BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
In just the fifth year of its men's crew program, Western Washington State College (now Western Washington University) had a varsity four shell place fourth at the 71st Annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championship Regatta held on Saturday, June 2, 1973, at Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, NY. The performance proved to be the best nationally for the Vikings in that sport.
It was a last-minute decision for the Western contingent to go back east and would not have happened except for community support and individual rower participation to finance the trip. And the U.S. Coast Guard Academy was nice enough to loan them a shell.
What provided the impetus to go to a higher level were victories over partially varsity loaded University of Washington fours, one in a race at Western's home course on Lake Samish and another at Corvallis, Ore.
The Vikings began the IRA with an incredible showing.
In the qualifying heats on Thursday, May 31, Western posted the best time of the day by 12 seconds in winning the first heat with a 7:19.4 clocking over the 2,000-meter course, beating out Boston University, Trinity College IL and University of Pennsylvania. Coast Guard (7:46.2) and UCLA (7:31.2) were the other two heat winners.
In the IRA four grand final, Western was third for much of the way before fading to fourth with a time of 7:20.4. UCLA won in 7:03.6, followed by Coast Guard (7:12.3) and Yale (7:14.1). Behind the Vikings were Boston U. (7:27.4) and Kansas State (7:32.11).
"This is the best thing that has happened to us in the five-plus years of the program," said coach Bob Diehl (former University of Washington oarsman (1958 to 1961) and president of Diehl Ford) at the time. "We're disappointed that we didn't do better, but we proved that we could compete at the highest level and that means a lot to us."
"We were faster in our trial heat than we were in the final. I really feel that our crew spent too much time worrying about it."
In Western's boat were stroke Don Buthorn, who was in his second year as team captain, No.3 Brandon Keyes, No.2 Rick Maynard, bow Pat Burns and coxswain Jeff Hiroo. The group was the stern section of the Vikings' varsity eight that year.
There were 75 entries from 23 schools, the second largest field in IRA history.
"We sold group pictures of the travelling squad to help finance the trip to Syracuse," recalled Diehl. "We were housed in the same dorm as the "wild" middies from the United States Naval Academy. What an experience for the boys from Bellingham!"
"Because the UW was being penalized for a football rules violation when I was competing there, all sports were prohibited from national competition and I never got to row at the IRA. So it was really special to take a crew there as a coach."
A Season of Firsts
It was a season of landmarks for Western, which competed for the first time at the Opening Day Regatta in front of 60,000 spectators on Seattle's Montlake Cut, the Corvallis Invitational and the Western Sprints.
And because of a shortage of coxswains, the Vikings stirred the sport nationally by recruiting women to fill those spots (a women's rowing program at Western was still five years away). Judy Morton became the first female coxswain of a men's crew competing in the Opening Day extravaganza and was the first of her gender to do that in a major competition nationally.
In late April of 1973, Morton and her good friend and fellow coxswain Robin Tenney were interviewed by Associated Press Pacific Northwest sports editor Betty Hopper, who wrote:
"What's a coxswain?" asked Robin Tenney last November when friends were talking about the shortage of them for the Western Washington State College crew.
Now she knows. She is one.
Tenney and her long-time buddy Judy Morton call the cadence for the Vikings' lightweight and heavyweight crews, respectively.
"I didn't even know we had a crew," said Robin, who admits she wasn't interested in the job until a couple of months ago when she had moral support from Morton.
"I looked at Judy, and Judy looked at me and we kind of talked each other into it," she said. "That's when they told us the practices were at 5:30 in the morning."
It all began in a crowded dining hall at Western when Morton and Tenney could not find seats alone. So, they sat down at a table with three men, who as it turned out, were rowers.
"They said to come out to practice and take a look, said Morton, "that we'd just be riding in the launch the first day to see what it was like."
Instead, the pair found themselves in shells that first morning.
"It was a beautiful morning," Morton said. "The sunrise was great, the water perfect."
They were hooked. The next week it rained. It just poured and they both got drenched.
"We were freezing to death," said Morton. "It was terrible, but by then we enjoyed it. We were getting used to all the signals we had to learn, getting to know the guys and, besides, they needed coxswains."
The two freshmen, who grew up in waterfront homes near Olympia, found other hardships in addition to the 5:30 a.m. practices and weather.
"We had to spend all the break (between winter and spring quarters) and holidays at school for practices," said Morton. "That's the one thing we kind of missed. But it was fun -- the only two women around some 40 men. We cooked dinner for them a lot."
And then there were the hazards of the race itself. When Western competed against the University of British Columbia in the harbor at Vancouver, B.C.
"It was terrible," said Morton. "We were going out to warm up. A plane landed here and a plane landed there. A ship came out here, a ship came out there.
"We were lining up and this great big ship was backing out of its mooring, and we were there. Then a barge was over here, so we started the race really fast, and we weren't ready. There were logs in the water that we had to steer away from -- we lost."
How do you learn to be a coxswain?
"They put you in a boat and you go," said Tenney. "You learn from the stroke (oarsman) and the other coxswains."
"There are so many terms to learn," Morton said.
"It sounds simple," added Tenney, "but you have to be able to get them right and in the right order or you'll get everyone mixed up."
"It's kind of interesting," said Morton. "Talking to eight guys, telling them what to do."
"Especially," said Tenney, "when they're about three times as big as you are."
Both agreed that the most difficult part of being a coxswain involves perception, being able to tell where your shell is in relation to the others and judging the distance to the finish line.
Tenney's first victory came when the lightweight eight beat the UBC junior varsity. Morton set a high standard in her first race, the varsity eight boat beating Oregon State in a school record time of 6:18 at Lake Samish.
"Everyone was really excited," Morton said. "We got out of the boat and they said, `Let's get the coxswain!' So they got me and put me on their shoulders. All at once they pushed me up and over. I guess that I was about 10 feet in the air, and then ..."
"It was the biggest splash you ever saw," said Tenney.
Men's Crew Begins at WWU
In December of 1968, F.M. "Red" Haskell, the president of the Haskell Corporation in Bellingham, presented Western a check for $10,000 to start a crew program. Haskell had rowed at the University of Washington.
Al Stocker, general manager of the Am-Fab Corporation, was named the first coach. He rowed for the Huskies in the early 1950s, helped organize the Lake Washington Rowing Club in 1959 and competed in the LWRC four-oared shell at the 1960 Olympics.
On Feb. 20, 1969, Western's first crew practice was held on Lake Samish.
On April 19, 1969, George Pocock, the famed master craftsman of racing shells since 1912, christened Western's first two new shells, which his company built. Using a bottle of lake water, he named the eight-oared shell, the "Viking Red Haskell," and the four-oared shell, the "Viking Spirit of 69."
Western's first victory came that same day against Seattle University in a four-oared race. The Vikings' eight-oared shell won for the first time on May 3 against Puget Sound.
Western won the LaFromboise Cup race, symbolic of northwest racing supremacy not including the UW, nine times in 11 years, beginning in 1972.
Stocker left Bellingham after two years as coach and Western director of athletics William A. "Bill" Tomaras convinced Diehl to direct the program which he did for six seasons. Diehl was a 2003 inductee into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame.
On June 6, 1974, the WWU Board of Trustees honored retiring chair Harold C. Philbrick by establishing the Philbrick Cup to be given annually to the Viking rower who best exemplified leadership, dedication and inspiration. A 1930 UW graduate, Philbrick was a member of the Husky crew for three years and later served on the school's Board of Rowing Stewards.
Female coxswains a boon to WWSC Crew
Their voices may be a little higher-pitched, but having two female coxswains is proving a boon indeed for the Western Washington State College men's crew team.
Getting coxswains has been a major problem for WWSC coach Bob Diehl. There don't seem to be many smaller statured men around who want to get up at 4:30 every morning for practice.
Thus, last November, members of the Western crew asked freshman co-eds Judy Morton and Robin Tenney if they might be interested.
"When we first came to school, we didn't even know crew was a sport at Western," said Morton. "And at the time it didn't sound too appealing."
"But one evening a couple of months later we were asked again and decided to give it a try."
The women were immediately impressed by the beauty of the early morning.
"The sunrise that first day was really beautiful," said Judy. "That really got to us and we decided to continue."
"It didn't matter that the next week it rained every day and we were soaked," laughed Tenney.
The two friends, who had known each other since grade school in their hometown of Olympia, became roommates soon after joining the team.
"We had to make it to practice by 5:30 a.m. anyway," said Morton.
The first two days of practice were a trial for both the two women and the 40 men rowers.
"At first we weren't really too sure what the guys thought," Morton said. "Some of them really liked it, but others wondered about it. Now, they accept us as part of the team."
Traditionally a coxswain has been a rather cocky individual, one who shouts instructions to the rest of the rowers in the shell. Participating in calisthenics prior to practice was considered beneath him.
But the tradition cracking duo soon changed that.
"We wanted to do the exercises," explained Tenney. "And when we started doing them, the guy coxswains on the team couldn't let the girls show them up, so they began doing them too."
Both women easily meet the first criteria of a coxswain - small. In fact, Robin doesn't even meet the minimum weight requirement of 110 pounds. So, she has to carry a sandbag with her.
"But there's much more to it than that," Morton said. "The coxswain also steers the shell and instructs the oarsmen on what to do and when to do it."
"Also, you must be good at judging distances, informing your boat on how much further it has to go and being able to know where you are in relation to the other shells racing."
Tenney added, "Another part of being a good coxswain is the psychological aspect, keeping the guys in a good frame of mind."
Both Morton and Tenney agree that the experience has been fantastic.
"It's sure changing our lives," said Morton. "The crew is really a bunch of great guys with extremely friendly personalities."
"And the excitement of hearing the pre-race pep talk and the thrill of winning is really something," added Tenney.
"We've never been a part of a sport so exciting or that meant so much," continued Morton. "When we won that race, I've never been so happy in my life."
The race to which Morton refers was Western's season opener against Oregon State University on Lake Samish. It was the debut for both women.
"We had no idea what Oregon State was like or for that matter what a real race was like," said Morton.
Whatever concerns the duo may have had proved unfounded. Morton directed her varsity eight shell to victory in a new course record time of 6:18 over 2,000 meters. She was also in the winning varsity four boat.
Tenney's junior varsity eight trailed by a length and a half at the finish.
Both women have great expectations for the rest of the season. Asked if they will continue to be a part of the team over their remaining three years at Western, both replied in unison, "Yes, definitely."
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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