A U.S. Naval Academy crew stuns the rowing world by upsetting the British team at the 1920 Olympics.
First-time author Saint Sing, herself a former world-class rower, demonstrates laudable enthusiasm and scholarship in her account of an upset rivaling the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Russians at the Lake Placid Olympics. But her prose, ranging from hyperbolic to wooden, generally fails to bring to life either the drama or its characters. The story’s hero is legendary Navy coach Richard Glendon, who brought a new scientific thinking to the sport. The son of a Cape Cod mackerel fisherman, Glendon designed a new style of rowing oar and a revolutionary new rowing stroke; he even tried oiling the bottoms of ducks to see whether the substance would give greater speed to his boats. His upstart Navy team had already conquered the American rowing world, but at the 1920 Antwerp Games it was still an underdog to the all-star British Leander squad, whose rowers were plucked from Oxford, Cambridge and other centuries-old rowing clubs. Saint Sing muffs the buildup to the climactic championship race by skipping virtually any description of the early Olympic heats and the crucial semifinal against France. She does a better job with the finale itself, in which the U.S. squad shattered the world record by more than six seconds for a narrow, come-from-behind victory. Glendon went on to coach for many more years. When he died in 1956, Admiral Chester Nimitz, a member of Glendon’s 1905 Navy team, ordered that news of his passing be immediately sent to every ship in the Navy.
Saint Sing’s journeyman skills don’t do full justice to the high drama of this tale of grit, teamwork and Olympic sportsmanship.