the Brown crew ultimately prevailing in this race and moving on to win the Ladies’ Plate in the finals. James Bratsanos photo.
The 1984 varsity on Opening Day, bow to stern: Mike Teather (cox), Chris Pugel, Jim Dahl, Brad Clancy, Mike Feltin, James Snody, Pat Gleason, Dave Zevenbergen, Jon Norelius. Washington Athletic Department photo.
Graduating six seniors out of the varsity boat, competition was heated throughout the spring for the open seats, Erickson settling on a first boat of six juniors and three sophomores over spring break following a wet and windy winter.
Once in San Diego the weather did not improve, Erickson lamenting “everywhere we take these boats a big cloud seems to follow us”. By race day the officials had significantly shortened the course, a nasty, surprisingly cold crosswind raking the outside lanes. The Huskies, as comfortable in that weather as any, powered to victory in the varsity and JV events, the varsity in 4:04, with Navy on their heels and California trailing. The JV’s won by almost a length. Both crews had jack-rabbit starts that put them in front early, Erickson praising his crews saying “they laid on a good one. They’re doing it at the start.” But the event, with a shortened course -“a flat-out sprint race” according to the coach – and the absence of Brown, Penn, Yale and Harvard (who had not missed this event in eight years), proved less fruitful in providing information to the coach on the relative speed of all of the participants, not just his own.
The coach worked the men hard for the next four weeks leading into Opening Day and the Cal dual, the weather on May 4th the same as all year, windy and cloudy. Confident after strong practices and two straight years of dominating the coast, Erickson was not prepared for the outcome. The Cal varsity broke hard off the start with the Huskies, stayed with them through the first 800 meters, then just gradually pulled away and held off the Washington sprint, winning by a half-length. As races go, it was a classic Cal-Washington race, the boats dueling within feet of each other down the Montlake course. The JV’s fell behind, then a monster crab in the Cal boat sent the Huskies flying by, only to be overtaken at the line when Cal came charging back. “We’ve really been training awfully hard, possibly rowing too hard,” said Erickson after the disappointing results in front of the home crowd. “I’ve got to re-evaluate that plan. You start second guessing yourself.”
So the crews spent the next two weeks, in preparation of the Pac-10’s, working on skills and healing their bodies, with Erickson renewing the underdog quotes including “now, the onus is on us”. By the time the crew was in Sacramento, he was saying “it will be a boat race all the way through to the end.” In the preliminary heats, both California and UCLA – a team Washington had not faced all year – looked particularly strong, both rowing faster qualifying times than the Huskies.
But on the day of the finals, it was all Washington, striking quickly out of the gate with a revised start, staying even with the Bears down the course, then pulling away in the sprint to win by a length. The JV’s also exacted revenge, winning over Cal and a tough OCC crew, with the frosh finishing an undefeated season by winning by a half-length over the Bears. All of the crews rowed disciplined and passionate races, Erickson commenting on his team and the desire to come back saying, “That loss was hard on us up there and the fellas thought a lot about it. We kept our eyes in our own boat and we were beautiful.”
By virtue of this victory the men were off to Cincinnati with the free airfare awarded the winners, to face the eastern schools in the national championship. This would be a cold turkey race, with Washington never meeting the Eastern Sprints champion Harvard, or the IRA champion Princeton, at all during the year.
The race on June 15th went out with a furious start, Washington inching ahead of the field and then settling, leading the race through the midpoint. The goal was to row a steady mid-1000 meters, and with 500 meters left the crew had executed the strategy well, Washington leading by about a third of a length with Princeton and Harvard close behind. But in the sprint to the line, both Harvard and Princeton fought through the Huskies, Harvard winning the race in 5:44.4 followed by Princeton in 5:44.9, and Washington in 5:46.1. Cornell, Wisconsin, and California rounded out the field. “We were supposed to have enough to hold off that freight train coming at us at the finish,” said a disappointed captain Jon Norelius. “It just didn’t happen. It wasn’t there.”
Harvard went on to win the Grand Challenge Cup in 1985, defeating Princeton in the final. Notably absent was the British National Team, although Harvard, stroked by Olympian Andy Sudduth, was dominant at Henley, winning the final by lengths of open water. Said Dick Erickson of Sudduth after the national championships, “I said he could carry a crew down the course by himself, and he proved it again today.”
After the season was over, Erickson lamented the fact that his team did not have a consistent schedule all year. The east coast schools “do that to each other all year long,” he said of the fierce battle coming into the finish of the championship. “They have faced this kind of racing; we haven’t”. Typical of Erickson, within a year he would be partner to changing that.
And his Huskies were young – all would be returning for another season. “We will be back” said Mike Teather, Husky coxswain. “We will be down for a while, but we’ll be back.”
Both Ed Ives and John Stillings were in the U.S. 4+ that finished 5th at the Worlds in Hazewinkle, Belgium in 1985.
The varsity. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The JV’s. Washington Athletic Department photo.
A varsity boat loaded with seniors returned for their final season ready to prove once and for all they were one of the more dominating classes in the history of the sport at Washington. The class of ’86 – winners of three Varnell trophy races (and missing out on their fourth as freshmen by about a second) – had lost a total of two races in their career as Huskies. They were, and still remain as, one of the strongest classes to launch from the docks at Conibear.
The course in San Diego changed in 1986 from the Sail Bay area over to Fiesta Bay near Sea World. And although Harvard and Yale continued to spurn the event, Penn, Princeton and Cornell – along with traditional attendees Cal, Washington, Wisconsin and Navy – made the marquee races highly competitive.
But once the racing began, the writing was on the wall for the varsity, straining in the last 2oo meters of their first heat to nip Cornell. In the final the crew could not match the speed of eventual winner Pennsylvania, but also fell short of second place Cal and third place Navy, finishing ten seconds off the lead. Although the JV’s rowed to a win in their event over OCC and Cal, Erickson was focused on his varsity, saying “Nobody worked harder than us, but we were too inefficient.”
The team came home to add speed and to focus on the first annual Redwood Shores regatta, an event put in place to provide the extra competition lacking on the west coast. Steve Gladstone brought his Brown squad out, and Wisconsin joined as well, with Cal, UCLA, Washington and Stanford rounding out the field. The races were simply individual dual races, with no elimination. The only problem with that was it disincetivized a crew that was behind early to race through to the end, instead saving their reserves for the next dual, leading to some blowouts.
Regardless, the event still presented some excellent match-ups on a premier dual race course, Washington facing UCLA, Brown and Stanford. The crew had no problem handling UCLA and Stanford – both by open water – but were mowed down by Brown, losing by ten seconds. What made that even worse was the following day as Cal and Brown had a fantastic dual, Cal breaking the course record in 5:36.3 and going undefeated for the regatta. “We’re looking for a better line-up, we’ve just got to,” said Erickson, noting the Huskies would be racing Cal on the Estuary a week later. “The guys realize it too, and they’re enthusiastic about making it a go.”
Washington poured it on in Oakland, winning the freshmen and JV races handily, and the re-vamped varsity got an excellent start, moving out to a half-length lead when Cal caught a crab, providing the opportunity to move out further. By the midpoint, it was Washington by almost a length, but Cal moved back in a power move, subsequently eating away at the Husky lead until getting back to even with about 700 meters left. A furious race to the finish ensued, and Cal was able to turn it up, the Huskies with no answer, losing on a shortened and windy course by about two seconds. But the intensity of the race was what captain Jon Norelius was looking for, saying “we really needed that type of race to get the excitement and the adrenalin back.”
Opening Day was a showcase for the sport with seventy-four shell-loads participating – twenty more than the previous record according to Erickson – and a beautiful May day to go along with it. The racing was less than spectacular, the varsity defeating the JV’s and OSU, while the freshmen defeated Gonzaga and two high school crews. And Erickson was still juggling the tongue-blade board afterward in an effort to find the right combination.
And so it came down to the Pac-10’s, a Husky team improving and a strong California team looking to protect their season on the Sacramento course. In the final, the crews both were quick off the start, but it was in the middle of the race that Cal once again put it to the varsity, moving to a length lead and keeping it across the line. The bright spot for the Huskies were the undefeated, highly regarded freshmen and JV teams, the freshmen defeating an up and coming Stanford squad, OCC, and Cal. But the varsity race weighed heavily on Erickson, a season with so much potential evaporating in the heat of central California. “We just had every chance to prove our point and win that race,” he said afterward, “(but) Cal got us in the meat of the race and just kept going faster.”
The Bears would take their free tickets to Cincinnati, and Erickson would opt to stay home. The national championship race was a good one, with dark horse Wisconsin knocking off IRA champion Brown, and San Diego and Eastern Sprint Champion Penn, with Cal finishing a surprising fifth.
Ed Ives (’83) won gold in the 8+ at the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986. He also rowed in the senior 8+ that won bronze at the World Championships in Nottingham.
The 1986 varsity, left to right: Dave Nesbitt, Mike Feltin, Jon Norelius, Jamie Schafer, Ray Attisha, Mike Pickles, Dan Doyle, and Dirk Rhein. Coxswain Mike Teather not pictured. Tyee photo.
An expanded San Diego regatta welcomed over 2,300 rowers to the event the first week in April, the schedule broadened to include more masters and club events. Erickson’s squad, after graduating one of the strongest classes in 1986, was untested when arriving in sunny San Diego.
After an absence of two years, Harry Parker was back with an unknown Harvard team, although just the fact he was there suggested he knew something. Serving notice early, his JV’s jumped to an early lead but were matched with Washington, the crews, along with Pennsylvania, marking the distance together until the sprint, with Harvard edging the Huskies by a second. In the varsity event, the Huskies had a good start and were leading at 500 meters, but could not shake a four boat field, including Harvard, Navy, and defending national champion Wisconsin through the body of the race. With 500 meters left Harvard was beginning to distance itself, and through the sprint extended their lead to a length, winning the Copley Cup for the first time since 1979. Washington finished 2nd, about a deck length separating the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place crews. “We had a fantastic start, and a great finish, but we need to improve how we row the middle 1000 meters,” said varsity coxswain Ben Holtz.
Two weeks later at Redwood Shores they would get the chance to do just that. In their first dual against Wisconsin, the team rowed a strong race through the body but this time fell short in the sprint, losing by about a deck. The next morning the team matched up against Stanford and won, but subsequently had a bad start in the afternoon match-up against Brown and could not recover, falling by almost two lengths. The losing was beginning to take its toll on the team and the coach, and there was open discontent.
But Erickson remained upbeat, particularly given the prospect of a new sponsor for the Opening Day crew regatta, Windermere Real Estate, and the first opportunity to bring an international flavor to the event. With the financial assistance of Windermere, the Soviet national team was flown to Seattle to race the Huskies on the Cut. Understanding the slim chances his crew had against the 1985 world champions (2nd in 1986), the coach said “It’s a very unique opportunity, even if it’s unfair.”
The Soviets ultimately dominated the event – “they overwhelmed us”, said Erickson – but it was a huge success, the Soviets and Huskies trading seats to row back through the Cut together, flashing smiles to the massive crowd that lined the cut. Said Andrej Vasiljev (through an interpreter), a world champion oarsman himself, “I never heard a single word of the coxswain during the race, the people were so loud. Even the finals of the world championships are not as impressive as this….” Blaine Newnham summed it up in his column in The Seattle Times: “This had been an international spectacle seldom seen outside the Olympic Games, and with twice the warmth and half the hassle”, concluding “the most important aspect of this race might be that it is just the beginning of a new era for Opening Day regattas.” History would bear out that it most certainly was.
The California dual, which normally would have been on Opening Day, was postponed due to the Soviet appearance until after the Pac-10’s. So the team went to Sacramento for the Pac-10’s seeded first but knowing very little about their competition, and the competition knowing very little about them. The San Diego race – where they finished open water ahead of UCLA, Stanford, and Cal – and a dual win over Stanford, were the only yardsticks they had to measure their relative speed. That and daily turnout, where the varsity and JV were often very close, Erickson still working on line-ups and switching shells, tirelessly rigging and re-rigging his top boat in a desperate effort to make his crews go faster.
He would quickly find out where his team stood. In the freshmen race, the team dropped to a surprising fourth, losing to OCC, Stanford, and Cal-Irvine, losing by over three lengths to the winner. The JV’s faded in their race, finishing fourth, more than ten seconds off of winner OCC. If those results weren’t shocking enough, the varsity also finished fourth, falling behind after a decent start and ending almost ten seconds behind winner UCLA, with California and Stanford also beating them to the line. “We just didn’t have it. I don’t know if it was our technique or what, but we just didn’t have it,” said sophomore four-oar Rob Shepard.
The final race of the season was on May 30th back on the Cut, with an opportunity to salvage the stunning results from the Pac-10’s in the belated Cal Dual. The freshmen won in a close battle with their Cal counterparts, finishing a half-length ahead, but the JV’s lost by about a length. Cal’s varsity moved out quickly on the start and gained a full length by 1000 meters, winning by a half-length of open water over the Huskies. A disappointed Erickson lamented “we never got any better after Opening Day.”
Which was surprising, since this Opening Day offered a real opportunity to come together as a team. Erickson and his men had made a number of comments throughout the season about technique, the coach even saying after the final race that the results were disappointing “especially since we’ve worked so hard on our rowing technique.” But there were clearly signs of a program in the midst of an unraveling – one needn’t look much farther than a Pac-10 regatta that was nothing short of a debacle – and the various comments coming from the athletes, as well as divisions within the team. The decline itself had started with a loss on the Cut to Cal in 1985, followed by a 1986 squad loaded with talent that could not get untracked. The thrill was gone, morale was in the tank, and something had to give.
That something was the abrupt and stunning resignation of the coach of twenty years, Dick Erickson. A man who had utterly transformed the program, reinvigorated it through his passion, and seen it through some tough times, would not see it through this time. For the first time since 1968, the Washington rowing program had a new head coach in Bob Ernst, a man with six national women’s titles under his belt as well as an Olympic champion crew. Ernst would also be the first coach in the history of the program who did not previously row at Washington. To say he had his work cut out for him would be an understatement.
That summer, Ed Ives (’83) picked up a gold at the Pan Ams, and was an alternate on the World Team.
In the first Windermere Cup on the Montlake Cut in May, the varsity fell to the Russian national team by over three lengths. The plan was a solid body of the race “but when we got ready to make our move at about 1000 meters, I looked over and all I saw was flat water where I thought the Soviets would be,” said five oar Jamie Schafer. Even so, the event proved to be a huge success, cultivating goodwill between the Soviet contingent and the city of Seattle, and beginning a tradition and partnership with Windermere that continues today. Tyee photo.
Bob Ernst had started his career as a crew coach at the University of California Irvine at the age of 24, had joined ranks with Dick Erickson three years later as frosh coach, and since 1981 had headed the women’s program at Washington. In all of these efforts he had found rapid success, taking the women’s team to a national championship in his first year. But stepping now into the program director role was a challenge in and of itself. Following a legend was another matter.
And he would inherit a team not in the prime of health. Although there was no lack of talent – in fact the talent on these teams rivaled any in the history of the program – frustration within the squad brought personality conflicts to the surface. Personal responsibility and discipline, two underlying strengths of many of Ernst’s successful crews of the past, became a top priority for the coach. That, along with the structure it implies, was a significant adjustment, one that some embraced, and others did not. It would take some time to implement this shift, and Ernst knew it.
So he would take his crew to San Diego in April understanding the risks. The collegiate field at San Diego had been declining since the early 80’s, with only nine entries (most from the west coast) this year in the Copley Cup. But even so, the varsity could do no better than fifth in the final behind UCLA, with Navy, Wisconsin, Stanford, Washington and California (Navy was later disqualified) trailing. His JVs finished second behind OCC. It was not the beginning for which he had hoped.
The frustration and pressure would begin to boil over two weeks later at Redwood Shores. Racing against newcomer Harvard in their first heat (the structure had changed to a winner/loser bracket format), an oarlock popped open in the first few strokes on the Washington boat. The crew continued to struggle down the course before stopping completely, but their request for a re-race was disallowed because they stopped past the 100 meter breakage point. Harvard coasted to victory, and Washington went into the loser bracket. In their second race they rowed tough but could not hold off a gritty Brown squad in the sprint, losing by about five feet. By Sunday, when they dropped their final race by open water to Stanford to finish last in the regatta, Ernst was seething.
When Opening Day arrived the coach had re-vamped his crew and could only hope for the best against a pre-elite Australian national team and a favored Princeton crew, that team coming off a strong showing against Harvard in the Compton Cup. But both Australia and a surprising Washington flew out of the blocks, and by 500 meters were three-quarters of a length ahead of the favorites and pulling away. The two boat race saw the Australians enter the Cut about a half length ahead, but in the sprint Washington came storming back, only to lose by less than a half second. “We just needed another 100 meters,” said Rob Shepard. Ernst was upbeat, saying “I’ve always felt these guys could go as fast as anyone on the west coast. It’s still early enough in the season for these guys to improve.”
So with that new found optimism the crew prepared for the Cal Dual a week later on the Estuary, Cal now led by former Husky Bruce Beall (’73) who had replaced an outgoing yet highly respected Tim Hodges. The freshmen lost for the first time to Cal in three years, but the JV’s rowed a strong race and won their event. The varsity race was one for the books, California getting the edge early, Washington storming back on the sprint, but falling short again by a few feet at the finish. This was the first time in the history of the Dual Cal had won four years in a row, eclipsing the previous three years set from 1927 -1929.
Ernst went back to the drawing board and shook up the line-ups, heading to Sacramento still convinced this team could come closer to meeting their potential. In the final on May 22nd, they lined up against an undefeated UCLA team, and Cal and Stanford, all crews that had defeated them earlier. But in a “gut check”, according to Ernst, the men fought down the course, ultimately losing to UCLA but finishing second over Stanford by inches, with California trailing. “I think it’s pretty courageous of the guys to have that much confidence in themselves and be able to do it” said Ernst, contemplating taking his team to the Nationals. “We gave them a great race” he said of his crew’s tenacity. That, combined with a solid win by his JV team, and a freshman squad that reversed the Dual results with a strong first place performance, bode well for the future.
He ultimately chose to keep the men home and focus toward the next year, but the results at the Pac-10’s were promising for a team beat down by three tough years and the spiral that close defeats can wreak on the psyche. “Confidence” – a word used often by the coach this year – would become the rallying cry for his team as they prepared for the next season.
That summer, Ed Ives (’83) represented the U.S. at his second Olympic Games, this time in the pair. Although involved in a pre-race collision on the Seoul course, he and teammate Kurt Brausback still participated in the event.
Bob Ernst took over the men’s head coaching role in the fall of 1987. Ernst, an Olympic team coach in 1980, 1984, and 1988, led the Washington women’s varsity to national championships six of the seven years he was there. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The varsity on Opening Day, bow to stern: Dan Lethin, Steve Frisch, Rob Shepard, Brad Peters, Mike Pickles, Michael Filippone, Jeff Taylor, Gauge Stromberg, cox Ben Holtz. Tyee photo.
There was little doubt that the program, entering 1989 was not in peak health. But what compounded that situation was a west coast rowing scene that historically carried the broadest strength ever, creating an environment that magnified the situation at Washington. At no time previously on the west coast were there four schools that were matching the kind of relative speed currently seen. And now there were arguably more than four. Cal (under Washington alumnus Bruce Beall ’73), Stanford (under veteran Ken Dreyfuss), UCLA (under three-time Pac-10 coach of the year Zenon Babraj, former assistant at Washington and former Polish Olympic team coach) and Orange Coast (under veteran Dave Grant) all had solid programs. Only after nosing Stanford out by a bow ball in the last race of 1988 did Washington get their name back into the same category, making that number five.
And so Ernst would take his team to San Diego knowing they would not just face Stanford, Cal and UCLA, but a solid east coast contingent as well in Penn, Yale, Princeton, Navy and Wisconsin. The varsity was defeated in their heat by Navy, thus relegated to the middle lanes of the breezy San Diego course for the final, but surprisingly the only west coast crew to even make it that far. In the last race of the day they rowed with the same grit and determination seen at the end of 1988, down by a half-length to Penn with thirty strokes to go and closing fast, only to finish second by two feet. The pattern of micro-distance losses was now reaching the point of bizarre, this being the fifth loss measured in feet in a year. The JV’s, a very good team and top contender in their event, did not have to worry about losing by a hairsbreadth, instead whacking a buoy at 1000 meters and losing in a ‘victory at sea‘ moment by almost a minute in their final. The freshmen, represented for the first time at San Diego in five years, rowed a tough race but finished second to OCC. If it was deja vu all over again, Ernst did not let on, saying “we’re disappointed we didn’t win, but the guys rowed a great race.”
But the underlying results at San Diego were one more step forward for a program officially in healing mode. At Redwood Shores two weeks later, the varsity put up a win against Wisconsin in their first race, but then dropped to Brown in the semi-final. In their last race on Sunday they fell to Northeastern 5:44 to 5:46, with Harvard winning the regatta in 5:38 over Brown. “The guys are moving up to the level of competition we face” said Ernst. Harvard and Brown are sort of on a level on their own…But there’s a pool of four teams – Northeastern, UCLA, Washington and Penn – that will probably be sorting it out as to who the number 3,4,5 and 6 crews are in the nation.”
That in and of itself would be a significant corner turned for this program, but since the season wasn’t even half over there were still lagging doubts. On Opening Day the team welcomed California along with a New Zealand collegiate all-star team and an Italian pre-elite national team featuring three 1988 Olympians. The Huskies were once again underdogs, but came out of the gate hungry enough to be even with New Zealand, the Italians moving to a one length advantage and staying there. Once in the Cut though, the Huskies poured it on, pulling away from New Zealand and nipping at the heels of the Italians, finishing about a length back but defeating the Kiwis, with Cal over two boat lengths back. But the team and the coach were really feeling the pressure now, Ernst bristling at the idea that the Washington dynasty was over, saying “I get kind of tired of people writing ‘Huskies finish second’. The Huskies beat a damn good New Zealand team today and a pretty good Cal team. The only thing that can hurt our program is if people get too impatient with us…” Varsity cox John Walker agreed, saying “I think we’re on the rebound. It’s all part of getting back into that winner’s circle.”
Lost in all of that was the win – and the margin – the team put up against their perennial rival, Cal. It was the first Dual win for Washington since 1984 and a huge, although lost in all the hoopla, turnaround for this team. In fact the four straight years of dominance that Cal held was the longest in the history of the almost ninety year match-up, so it was even more significant. The JV’s and frosh also won, adding a stealth sweep to the event not seen since 1983.
The Pac-10’s then would pit a quietly rebounding Husky team against two-time defending champion UCLA on the Sacramento course on Sunday, May 14th. The varsity got a solid start and moved ahead by the 500 meter mark, UCLA drawing even at 1000 meters in what Ernst described, drawing from the Erickson dictionary, as a “street fight”. With 500 meters left UCLA had pulled out to an almost half-length lead, but Washington charged them, the crews crossing the line even in a photo finish. “You can’t come and save the day in the last 500 meters” said Ernst when finding out his team had lost by – now a foregone conclusion – a foot. The JV’s, with a solid season behind them, won their event, the freshmen coming second to OCC.
But it was a heart-breaking way to end the season, and this time Ernst decided the men deserved an opportunity to go to Cincinnati and test their speed against the best. The men committed to two-a-days, the second practice their own, but always done together. “We accomplished our goal – we got as fast as UCLA this year. In one year we improved a lot,” said the coach, understanding the risk of taking a team that still was reported on the back pages of the local sports section, raising the dollars needed from an alumni base that desperately wanted some good news.
Washington was subsequently relegated to an all-but-forgotten lane six of the six boat final at Cincinnati. But they exploded off the start, at 500 meters up on the field by about three seats. At 1000 meters they were now seriously in contention, not fading, but slowly drawing away with Harvard from the rest of the field. Charging into the last 500 they were still even with the Crimson, but Harvard had more left, the Huskies finishing second by a half-length, with Northeastern, Penn, Wisconsin, and UCLA trailing in that order.
“I figured we had one of the top three crews in the country” said a proud Bob Ernst. “We came here to prove it. We had to.” Yes, the crew had finished second – for the fourth time this year. But there was jubilation in the Washington camp. The men raised their fists in victory, although literal victory was not theirs. But after four tough and sometimes brutal years, after all of the doubt and pressure, this team pulled Washington back up from the brink. Anyone who did not see that did not understand the tradition at Washington, or the fundamental purity and emotion of reaching for your greatest potential in sport. Fortunately this coach, and these young men, did.
To round out the year, and as a reward to a group of athletes that had shown strength of character throughout their tenure at Washington, Ernst would take a selected group of varsity athletes to Japan, along with a women’s contingent as well, to race in the Sumida River Water Festival. The teams practiced on the 1964 Tokyo Olympic course, and although the official race was cancelled due to a typhoon, the teams subsequently raced their Japanese university counterparts the next day, Washington prevailing. The Tohoku University team would subsequently be invited to race at the Windermere Cup in Seattle in 1990.
Later that year, Michael Fillipone rowed in the two-seat, and Rob Shepard rowed in the three-seat, of the U.S. eight that finished fourth at Worlds.
The men and women traveled to Japan July 31st – August 8th for the Sumida River Water festival, accompanied by UW cheerleaders and Miss Seafair. Chris Moore photo.
The Pac-10 Champ JV, left to right: Mitch Molitor, Chris Moore, Greg Cambell, Gordon Gruendell, Tom Lamotte, Tim Vekved, Toby Lumpkin, Rob Richardson, cox Derek Popp. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The 1989 team. Washington Athletic Department photo.
Sources for the 80’s: University of Washington, The Tyee, 1986-88; VBC Log Book, 1974-1981, MSCUA; VBC Log Book, 1982-1984, MSCUA; The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987, Jim Lemmon; “Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing, Stan Pocock; The Seattle Post Intelligencer, various articles (specifics available on request); The Seattle Times, various articles (specifics available on request); www.Rowinghistory.net, U.S. Team Boatings; Conversations/interviews with Bob Ernst, Rob Shepard, and Paul Yount.
Thank you VBC Loggers, The Seattle Times and Seattle Post Intelligencer for providing the balance of information for these years.
The history content on this website is copyrighted © 2001 – 2015 by Eric Cohen, ’82, Team Historian.