Fifty years after it beat the Soviets behind the Iron Curtain, the Washington men's crew reunites to remember one of the greatest upsets in rowing history.
Fifty years ago, they were stout and impervious young men. They revered their coach, who was known as the Dour Dane. While in the water, winning occupied their concerns, and not even the Cold War altered their focus.
Members of the 1958 Washington men’s crew stood effectively naive. They just rowed, no matter what. When they found themselves in Moscow on July 19 that year, as the first United States sports team in the Soviet Union since World War II, they sought a mere victory. The significance of the moment could wait. Fifty years later, they’re still trying to grasp the accomplishment.
“I don’t think there was one moment of epiphany that made us realize what we did,” said Chuck Alm, the team captain. “I think it’s kind of been building for 50 years.”
Last week, the team reunited to remember one of the greatest moments in Seattle sports history. Five decades have thinned the group. Coach Al Ulbrickson died 28 years ago. Dick Erickson, the No. 2 man and former UW crew coach, died seven years ago. No. 7 man Andy Hovland couldn’t attend because of health reasons. However, the other seven teammates came to reminisce.
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On Thursday, the 101 Club honored them. Then the men, all in their 70s now, traveled to Leavenworth to celebrate with their families. They laughed. They watched old video. They laughed some more. They relived college life. They listened to Stan Pocock, their old freshman team coach, rib them. They ended by saying, “Hey, we’ve gotta do this every year!”
“It’s kind of amazing that 50 years went by that fast,” said John Sayre, who was the stroke.
Sayre went on to win a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. Despite his many accomplishments, Sayre knows he will always be remembered around here for helping the Huskies beat the Soviets. It’s a legacy they all embrace, one that time continues to swell.
The goal was never to become legendary for diplomacy. At first, the UW crew just craved ways to race. The NCAA had placed the entire athletic department on probation because of football rules violations. Even though the NCAA has never governed men’s crew, the International Rowing Association didn’t allow Washington to compete for the national championship.
During the 1957 and 1958 seasons, the Huskies struggled to find meaningful competition. The senior-laden 1958 team, which had only one junior (Bob Svendsen), received a great opportunity when it was invited to the Henley Regatta in England. The rowers raised $15,000 in a couple of days to fund the trip, mostly by selling $1 buttons that read “On To Henley.”
In England, they started to hear rumors that they might be invited to the Soviet Union if they fared well. The Huskies figured they needed to win and remain undefeated. In the first round, however, they lost to a Russian team, the Leningrad Trud Club, by a boat length.
The older, bigger Russians had intimidated the Huskies. Disappointed, the seniors assumed their collegiate careers would end with the poor showing. Then the Soviets invited the Huskies to compete in Moscow.
“We were all convinced the only reason we got invited to Moscow was so they could beat us again and show the superiority of the Russian athlete,” said John Bisset, the coxswain.
Behind the Iron Curtain, they saw posters promoting the race that identified the Huskies as the United States of America, not the University of Washington. It was an eye-opening moment for the college students.
“As insignificant as a crew race seems, in the propaganda of Cold War, this was a big deal,” Alm said.
President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops into Lebanon during the Huskies’ time in Moscow. Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson was working for KOMO-AM radio at the time and came to cover the race. He told the team he saw 250,000 people protesting at the U.S. embassy on the day Eisenhower made the move.
The Huskies stuffed away their shock and continued training. By race day, they were focused. They wound up beating the Leningrad Trud crew and three other Russian teams by about two lengths on the 2,000-meter Khimkinskoe Reservoir course.
This wasn’t “Rocky IV.”. This was a real-life, symbolic triumph. The Soviets, gracious hosts the entire time, accepted the defeat with class. At a post-race banquet, the Soviets gave each Husky a fifth of Russian vodka to take home.
The rowers gathered in a hotel room that night, nervous over whether to open the vodka. What if Ulbrickson, their gruff coach, walked in on them drinking? Ulbrickson was a no-nonsense leader. The athletes listened to everything he said, obeyed his every command. They wouldn’t risk Ulbrickson catching them drunk in the Soviet Union of all places. The words “international incident” came to mind.
As they pondered what to do, Ulbrickson came into the room. He smiled.
“Well, what are you guys doing?” he asked.
“Well, would you like a drink?”
The Dour Dane poured a half glass of vodka and forced it down with one gulp. The team was shocked. Then Ulbrickson passed around the glass and his fifth, and each took a sip. It was a fitting private celebration for members of a true team sport.
Fifty years later, they still chuckle over that story. They’re husbands, fathers and retirees now. They’re barrier-breaking legends. Yet they’ll always be nervous college students in a room, sipping on the hard stuff, reveling.
The world has changed so much since then. There is no Cold War anymore. There is no Soviet Union. Somehow, however, the impact of the 1958 Huskies remains intact.
“Fifty years, and it’s hard to believe it has been that long,” Alm said. “The calendar says it has been. So do our bodies, I guess.”
From locked-out collegians to champion diplomats to grizzled storytellers, the community still looks at them with awe. The rowers blush and shake their heads.
They’re effectively naive, once more.