BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO COURTESY EMORY CLARK
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Conn Findlay recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He is one of the most decorated American Olympic athletes, two gold medals and one bronze in the coxed pair and a bronze medal in sailing after giving up his oar. A coxed pair, you say? If you’re under the age of 40, you may be surprised to hear that this event was one of the backbones of traditional men’s rowing. Popular especially for rowing wherever visibility and steering were challenging, it was an Olympic event from 1900 to 1992. Although it was sometimes derided as being more like moving a piano than moving a boat, some of history’s greatest oarsmen rowed the boat.
Findlay won gold in 1956, bronze in 1960, and returned to the top step of the podium in Tokyo in 1964, each time rowing with a different partner. That’s where this story takes place. Emory Clark, a friend and loyal correspondent of Doctor Rowing, as well as a gold medalist in the 1964 USA eight, reminded me of Findlay’s birthday. Clark told this story:
“In the run-up to the Tokyo games, Boyce Budd, who was a year behind me at Yale, and I were training in a coxed pair out of the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia with the idea of winning the Olympic trials in August. What made us think we could beat Conn and whomever he was rowing with I don’t know, but before we had a chance to try, we found ourselves under considerable pressure from Jack Kelly, Grace’s brother and the power behind Vesper Boat Club, to row in the Vesper eight in the July trials. While we weren’t very optimistic–the Vesper eight hadn’t been fast that spring–two shots at the Games were better than one, so we told Kell we would get in his eight, but before committing, we made him promise that even if we won in the eight we could race the coxed pair, and thus Conn, in the U.S. nationals two weeks later. After winning the eight trials in July, when we beat Harvard, racing the coxed pair was less necessary, however.
“Why we thought we needed to race Conn in the nationals I’m not sure, but Kelly was good to his word. We beat Conn’s pair by a heartbeat and found ourselves a week later in Amsterdam at the European championships, where we finished seventh, not even making the finals.
“Fast forward 56 years, when Kent Mitchell, Conn’s coxswain in all three of those Olympics all those years ago, invited me and a good many other oarsmen of that era to Conn’s 90th birthday party on Zoom. Lacking the technical expertise to Zoom, I wrote Conn a note for Kent to pass on. It read:
Happy Birthday, Conn. You don’t know it but you featured in one of the more memorable moments in my experience at the ’64 Games in Tokyo, a moment, however brief, that has stayed with me through the years.
You will recall that the finals were postponed until almost dark, leaving the oarsmen (me anyway) to cope any way they could with their ravaged nerves. Finally, we got the word to put our eight in the water and, as we were lifting it off the rack, I heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” playing over in front of the stands. While I thought I knew who that must be for, I wasn’t sure (being otherwise focused on my boat, my fears, my determination, and the Ratzeburg crew that had beaten us by less than a second in the first heat).
As we walked down the dock with the boat on our shoulders to put it in the water, we passed you and Ed Ferry and Kent coming the other way with your gold medals around your necks. For just that poignant moment I thought, ‘Damn, we beat those guys. Why do I have to go out (in what was then twilight) and try to beat the Germans?’
It passed, that second in time, as I had to focus on the Germans already on the course, but that fleeting second still resonates. I am glad to have the chance to tell you about it now.
Yours for the last ten,
Kent Mitchell added in a note to Clark, “As Ed (Ferry, bowman) and I were driving back to Seattle after the nationals with our tails between our legs, we were in North Dakota, and for some reason heard on the car radio that you had not made it to the finals in Amsterdam. We knew then we must have been pretty slow in Orchard Beach (site of the U.S. nationals). We thought, ‘Oh shoot, we’re screwed even if we get to Tokyo.’
“In Tokyo in our heat we drew the Germans, two other finalists from Amsterdam, and the Czech pair that was not in Amsterdam but had beaten the German European champions a week or two later. We knew we were now much faster, having spent two months cleaning up our releases, and then we won our heat. Up to that time there had been ‘no pressure.’ I remember standing in the shower after we won the heat when Conn turned to Ed and said simply, ‘We can win this thing,’ and then it all became so tense, especially having to wait five days before the final with nothing but wind and rain in between. All of which makes a good story with a fairy-tale ending.”
Clark closed his correspondence with me by writing, “It is amazing to me how rowing stays in my life, one way or another. I’m grateful.”
Aren’t we all?