Quitting or The Confessions of a Veteran Oarsman

By Emory Clark

I quit the other day – on my erg – with a minute to go on my last piece. Somehow mind and body combined to make me believe I could not row another stroke. So I just stopped. Imagine! Only a minute to go.

It cast a pall on my day (I row early). No matter that I was down in my basement, all by myself, miles from a boat or water, and probably months from my next race. Quitting is shameful, it is the antithesis of competition, it is unthinkable, it is un-American. And I had to live with it all day, and night. Until my next go in the erg. I row on an old Gamut, the implacable blue monster that won’t tolerate it if you let up on even one stroke, just getting twice as heavy on the next.

I have let the erg beat me before, but I never had to tell anybody about it. And I always do a penance piece, or two. So I get the workout in. But that doesn’t help much. Quitting is inexcusable, carrying with it is a moral taint, often imposed by those who never have the courage to try, more often by yourself.

If you quit in the race it is a personal tragedy you carry with you a lifetime, or at least until your next race. In 1960, in a Yale crew, I quit in the Harvard race after about the first ten strokes. Oh, I didn’t stop rowing. I pulled, I slugged, I hammered away for the four miles. But after ten strokes I knew in the pit of my stomach we had lost (not only the feel of the boat, but Harvard already had a length) and stopped competing. We had not made the finals at the Sprints which Harvard had won. Despite all the brave words, despite knowing “it ain’t over till it’s over,” despite God and country and a hundred years’ tradition, I could not make myself race those four miles. I was not to find redemption until four years later in the U.S. Eight on the dark, choppy waters of Japan’s TODA rowing course.

With hindsight, that debacle against Harvard in the Thames can certainly be said to have provided me with a definite edge in the ’64 Olympic campaign which was characterized by a certain viciousness, born no doubt of remembered shame(and pain), in my approach to my training, to each stroke pulled, each mile rowed or run. Losing might just be tolerable, but never again would I permit myself to undergo such an appalling failure of will and courage. Any amount of early morning workouts, bursting lungs, bone weary fatigue, physical pain was preferable to that. I would find courage in my training.

As I reflect now on courage, physical, moral, spiritual, it seems clear that in boat races you are dealing with perhaps the easiest kind, physical courage, to fight or run, to keep going or quit. Each workout, each race carries with it a new challenge of courage which must be coped with as if one has never been tested. Theoretically, if you lose and have done absolutely all you can, you should pass out one stroke past the finish line.

But quitting, stopping rowing, resting on your oar, that is something you pray you never do and almost never see. We are used to watching oarsmen slump over when they cross the finish. We revel in their relief. We’re not used to seeing them stop a hundred meters before the line. When they do, we cringe inside, our first reaction one of horror, and then we search for plausible explanations, a reason, such as a jumped slide or a broken rigger or a heart attack, any excuse that will turn the awful sinking feeling of having witnessed cowardice into one of simple, clean regret.

I got the former feeling at the Pan American regatta this past summer after watching some of the Cuban crews in the last 500, some others where it appeared an oarsman had simply stopped rowing or a boat did a right angle turn. I couldn’t get that worrisome black cloud out of my mind on the drive home to Michigan from Indianapolis. Without knowing any of their inside stories, I felt enormous sympathy for the oarsman for whom an overwhelming convergence of factors, physical and mental, made it impossible to go on, made the unthinkable, inevitable. I know how they felt, more importantly how they would feel.

I started to ponder quitting. Very seldom does an oarsman just stop rowing before the end of a race. Quitting is more often a mental convolution than a physical act. Most of the time you are still rowing, up and down the slide, oar through the water, but you’re not racing anymore, you’re not sitting up straight, getting your hands away, trying to be part of the crew. You’ve conceded like I did in that long ago Harvard race, but unlike a chess game, you don’t get up and walk away.

Of course, there are lots of ways to quit and still keep rowing. You can take the water over your ankles, finish over your thighs. You can ease up on the pull-through, let the other guys do it. You can, as I say, just let your mind slip out of its nobody-is-going-to-get-by-me competitive gear, just row along, the difference so subtle nobody knows except you (and maybe the guy in front of you you’ve rowed with four years).

I think maybe every oarsman has wanted to quit, has seriously contemplated quitting in a race at some time in his career. Except maybe Harry Parker (a Harvard rowing coach) or Teddy Nash (gold medalist and two time Olympian). There are always exceptions: the guys that stop being human when they have an oar in their hands and some says “partez”. They’ve usually jumped the start anyway. But most of us mere mortals have harbored that shameful thought.

A few years ago in the Head of the Charles I got myself in a situation I had promised myself I would never allow again. Two miles out in the Compote four with the boat we wanted to beat (Fairmount) already a minute ahead, and the boat we didn’t want to lose to (New Haven) rapidly closing the gap. Our boat had three Yale gold medalists in it: Tommy Charlton, captain and bowman of the Yale ’56 Olympic eight, Bill Becklean who coxed that boat, and me. The stroke was Johnny Higginson, captain of the Harvard ’62 crew (also rowing in the Harward eight that beat the ’60 Yale crew featured in the bginning of the piece), and the bowman was Dietrich Rose, a German, who was one of my Olympic coaches in ’64. We called ourselves the Compote Rowing Association (mixture of fruits and nuts in a sauce) and raced with considerable success in Veterans’ regattas for ten years from Prague to Adelaide. But not this time. Our four hadn’t rowed together in three months, no practice, and despite my diligence on the erg I clearly was not in shape to row three miles into a headwind – from behind. The wheels began to come off in the second mile and the unthinkable (getting clobbered by Fairmount and even losing to New Haven) became very possible.

New Haven was beginning to come at the Harvard boathouse, where I heard my daughter whoop (why did she have to be there?) and tried to stick it in. We were in a survival row, but not one of the good kind, where the boat surges and the oars sing and you row happy to meet the exhaustion you know will coincide with the finish. By Harvard, we stopped being a crew, were rather four guys working hard in a boat, each coping with the unfolding disaster and the pain in his own way (I do not know what a coxswain feels in that situation; probably helpless, disgusted, wishing he could get out). I wanted to quit. I thought about quitting. The idea of another mile was intolerable.

New Haven, relentless now, became irrelevant, and the battle became one of the retaining self-respect. That effort, unfortunately, meant continuing to row, to pull, to move up the slide for another catch. My body did not want to do that, my mind voted against it, too, and my soul, the final arbiter of human dignity, was ready to capitulate. It hurts a lot more when you’re not rowing well, of course, because you are working harder to less effect, and it hurts a lot more when you’re losing.

Going into the Cambridge Boat Club turn, Dietrich wanted to take it up (where did he get the breath to talk?), while Beck suggested pulling harder, a power ten. Both seemed clear impossibilities. The water at the catch felt like cement, arms like rubber, legs burning.

New Haven had its bow on our stern and we were soon in one of those wonderfully exciting jam-ups just before the bridge that are so much fun to watch but, I discovered, not to row in. We were passing some slow boat on the inside of the turn with the New Haven trying to sandwich in between us. For five strokes my blade was less than six inches from New Haven’s bow and then as they wedged up even further between us I was almost touching the two man’s oar. I tried to hit it, to break a blade, cause a collision, but I couldn’t. Anything to end the pain, to allow me to stop rowing – with honor. I prayed. Maybe the river God’s would intervene with a flood, a tidal wave, a typhoon. The harried mind plays fantastical games. But the Gods looked the other way, and by the time we sorted ourselves out under the bridge New Haven had the inside on the last long bend and drove on by us, their final challenge going unanswered. We had nothing left to do but to row it in with our heads up, the last half mile lasting two eternities. There was nothing to do but not quit. Too bad it’s so hard to tip over in a four. In a telephonic post mortem with my daughter she said it looked like Mr. Charlton was going to die but she knew he wouldn’t because he was Mr. Charlton. Further, that we weren’t rowing nearly as well as we had done earlier that year in Toronto and that she had a sinking feeling in her stomach. I guess that’s called reciprocal filial suffering. When I told her we had come in third out of ten master’s crews and that our time would have put us fifteenth out of 42 boats among all the fours, elite and veterans, she said, “Gosh Dad, you’re still good when you’re bad.” Maybe. It is a point of view. I thank the River Gods that looked away that I didn’t quit. Once in a rowing lifetime is enough.

1 comment to Quitting or The Confessions of a Veteran Oarsman

  • Dcspencer1940@gmail.com

    Em: glad you quit before it’s too late! I’m down here on VA with Captain Tom and Reid for New Years – keep rowing before you get older.. Duncan C. Spencer (capt. 1962)

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