spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Comment on this article

The ’56 Olympians Look Back

“It’s common knowledge along the Thames and Housatonic rivers in Connecticut that Yale rowers are constantly prepared to die—or, at any rate, to invite heart strain and coma—for God, for Country, and for Yale,” wrote John Lardner in 1956, in the New Yorker. “Only twice, however, has a Yale crew actually and officially represented the second branch of this trinity in the Olympic Games.”

The first time was in 1924, when Benjamin Spock '25, the future baby doctor and activist, and his colleagues rowed to a gold medal on the Seine. The second time was 50 years ago this fall, at the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia, when Yale’s comeback crew overcame a devastating loss in an early heat and then, on November 27, stroked its way to victory.


The Yale crew was favored to take home a gold medal for the United States.

The Yale crew had set a world record in the Olympic qualifying trials that spring and was favored to take home a gold medal for the United States. But in their first heat at the 1956 Games, they finished a distant third behind Australia and Canada on the 2,000-meter course. It was the first time in history that an American eight had ever lost a race at the Olympics. And no crew had ever come back to win the gold after an opening loss.

“It was a real shock,” commented crew member John Cooke '59 in 2005, looking back on the defeat. (Cooke died last December.) “The Australians and Canadians went off the line very high”—at a high strokes-per-minute rate—“and stayed high. We pushed it pretty hard, but it was just not enough.”

That night, Yale coach Jim Rathschmidt took his dispirited team for an after-dinner walk, as was his custom back home in Gales Ferry. Dave Wight '56, '64MArch, remembered: “Jim told us, ‘Well, now you know what you have to do to win this thing.’ It was perfectly phrased to express his absolute confidence in us and to get us thinking ahead, not behind.”

On November 26, the crew had a semifinal rematch with the Australians. The Aussies took a half-length lead at the start of the race and settled in at 34 strokes per minute; Yale rowed at 32. The other boats soon faded far behind. Since the top two crews from the race would both advance to the final, the issue should have been settled.

But neither let up. “Gutting it”—putting everything into each stroke—Yale slowly took the lead. Then Australia countered and started crawling back.

“With about 300 meters to go, we were still ahead of them by about a quarter-length,” Cooke said. “The Australian coxswain yelled over to us, ‘Ease off, Yanks! You’ve got it! Ease off!’ and at the same time he was also calling a power-10”—ten strokes at maximum power—“to try to go by us. They cranked the stroke up. We did, too, and it was a race to the finish.”

Yale won by a half-second. “We had to prove to ourselves we could beat those guys,” said Cooke. In his “Letter from the Olympics,” the New Yorker’s Lardner wrote, “To row all-out on wild, rough water seemed folly to the audience, but the Yale crew was intent on winning or dying semi-finally.”

Coach Rathschmidt, coxswain Bill “Beck” Becklean '58E, and Bob Morey '58—the “stroke,” or lead rower, of the boat—realized the crew would have to row even harder to take the final. The Yale men were used to rowing no higher than 33 strokes a minute, said Morey, “but it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to row at least 36 if we wanted to win the Olympics.”

But they kept the new strategy quiet, even among other teammates. “If we had told everybody we were going to row that final at 36 to 38,” explained Becklean, “I don’t think we could have done it. They would have been too intimidated.”

“Jim’s parting comments to our crew before we left the dock for the final was, ‘Row your own race for the first 1,500 meters, and then in the last 500, do what you have to do to win,’” said Rusty Wailes ’58E. “I can remember putting my hand on Bob [Morey]’s shoulder as we carried our oars down to the boat and saying, ‘Well, I wonder what we’ll have to do this time.’”


“If they had told us the actual stroke, I would have fallen right out of the boat with surprise.”

At the start of the race, Canada and Australia jumped ahead of Yale and Sweden. But the Yale coxswain immediately began calling for power-10s. At the 500-meter mark, Yale was almost even with the leaders. “Beck knew that we were rowing higher than we had ever rowed before,” says Morey, “but he just told the crew that everything was fine and we'd settled at 33 … when we were actually at 36.”

“If they had told us the stroke we were actually rowing, I would have fallen right out of the boat with surprise,” said Wight.

As Caldwell “Es” Esselstyn ’56 described the race: “We hadn’t yet reached the halfway mark when Bill said, ‘You’ve got a man on them! You’re going to win it!’ Those words were too delicious to believe! More power-10s, and at the 1,000, I was feeling like I should have felt at the 2,000. Then Beck called, ‘I need a 10 for Jim!’ and nobody could deny him. It was for our coach! Well, Bill liked what he got, so of course next he said, ‘I need a 20 for Jim!’ … and as far as I’m concerned, that’s how he won us the race. I just focused on his voice. But later, as I looked at Rusty’s head, I could see it begin to weave a little with fatigue, and I recall thinking, ‘Hang on, Rusty! Hang on, Essy!’”

Forty thousand spectators had jammed the tree-lined banks of Lake Wendouree to watch the tight finish. By the time Yale shot across the finish line, half a length in the lead, the pace was a “scorching” beat of 40 strokes per minute, reported the New York Times.

“I’d have sooner died than quit, but the pain was God-awful,” Esselstyn recalled. “Suddenly we were over and had won—a nightmare that ended, almost. I have never felt such joy, pleasure, and personal satisfaction in all my life.” Yale and the U.S. took the gold, Canada the silver, and Australia the bronze. But the Yale oarsmen sagged in their seats after winning, and at the medal ceremony, two of the crew had to be supported by their teammates.

“It was a dream come true, but darn, it hurt!” said Esselstyn. “I was going through the motions of rowing to the victory platform when all of a sudden I began crying my heart out. We reached the platform, and I was still bawling and was too weak to get out alone. I recovered for a minute, and as I got the medal I started bawling again. Then I had to vomit right off the platform. They began to play the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ and I bawled all the way through.”

In 2001, a year before he died while out rowing, Rusty Wailes looked back. “Anything worthwhile in life, you pay for in advance—anything that is not worthwhile you can get in the twinkling of an eye,” Wailes wrote. “I have often been asked whether winning a gold medal was worth it. I have replied, ‘I learned more about myself and my fellow men in six minutes of rowing than I did in four years at college.’”  the end




Sports Shorts

When Yale meets the University of San Diego on September 16, fans attending the Bulldogs' home opener will find “a whole new Bowl, “ says Barbara Chesler, senior associate director of athletics. The nearly $22 million renovation project is expected to be completed by the middle of October. At that point, the elegant, much-imitated amphitheater designed by Charles A. Ferry and opened in 1914 will be meticulously restored and its eroded concrete rebuilt. Next up: a new entry plaza and field center.

Two Bulldog alums  profiled in the March/April issue have enjoyed varying degrees of success this season in their professional baseball careers. Left-handed relief pitcher Craig Breslow '02 worked effectively out of the bullpen in stints with the Boston Red Sox. Righty Josh Sowers '05 pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, most recently for the Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts.

Pundits do not foresee an Ivy League championship for the Yale football team in its 134th season. The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth. Harvard was the odds-on favorite in the preseason media poll, followed by Penn, Brown, and Cornell; Princeton, Dartmouth, and Columbia were picked to finish behind Yale.

Over the summer,  women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith fulfilled a dream by playing professional-level soccer in Sweden. The 38-year-old forward said that games and practices were grueling. “Afterwards, I felt like I was 58,” Meredith admits. But he scored several goals and picked up new training tips for his team, which was ranked 23rd in preseason polls.


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu