Mutiny-on-the-Thames Crew Faces UCLA : Dissent Almost Sank Oxford, but It Righted Itself and Won 159th Boat Race

Times Staff Writer

The Oxford rowing crew was described by the British press recently as "beleaguered" in the aftermath of "The Great Oxford Boat Race Mutiny" in which "ugly Americans" directed a "rebellion" that raged on for weeks and resulted in a walkout by four top Americans.

It all happened after American student Chris Clark, a Pan American Games medalist from Newport Beach, was "excluded" from the team for being "destructive and disruptive."

Apparently no blood was spilled in this rebellion, though. Oxford Coach Dan Topolski said that he knew of no tea being dumped into the harbor, either. There were reports, however, that Clark "hurled tomato soup" at the coach, a move not in keeping with British sporting tradition.

Members of the Oxford crew who arrived in Los Angeles last week, fresh from an unexpected victory over Cambridge in "the Boat Race," and eager to compete Saturday against UCLA and Keio University of Japan in the annual UCLA Crew Classic, called the whole flap traumatic and said that no one escaped unscathed.

Topolski, speaking figuratively, said that everyone involved suffered some bruises.

But when they met with the press here last week, wearing their traditional dark blue blazers, members of the Oxford University Boat Club looked not a bit bruised or beleaguered. Wary perhaps.

Peter Gish, the only American still rowing in the Oxford shell, said that the whole affair was much too complicated to tell from start to finish, but he said that a lot of the misunderstandings were escalated by the British press, which he said was "appallingly irresponsible."

One newspaper reported on the crew's efforts to avoid the media on the way to practice in early February: "In an effort to avoid the intrusions of an overwhelming media interest, they tried evasion tactics, which lost several camera crews in the back streets of Cowley on the way to practice. But they were beaten eventually by radio telephones and blanket coverage of all the likely venues."

The story would be told.

It seems the fuss began over training techniques and methods of selecting who would row against Cambridge. At the start, the split was not along national lines, but involved questions of motives and fairness. Actually, the first time Clark refused to row, he was protesting that Tony Ward, 19, of Chester, England, had been left out of the boat three weeks before the race against Cambridge.

But personality conflicts between Clark and Topolski, and between Clark and club president Donald MacDonald escalated until Clark was finally thrown off the team altogether.

Clark, 27, a silver medalist in the Pan Am Games, had support from his friends, who happened to be Americans and who also happened to be among the strongest crew members.

Some of them were off, then on again, but, eventually off for the big race were Chris Penny, 24, of Newport, R.I., who was a silver medalist in the '84 Olympics; Chris Huntington, 26, of New York, a World Championships bronze medalist; Dan Lyons, 26, of Wayne, Pa., a World Championships gold medalist, and Jonathon Fish, 24, of Bellmore, N.Y.

After the walkout, Oxford was not given much of a chance against Cambridge March 28.

Topolski said, "We were written off. . . . We were not supposed to win. But the 10 of us just pulled together and we just took victory from underneath Cambridge's nose."

So where does the UCLA Crew Classic come in?

"This is a chance to show that we are not just a flash-in-the-pan crew," Topolski said. "And it gives us a chance to seek a bit of revenge for that defeat last year."

Cal won the UCLA event last year. UCLA was second, just inches ahead of Oxford.

Topolski said that this Oxford crew is better than the one he took to La Ballona Creek in Marina del Rey to row against UCLA last year. He did not say that it was a better crew than he had four months ago.

But he's not dwelling on that.

There will be eight oarsmen and a coxswain in the Oxford boat Saturday, just as there were a couple of weeks ago for the 159th running of "the Boat Race" on the River Thames.

This sport has endured. Oxford has had a collegiate team since 1829. The Keio--pronounced Kayo--club that will compete Saturday was the first club in Japan, dating back to 1889.

UCLA started its club right after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

In reluctantly giving his personal assessment of why recent events with the Oxford club got out of hand, Gish explained: "Sometimes you have to be a bit flexible. Chris Clark was used to a high level of competition and a national team system. He didn't like the system at Oxford, and he didn't want to be flexible.

"We had some long talks about it. I had walked out on a team during my freshman year at Dartmouth, so I understood that. But I wanted to row for Oxford.

"There was a need for some compromise, for some better communication, for a lot of things. . . . As I've said, it was very, very complicated."

Crew Notes Competition will begin Saturday at noon, with UCLA's men's lightweight JV eight vs. San Diego State. At 12:20 p.m. it will be UCLA's men's heavyweight freshman eight vs. Orange Coast College; then at 12:40 UCLA's men's heavyweight junior varsity eight vs. Orange Coast College; at 1 p.m. UCLA's women's varsity eight vs. Mills College; at 1:20 p.m. UCLA's men's lightweight varsity eight vs. Washington; at 1:40 p.m. world-class sculling, featuring Greg Springer, Franz Reininger and Robert Salonties, and at 2 p.m. the UCLA Crew Classic. . . . All races are 2,000 meters. . . . There will be no charge for admission. Parking for the public will be at Loyola Marymount (south on Lincoln Blvd. to 83rd St., left to Loyola Blvd.). Shuttle buses will take spectators to the UCLA boathouse in Marina del Rey, behind the horseshoe bend at the end of Fiji Way. . . . The Crew Classic trophy is a silver cup named for Maury Grossman, a member of UCLA's first crew. . . . For the competition Saturday, the Oxford crew is borrowing from Orange Coast College the same shell that Harvard borrowed and used to win at San Diego.

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