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A Jolly Good Show, Old Sport : Oxford and Cal Help Give UCLA’s Rowing Program a Big Boost

Times Staff Writer

During the centuries before steamships were invented in 1807, you couldn’t get a man to row a boat for love or money.

So they used convict labor.

Instead of life in prison, thieves and murderers got life in a galley, where they were chained to an oar and pulled it until the day they died.

One man’s misery, however, is another man’s pie a la mode. At Marina del Rey Saturday, 24 broad-backed college students from Cal, Oxford and UCLA rowed their way up a creek. For sport.

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And when they reached the finish line in their long (60-foot), thin (1 1/2-foot), fragile boats, Cal’s eight-oared crew had won by seven seconds.

In a photo finish, the Bruins held second by two inches.

Oxford got the prize for coming the farthest.

The timers said the Bruin and British eights finished the 2,000 meters in 5:50 behind Cal’s 5:43.

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No MVP was named. Eight guys rowing a boat look pretty much alike.

On the shores of Ballona Creek, a crowd estimated at 7,000 by the sheriffs, and up to 30,000 by others, watched on a dark, raw day that made the English oarsmen feel at home.

“We had hoped to be more competitive with Cal,” Oxford Coach Daniel Topolski said. “But UCLA did very well, too--and the main reason we came was to publicize the UCLA rowing program.”

The main reason Cal came was to win.

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Cal Coach Tim Hodges, whose 1985 entry finished sixth nationally last June, said: “We’re a better crew this year because our average height is 6-5 (up from 6-2 1/2).”

UCLA’s first-year coach, James C. Sims, and his guests, Hodges and Topolski, watched the race on television monitors in the crowded press box atop the UCLA boat house, a half-mile from the starting line and more than that from the finish line.

One problem for a crew coach is that in a close race, no one in the press box can tell who’s winning. Five minutes after this one was over, Sims was still trying to find out whether he had finished second or third.

“When it’s this close, they usually rule it a dead heat,” he said nervously.

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The camera’s verdict--awarding second to UCLA--not only made Sims’ day, it made his year.

It isn’t every coach who can beat Oxford first out. Even Cambridge has its troubles with Oxford.

Until this year, the Oxford Dark Blues had won 10 straight from the Cambridge Light Blues in the annual renewals that have preserved a 157-year series--the longest for any sport in intercollegiate athletics.

“Oxford peaked for the Cambridge race last month,” Cal’s Hodges said magnanimously.

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Asked about this, Oxford’s Topolski said: “We peaked for a four-mile race (the Oxford-Cambridge distance). Today was like entering a 100-meter sprint three weeks after you’ve run a marathon.”

Thus, the race was for second all the way. Cal went to the front at the start and had a one-length lead going past the press box, where Oxford and UCLA were bow and bow. Going into the stretch, the Bruins were still last by three seats. But at the wire, they shot ahead.

“The best thing about it was coming from behind,” Sims said.

A better thing could have been that it saved crew at UCLA. The university’s authorities, who closed down their journalism school a few years ago as an economy measure, have been threatening crew, too, reducing its annual budget to $75,000.

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The Oxford oarsmen are sponsored by a London bookmaker, Ladbrokes, but no bookies have volunteered here. Nor has anyone else.

Still, Saturday’s enthusiastic crowd and the showing of the Bruin crews may have melted the hearts of university regents. In morning preliminaries, the UCLA freshmen and women both surpassed expectations.

“We’re close to being a national power (in crew),” Sims said.

A reason for this is that it takes virtually no athletic skill to row a boat. And the required qualities--endurance, strength and self-discipline--can be cultivated by leadership.

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The physical requirement is height. A winning crew at any college is taller than its football team, and on any campus, height is visible.

Years ago in the old convict-powered galleys, they weren’t so fussy about height. They’d take anybody who’d steal anything.


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