Master Stroke

The legendary 1958 Husky crew—powered by four Foster grads—beat the world champion Soviets in Moscow

Photos of the 1958 crew in action.

The Russians had a habit of jumping the start.

Not that they needed any more advantage. This was the vaunted Trud Club of Leningrad, the world champion men’s eight-oared crew. A juggernaut on the water, intimidating to the man, Trud held the edge in size, age and experience against almost any competition. And on this gusty July day in 1958, they would be racing before a partisan Moscow crowd, against a team of college kids from the University of Washington whom they had beaten soundly at the Henley Royal Regatta two weeks prior.

But that jackrabbit start at Henley had raised the hackles of their young challengers. “The whole boat was pissed about that,” recalls Chuck Alm (BA 1958), captain of the Husky eight. Pissed, and ready. The start in international rowing is called out in French: Êtes-vous prêt? Partez!

“We were prepared this time,” says coxswain John Bisset (BA 1958). “When the Russians shot out of the stake boats on Êtes, we went too. The race was on.”

It would be the race of their lives.

Intro to Rowing

In fall of 1954, a promising group of strapping young men turned up at the Husky Crew House to try their hand at this ancient sport that had brought generations of glory to the UW.

Among them were four business majors who would someday be enshrined in the Husky Hall of Fame: Alm, Bisset, and Roger MacDonald (BA 1958) from Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, and Andy Hovland (BA 1958) from Ballard High.

Their class would rarely ever lose, at any level, over the next four years.

But in 1957, the NCAA imposed sanctions on the Husky football program for rules violations. A two-year ban on post-season play extended to all varsity sports, including rowing. This meant the class of 1958 would have no chance to vie for a national title at the IRA regatta their junior or senior years.

The 1958 varsity eight and four with legendary coach Al Ulbrickson.

The 1958 varsity eight and four with legendary coach Al Ulbrickson.

Legendary coach Al Ulbrickson pledged to his seniors that if they finished the regular season unbeaten, they would enter the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in England, where the fastest crews on the planet came to duel.

The Huskies did just that, sweeping meets against Cal and Stanford, then besting a University of British Columbia crew stocked with Canadian Olympians.

“Henley,” says Alm, “was a tremendous reward for sticking it out those two years without a chance to compete for a championship.”

On to Henley

Henley also represented uncharted waters for the Huskies. And a trip of significant cost.

But rowing, in those days, was a marquee sport in Seattle, drawing tens of thousands of fans to Lake Washington on race days and dominating the local sports pages throughout the spring season. “Husky rowing wasn’t the only game in town,” recalls MacDonald. “But it was one of only a handful.”

The wrongfully punished Husky rowers became a local cause celebre. “On To Henley” became a battle cry.

Husky boosters stepped up their support. And hundreds of students—recruited and deployed by Artie Buerk (BA 1958)—raised thousands of dollars by selling $1 “On To Henley” buttons on the streets of Seattle.

In July, the Huskies arrived at Henley to compete for the Grand Challenge Cup. In the first round of the match-racing format, they drew the formidable world champions from Leningrad. In torrential rain, the Soviets jumped to a quick lead on the Thames, and the Huskies could not recover. Trud Club won by one and a quarter boat lengths, then went on to claim the Cup without serious challenge.

Despite their gaping disadvantage in age, size and experience, losing at Henley was a major disappointment for the Husky eight. “We did not row to our capability,” Alm says. “And this Russian national crew really took it to us.”

“They rowed a good race at Henley and we got beat,” agrees Bisset. “What can you say?”

A second chance

Unbeknownst to the oarsmen, the US State Department had brokered a potential cultural exchange that would send the varsity eight to Moscow for a rematch against Trud. “The consensus among the guys was that if we had beaten the Russians at Henley, we would never have received an invitation,” Bisset says. “It was clear that they wanted to beat us again in front of their home crowd.”

Whatever the intent of their hosts, the Huskies accepted. They flew to Moscow, the first American athletes to compete behind the Iron Curtain.

As they traveled the streets of the Russian capital, it became clear that this was not just another race. Posters promoting the event did not tout “Washington vs. Trud Club,” but rather “USA vs. USSR.”

“It was the Cold War era. The Soviets and Americans were at odds, competing for superiority in technology, manufacturing, weaponry and athletics,” says Alm. “That gave it a political significance that we never contemplated, and added a surreal quality to the experience.”

On the bus ride to train one day, the team drove by a massive state-inspired protest at the American embassy in response to US troops entering Lebanon to quell a communist uprising.

But the oarsmen received nothing less than VIP treatment in Moscow. They were fed Russian delicacies and bused to the Bolshoi Theater, Red Square, Moscow University and several museums. They even viewed the open tombs of Lenin and Stalin. “I remember feeling a little embarrassed,” recalls MacDonald, “because there was a line a half-a-mile long, and they took us right to the head of the line.”

Back to business

But Ulbrickson, a no-nonsense coach known as “the Dour Dane,” soon got their minds on the business at hand.

He drilled them up and down the Khiminskoe Reservoir on a new strategy.


News coverage of training for the Moscow event.

The Huskies were accustomed to the three-mile distance of collegiate racing. But in Moscow, as at Henley, they would row the international sprint distance of 2,000 meters, a six-minute burst at full throttle that demanded more than a little urgency.

Ulbrickson directed his men to shorten their stroke and ratchet up the cadence. Their confidence grew with each pull of the oar.

“We trained for ten days on the reservoir with the Russians right next to us,” recalls Alm. “And we could just feel it coming back together. We knew we were going to perform better than at Henley, but it remained to be seen how much better.”

One thing’s for sure: they all had their sights on redemption. Says MacDonald: “We all relished the opportunity to have another crack at those guys.”

The rematch

A young reporter named Keith Jackson—destined for several sportscaster halls of fame— had convinced his bosses at Seattle’s KOMO-TV that he should attend the race and broadcast it live on the radio. It would be the first such airing of an athletic event from inside the Soviet Union.

On race day, July 19, the Huskies were surprised to learn that they would be competing against four Soviet crews. The Red Army, Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kiev joined the Trud Club at the start.

Opening ceremonies of the international rematch in Moscow.

Opening ceremonies of the international rematch in Moscow.

But the UW men were focused. “We weren’t thinking about political ramifications of the event, or who else lined up at the stake boats,” recalls Bisset. “This was between two crews. We hadn’t lost a race in four years, practically. We knew we could do better. And that feeling coalesced. Right before the start, there was a confidence throughout the boat that this was going to be a whole different race.”

Following the hair-trigger Trud, the Huskies shot to the fastest start of their lives and steamed ahead at a furious clip. “I was later told they had never been beaten off the line like that,” MacDonald says. “I think that rattled them.”

At 1,000 meters, the Huskies had a boat-length lead. At 1,500 they were pulling away. As they crossed the line nearly two lengths of open water ahead of Trud and the rest, Bisset jumped up from his coxswain seat and howled in euphoric celebration.

“It was incredibly satisfying to win—and even more so to win so decisively,” Bisset says. “I think we proved our point.”

“It was kind of a boys-against-men situation,” Alm adds. “But we were too young, maybe, to realize that it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.”

By all reports, the vanquished Russians were gracious in defeat. “I was really impressed by their demeanor,” says MacDonald. “These guys were pros, and they didn’t expect to lose, much less lose badly. It had to be a bitter blow for them, but they handled it with class.”

Parting gifts were exchanged—the Huskies left their victorious Pocock shell Swiftsure behind as a gesture of goodwill to their hosts. And they returned home heroes.

But local heroes only.

Local legends

In those days before cable TV and the Internet could make even the most obscure athletic drama ubiquitous, the Huskies’ historic—and politically charged—victory over the Soviet world champions went largely unnoticed outside of Seattle and its environs.

But the event made huge headlines at home. And left indelible memories.

Keith Jackson, the legendary sportscaster, still considers the Huskies’ comeback win over Leningrad Trud his greatest memory in sports. George Meyer, the longtime sports editor of The Seattle Times, counted it as his favorite moment in his final column.

At the 2010 Seattle Sports Star Awards, the Huskies’ upset victory in Moscow was named the top story of the past 75 years, beating out the Sonics’ ’79 NBA championship and UW’s ’91 NCAA football title.

The 1958 varsity boat that beat the Soviets—John Bisset (cox), John Sayre (stroke), Andy Hovland (7), Louis Gellermann (6), Chuck Alm (5), Phil Kieburtz (4), Roger MacDonald (3), Dick Erickson (2), and Bob Svendsen (bow)—has been enshrined in the Husky Hall of Fame, along with their coach Al Ulbrickson, whose final race was that moment in Moscow.

Postscript

Master Stroke 3

The 1958 Husky crew celebrates the 50th anniversary of their victory in Moscow.

It also was the final collegiate race for the four seniors who graduated that spring from what would become the Foster School of Business.

Hovland embarked on a long career at Boeing. MacDonald continued to row locally and eventually settled into a long career with Pacific Northwest Bell (later US West), then managed a printing business before retiring. Alm joined the Army and rowed in the 1960 Rome Olympics, then served as director of the UW Alumni Association in the 1960s before a long run as vice-president of Olympic Stain. And Bisset went on to coach the Husky freshmen before serving as head coach of UCLA’s nascent crew program, director of the UWAA (after Alm’s tenure), and finally as president of a package travel company called Alumni Tours in Chicago.

But wherever life has taken them, the men who stunned the Soviets say they’ve always felt a deep sense of satisfaction, of pride, of kinship born in shared endeavor.

“In a way, it was a lucky break to lose that race at Henley,” reflects Alm. “It gave us, without any equivocation, the greatest rowing experience of our lives to go in there and pull that off.”

The sport of rowing—when it’s good—provides richer awards than medals or fame.

Bisset recently read “The Boys in the Boat,” the acclaimed account of the equally legendary Husky crew that beat the powerful Germans to win gold in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

“That book really captures the essence of rowing, and what it means to be with a group of brothers who go through hellfire to achieve something great together,” he says. “I could relate it very easily to our group of guys. We’re just bonded together. When we see each other, we just pick up where we left off as undergraduates, practically. It’s a unique thing, and I feel very blessed.”