On hand to guide them was Harry Parker, the legendary Harvard men’s crew coach who overcame his doubts about the ability of women to withstand the rigors of hard training. From their first dramatic bid at the 1975 World Championships to their preparations for their first Olympic Games in 1976, this gripping story of bravery, determination, and indomitable spirit captures a compelling moment in the history of sports and of America.
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The Red Rose Crew
A True Story of Women, Winning, and the Water
By Daniel J. Boyne
Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, IncCopyright © 2000 Daniel J. Boyne
All rights reserved.
At the 1956 National Rowing Championships in Syracuse, New York, a three-year-old girl sat impatiently beside her mother, waiting for her dad to row by. It was difficult to wait, and it was difficult to be small. When a woman sitting next to them in the bleachers suddenly dropped her glasses, Carie got a lucky break. She was the only one small enough to fit through the space in the seats where the glasses had disappeared. Momentarily, she felt very important. She was already proud of the fact that she'd been chosen by her parents to attend the regatta, while her younger brother and sister had been left back in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Carie had lorded this over the two of them, especially her brother, Ross, parading by him to the car as he played in the sandbox at the baby-sitter's house.
Crew races were difficult events to watch, regardless of age or experience. From the bleachers, located near the finish line, you couldn't see the first half of the race or witness the crews going off the starting line in a brilliant flurry of bodies and oars. If you had really good eyes, or a decent set of binoculars, you might be able to spot them from a distance of one mile — not the boats themselves or even the people in them, but the regular, rhythmic flashing of the blades, feathering out of the water between strokes. This was one good reason to paint your oars a bright color, like the red blades of the Wisconsin crew slowly approaching the stands.
Early on in the history of the sport, various efforts had been made to help bring spectators within viewing distance of the crews. Railroads were built alongside rivers, like the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, where the Nationals had once been held. They were expensive to maintain, unreliable in speed, and still didn't put the audience close enough to the action. Spectator boats, which trailed behind the crews, had also been tried with mixed results. Some were decked out with jazz bands and served champagne, to give the event a more festive air. But here the problem was how to get close enough to the race without disturbing the crews, either with an errant wake or a noisy blast from the band.
In the end, these attempts hardly seemed worth the effort. Baseball, basketball, and football came along and attracted thousands of fans, all corralled in a central place. And while stadiums made money, rivers didn't. Beyond the logistics of watching a crew race, it was difficult to put a fence around a body of water that might stretch for miles in either direction. It was done in England, at Henley, but that was different. There, rowing had become an elitist sport, and Henley part of the British high social calendar.
American rowing had much more working-class roots. Some of the greatest American rowers were the sons of Irish immigrants hoping to better their social and financial status. Once the sport began to lose its support from the general public, it could not put on aristocratic airs. Consequently, it was reduced to a much lesser role and witnessed by a small audience of true aficionados. There were other reasons, too, why the fans drifted away: the lack of violence, or even contact, between the teams, the repetitive motion within a crew. Everyone seemed to do the same thing, and this lack of independent action among the players discounted the notion of individual stars. For all its teamwork ethic, America loved heroes.
Robert Graves, the captain of the Wisconsin varsity crew, was a hero in his own right. A Korean War veteran, he had been part of the first Army Raider unit, trained by British Commandos, and had earned a Silver Star for bravery He was a man of great physical and moral stature. At 6 feet 5 inches and 205 pounds, he was big, even for an oarsman, and being older and more worldly-wise than most of the other men in the boat, he had an unspoken, commanding presence. When the rest of the team had tried to give him a regulation "crew cut" that spring, he had physically resisted several attempts with the razor, and a few of the perpetrators had gotten cut. Finally coach Norm Sanjou had suggested to the team that it might be better to just leave him alone.
The Wisconsin oarsmen were often quite large, and there were perennial jokes about the "farm boy" midwesterners. Bigger didn't always mean better, but the Badgers usually did well at the Nationals, generally placing in the top four of the six-boat final. Still, it was difficult for them to beat the Ivy League crews like Yale, who definitely upstaged them off the water, by coming to dinner dressed in their smart blue blazers.
To go along with their bright red blades, the Wisco crew had red shirts with a broad white band running straight down from each shoulder. As the crews came into view, Carie saw the blades first and then the bodies. Finally, she saw the boats themselves, just slivers of wood that were actually over sixty feet long, beautifully hand-crafted from mahogany or western red cedar. The shells were so narrow and rode so low in the water that on a choppy day at Lake Onandaga, a few waves could completely obscure them from view or even swamp the boat entirely. From a distance, especially in the eyes of a child, it looked like the people in the boats were somehow riding miraculously on top of the waves, with nothing underneath them.
The crews glided by the grandstand in a stately procession of oars, boats, and bodies. It was hard enough for Cane to make out the Wisconsin crew, let alone pick out her father in the five seat. Even for her mother, Dyrele, it was difficult to distinguish all the crews from one another and impossible to tell how hard the oarsmen were actually working. What they saw instead was a graceful, synchronous movement of bodies and oars that was almost mesmerizing. Had it not been for the shouting of the coxswains who steered the boats and called for more power, the whole thing might have seemed like a staged parade.
The close order of finish sustained the illusion. All five boats covered the 2000-meter course within seven seconds of one another. By crew standards, that was fairly tight racing. It meant that all the teams were worthy of one another, with barely a boat length separating first from last place.
Just the week before, on the very same lake, Wisconsin had finished third at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships, competing against some of the same colleges. Over a grueling, three-mile course, they had even beaten their arch-rival, the University of Washington. Cornell and Navy had been first and second, respectively. It had been a decent day for the Badgers, who had edged out Stanford and UPenn — not to mention Princeton, Syracuse, and MIT. It always felt good to beat the East Coast teams, who had an air of superiority. So what if Harvard and Yale hadn't been there, engaged in their annual duel on the Thames, in New London, Connecticut — theirs was a snooty, private race that had been the very reason why the IRAs were created in 1895.
But for this race Yale was present, vying for the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. They crossed the finish line three seconds ahead of the pack, trailed closely by Cornell, Navy, and Washington. This time around, the Badgers finished last. It was Robert Graves' senior year, and not the best way to end his college rowing days.
But Wisconsin would be back to try again.
* * *
The Graves Family drove back to Madison together in their station wagon, while the rest of the team rode on the bus. A few years later, when Robert finished his graduate degree in landscape architecture, they packed up their Ford again and moved back to where he was born, just outside of Spring Green. Wyoming Valley, Wisconsin, was a small farming community with a population of 1200. The locals in nearby Spring Green sometimes referred to it as the "Valley of the God Almighty Joneses" — a begrudging tribute to the Welsh founding fathers, who happened to be the five uncles of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright himself had extended his family's ownership of Wyoming Valley by developing a world famous fellowship of architects, known as Taliesin, right in the middle of the rural Wisconsin farmland.
It was an odd, oil-and-water mix — the conservative farmers and the bohemian members of the fellowship. Unsurprisingly, the two groups were often at odds with one another, especially during WWII and the Korean War, when the Taliesin group became conscientious objectors and were eventually looked upon by the locals as Communist sympathizers. The local business people refused to wait on them in various stores and restaurants, and even Carie's father, Robert, had a difficult time with this when he was growing up. It was only later that he managed to live in peace with both groups without being ostracized by either.
Robert's father established the original connection to Taliesin. He single-handedly managed the odd collection of farms, outbuildings, and architects' houses that lay within the 400-acre property As a boy, Robert helped his dad with this work and inherited a fruitful tie to the Taliesin Fellowship, but it was one that sometimes made his friends suspicious. This distrust, and the treatment he received from merchants, may have influenced his decision to enlist in the Army and serve in the Korean War. He came back four years later with a Silver Star for bravery in action, leaving little doubt in anyone's mind as to his sense of patriotism.
He got married soon after, started having kids, and went back to school at the University of Wisconsin to finish his degree in landscape architecture. Taliesin had left its mark. So had the war. He was a man who did what he pleased and didn't care what others thought. The people of Spring Green, however, now treated him with such deference and respect that many began to refer to their town as the "Valley of the God Almighty Graveses."
His first daughter, Carie, was to inherit some of this strong sense of independence, as well as his looming physical presence. At 5 feet 10 inches, her mother wasn't small either, but Carie had her father's bones and inner temperament. By sophomore year in high school, she had already reached her full height of 6 feet 1 inch. It made her uncomfortable to be so tall. As she grew up, she also found it wasn't easy to live under the shadow of such a great man. Robert Graves was a stern disciplinarian, who had definite ideas about how his children should be raised.
Through his Taliesin connections, Graves leased and then bought a small farm, known as Aldebaren. While he went about his career as a landscape architect, his five children worked on the 160-acre property They went to school with other farm kids in a tiny, two-room schoolhouse. It was a lifestyle that exposed them to the principle of hard work, but it was tempered by the bohemian atmosphere of Taliesin, with its constant influx of artists, writers, and actors from all over the world who were drawn to the rural community during the summer. These sophisticates brought with them an exotic approach to life that Carie had never seen before.
Even before she finished high school, Carie had begun to grow restless on the family farm and impatient with the restrictions imposed by her parents. At age sixteen, she spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel as part of the Experiment in International Living, and learned a little more about life through the acquaintance of some city girls from New York and New Jersey. She came home smoking cigarettes, hemmed up her dress twice, and carried on with an attitude of carefree independence. When her parents informed her that she couldn't smoke on the premises, she simply walked down to the highway that defined the eastern boundary of their property and puffed away, standing on the edge of the asphalt. She threw her butts right into their mailbox, to make doubly sure they knew exactly what she was doing.
Her parents were mortified and totally unprepared for the rebellious behavior of their eldest child. By the time she graduated from high school, Carie had become insufferable and the tension between her and her parents had greatly escalated. Her mother resorted to small punishments to try to control her. But one day when Dyrele lost her temper and slapped her face, Carie simply turned her head the other way and said, "Would you like to slap the other cheek?" It was no use, and her mother knew it. Her daughter had become too much for her to handle, and any physical and mental advantage she held over her child had completely disappeared.
Carie was big, strong-willed, and knew that real life existed elsewhere, outside the perimeter of the 160-acre farm. Even her father had exhausted his influence. One day, toward the end of the summer, he instructed her to make everyone's sandwiches for lunch. She was the eldest child and this was one of her responsibilities. When Carie started throwing dishes around in protest, he suddenly flew into a fit of rage and ordered her to get out of the house. That was it, she decided. She knew her dad really didn't want her to leave for good, but she was stubborn and felt like she had to make a stand. So instead of returning home, she moved in with a friend and made plan to attend the University of Wisconsin. It was a short, forty-mile drive from Spring Green, and many of her high school friends were already enrolled there.
Madison was a lively college town that had more than its share of bars and breweries. If Wisconsin was a beer-brewing state, then Madison was one of the prime places to drink it. It was 1971 and a good year to be a young woman starting off on her own. Cane took advantage of all the social venues around campus, but she was also looking forward to the academic challenges of the university itself. By all outward appearances she was decidedly bohemian, with long chestnut hair parted down the middle and unshaven legs often covered by a pair of bell-bottoms. Underneath all this, however, lay a brooding mind that easily grew bored with meaningless pursuits. Although she loved to read on her own, Carie soon discovered that much of academia was less than inspiring. By the beginning of sophomore year, she had reached a motivational standstill.
One day in zoology class, while studying a species of worm called a nematode, she decided to drop out of college entirely As an honors student, she was required to fill out a form to do so and state the reason for her withdrawal. The bookish Graves wrote down a quote from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: "We move with a motion so dream-like, so soporific, that it is as if time but not space were decreasing between it and us." The "it" for Carie was knowledge, and she felt she was not getting any closer to it.
For three months she just hung out with friends, then started working various jobs — selling Christmas trees, working the "graveyard" shift at Dunkin' Donuts — in order to save up for a trip to Europe. She had read James Michener's novel The Drifters, which detailed the wanderings of a group of youths in the '60s. Among other things, the book described miles of glistening, sandy beaches on an Italian coastline. That sounded like real life to Carie, far away from both her family farm and the theoretical confines of the university.
She was an attractive, nineteen-year-old American girl, hitchhiking around Europe alone. She had no real itinerary, no definite plan of action. For once, she wanted to take life as it came. Nights were spent in the open air or in youth hostels. Occasionally, she joined up with other travelers, like a fun-loving group of Japanese tourists, who drove her from France to northern Norway, singing old Elvis Presley songs. There she watched the midnight sun descend from the sky, briefly touch the ocean in a moment of red brilliance, and rise up again. Magically, here, there was no such thing as night.
Much of her trip was filled with this simple magic, but some of it was spent escaping from the unwanted attentions of older men. Her height and carefree American attitude were often mistaken for age and experience. In Sweden, a man invited her back to his house for dinner, introduced her to his wife and children, and then boldly propositioned her. Usually luck, not good judgment, kept her out of harm's way.
In Severn, Germany, she was picked up by a truck driver, who gave her cigarettes and cookies and generously showed her around the town. Toward the end of the day, when it was getting dark, her host began to drive her out of town, down a long dirt road. His broken English wasn't sufficient to describe where they were going, but it looked like they were headed for the countryside. Just as Carie began to get concerned, the road suddenly opened up to reveal a beautiful brick convent. She spent the night on a cot, safe among the nuns, and woke up surrounded by the majesty of the Black Forest. It was her twentieth birthday.
Still, despite the moments of beauty, Carie had begun to grow tired of traveling. She hitched a ride on a ferry from a fjord in Norway and rode it all the way to Florence, Italy, still in search of her Italian beach. Finally she thought she found it in the western coastal city of Livorno. Unfortunately, she had chosen an industrial port, with more aggressive Italian sailors than shimmering shores. She did find a beach, but it was covered with tar balls. She was running out of money and had a decision to make — go to France and pick grapes in September, or return home from her summer of wandering.
Excerpted from The Red Rose Crew by Daniel J. Boyne. Copyright © 2000 Daniel J. Boyne. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Red Rose Crew,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a newcomer to the rowing scene, the authors really helped the reader realize what was at stake for these competitive rowers/athletes. This book detailed the start of women's competitive rowing with a mismatched group of egocentic, athletic, go-getters who had all made a place for themselves in their own rowing circles, but wanted the satisfaction of making it in the international sports arena. Thoroughly enjoyable in it's development of the team over time.....right down to the almost missed final race at the Henley!
The inspiring story of a group of women every bit as driven as any male athlete that sports can offer. This is their formative story. If you are looking for female role models look no further. And for the record, more than twenty years later, members of this group are still winning -- 2002 Head of Charles Masters 8 Women, crew Etas Unis, an impressive first place. Put this on your Must Have list.
I am a rower and this book helped me get a better understanding to how far women have come to make equality in sports...especially rowing which is a very demanding (both physically and mentally) sport. I recommend this book to anyone, both athlete and non-athlete. Even if you have no interest in becoming a rower (even though I do recommend it, its a great work out and very rewarding)....but this book has so many meaning and the achievements of the women in the book can be applied to other aspects of life! I personally couldn't put it down! It is a great book!
A fabulous and inspiring book for all to read.
This was a really great book on rowing and on womens sports. As a participant in womens sports, it helped me realize how far we've come in fairness to women in the past few decades and also what some of these women had to go through to get us to where we are today. Anybody who knows rowing will love the book, but it's inspirational for everybody, whether male or female, athlete or non-athlete.