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The Sport of Scholars Has Come Out of Its Shell : UCLA, Cal Crew Teams Set to Row Against Oxford

April 06, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

The Boat Race. Oxford versus Cambridge. Close to two tons of young manpower rowing a pair of featherweight shells along four miles of London's River Thames from Putney Steps to the Watney brewery at Mortlake.

The annual Boat Race is a 157-year-old bit of Britain and a public tradition honored by a title that's clearly more declarative than generic. The Boat Race. That puts it alongside other cardinal picnics for British sports. The Cup Final. The Test Matches. Wimbledon.

The Boat Race also is families divided for a day by 50-pence bets, a television audience of 12 million, and the grubbiest schoolboy's instant allegiance to Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Loaded With Tradition

It has been roast beef and ale picnics on brewery barges, riverfront buildings dressed like arriving battleships and ears glued to the BBC commentaries of John Snagg: "They're coming under Barnes Bridge now . . . in, out, one, two . . . it's still Cambridge by a canvas. . . ."

Now half of that spectacle, at least one of its eights and a full portion of splendid history is coming to Southern California.

On Saturday, Oxford will row against UCLA and UC Berkeley. UCLA claims to own the most powerful collegiate athletic program in the world. Cal, holder of Olympic gold medals by the dozen, is a dreadnought of an American crew.

Then again, there's Oxford.

It is Britain's oldest university that in 1829 helped launch crew as the world's oldest intercollegiate sport. Cambridge might lead their annual series 68-62 (less the interruptions of two World Wars and one dead heat) but Oxford is on a 10-year winning streak.

While American colleges (with the exception of Harvard and Yale) settle for 2,000-meter sprints, the backs and thighs of Oxford and Cambridge blues (dark blue for Oxford, light blue for Cambridge) are toughened for courses of four miles, one furlong and 180 yards. And they row that distance faster than Steve Scott can run it.

"Oxford is the epitome of crew," said David Stubbs, 20, of Atherton. He's an English major in his second year as a starboard oar for UCLA. "When I think of crew I think of the oldest collegiate race in the world and I think of Oxford and Cambridge."

Stubbs says he also thinks about being intimidated by Saturday's contest. So does Mark Klein, 20, captain of UCLA crew.

"I am a little overwhelmed by the whole idea," Klein acknowledged. Hence his slight fatalism. "At this point, all we can do is look after ourselves and go to the line in the best shape possible."

UCLA will bring a new boat to this high-noon shoot-out on Ballona Creek (now there's a name to boggle Oxford's old school record books) near the UCLA boathouse at Marina del Rey. It's a 220-pound, carbon-fiber shell purchased from the New Zealand team that won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics.

Oxford will be using a sister shell, a loaner from a San Francisco sportsman.

Cal will stay with a friend and a good-luck piece, an older wood boat.

Benedict Arnolds?

Its crew, however, will be without the muscular services of former standout oars Chris Clark and George Livingstone. They have graduated and departed Berkeley. Unfortunately, Clark and Livingstone departed for further education, became Yanks at Oxford and will be returning to row against their alma mater.

Benedict Arnolds in dark blue? "I think it's great," said Mike Bennett, chairman of the event. He's a former Cal oarsman. "It will bring a lot of passion into the Cal boat, a fire not just to beat Oxford but to kick the butts of their old boys."

Crew is a collegiate oddball. Participation is small, like fencing. Revenues are nil, like badminton. It is not an NCAA sport, like lacrosse. Unlike baseball and football, crew is neither started in high school nor continued professionally after college. There are no scholarships and at UCLA and Cal, the entrance standard for crew is a 3.4 grade point average.

It is indeed a peculiar sport, agrees actor Gregory Peck, and one that attracts some interesting students. Such as Cal freshman and English major Eldred Gregory Peck. He was stroke oar for Cal's junior varsity crew, 1937-38, and is honorary chairman of the Oxford-UCLA-Cal race.

"It stays with you," he said. "And all the things they say about crew are quite true. You do put out every day, every afternoon and with everything you've got. You just can't waltz through. We used to row every day from September to December on Oakland Estuary, break for Christmas, then return to row until June."

"But that was the fun of it."

There also were bawdy sing-songs; his three-steak dinners paid for by washing dishes at a sorority; bunkies and teammates who were gentlemen before jocks and brains studying the classics, medicine and engineering . . . and always there was the seduction of crew, a pure sport, one that Peck hesitates to discuss.

Not that he's tired of talking about it. But people just don't seem to share the subtleties, he said. Nor understand the spiritualism and aesthetics of it all.

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