Stroke of Fortune

In 1924, three Minnesotans helped lead the Olympic rowing team to a gold medal

ONE STEAMY MORNING in July 1924, the Yale Varsity Crew sliced along the Seine, corks from wine bottles bobbing in their wake. It was the first practice of the day for the famed “Yale 8,” the undefeated rowing team that would represent the United States at the forthcoming Olympics.

Pulling on the Number 4 oar was team captain James Stillman Rockefeller, the grandnephew of the oil tycoon. Near the back of the 58-foot-long shell was Benjamin Spock, a gangly junior from Connecticut who would eventually become a bestselling author and America’s leading expert on child care. But the team also included three Minnesotans. In the bow was Leonard Carpenter, a senior from Orono who had attended the Blake school in Hopkins before transferring to Hotchkiss in Connecticut and then going on to Yale. Two spots in front of Carpenter sat Minneapolis native Al Wilson, a 6-foot-tall junior. At the rear of the shell was the bespectacled Al Lindley, who also hailed from Minneapolis. As the “stroke,” Lindley set the pace during races and was considered the best athlete on the team.

Since arriving in France for the Olympics, the Yale 8 had been practicing twice a day as their coach, Ed Leader followed the shell on a float powered by an airplane engine. Now, as they completed their first speed trial of the day, the team practiced various taunts in Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and French, confident of winning Olympic gold no matter which country they eventually faced.

A few months earlier, it was widely believed that the Yale crew team would not contend for a spot at the Olympics. There was a scheduling conflict: The Olympic trials were slated for mid-June, in Philadelphia, just days before the annual Yale-Harvard Regatta. Rowing enthusiasts assumed the Yale team would be unable—and unwilling—to interrupt its training for the 4-mile race against Harvard to participate in the shorter 1.25-mile Olympic trial.

But as the 1924 season got underway, Yale proved a powerhouse. The team dispatched Penn and Columbia on May 3. Shortly thereafter, the team beat Cornell and Princeton, and calls began for Yale to skip the race with Harvard and compete in the Olympic trials. “[I]n the opinion of most,” reported the New York Times, “it is Yale’s patriotic duty to turn its crew over to the country, rather than save it for a dual regatta which…does not begin to assume the importance…of an Olympic contest.” Coach Leader saw it otherwise. Confident in the conditioning of his team, he announced the Yale 8 would race in the Olympic trials and against Harvard.

On June 13, 10,000 rain-soaked fans watched Yale soar down the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in the first Olympic trial, covering the mile and a quarter in a winning time of 6 minutes, 9 seconds. In the finals the following day, Yale faced a crew of U.S. Navy officers, the same team that had won Olympic gold in 1920. Against this stronger opponent, the team broke the world record with a time of 5:51. (The current record, set in 2004, is 5:19.)

Six days later, with a brass band playing the Yale fight song, “Boola Boola,” 40,000 fans lined the banks of the Thames River in Connecticut to watch the Harvard-Yale regatta. Though Yale was favored, speculation was rife that the Olympic trials had taken a toll on the team. “[L]earned physicians,” wrote the New York Times, “shook their heads dubiously and said the violent switch from four miles to a mile and a quarter…might well have broken the powerful physique of the Yale warriors.”

To keep the rowers from flagging over the longer distance, Lindley called for a moderate pace over the first mile. Running slightly ahead of Harvard at the 1.5-mile mark, Lindley increased speed. The gap between the shells widened. By the 3-mile mark, the outcome was no longer in doubt, and Yale eventually won by three lengths. After the race, the team boarded a special train that took them to New York. The following evening, they sailed for France.

The French, though still recovering from World War I, were determined to make the 1924 Olympics a grand affair. For the first time, an Olympic village was constructed to house the athletes. The number of countries participating jumped to 44, up from 29 in 1920. More than 1,000 journalists from around the globe traveled to Paris to cover the games. Daily attendance averaged 65,000 spectators.

Onlookers weren’t disappointed. Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi shocked the athletic world by winning both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters—with less than an hour between races. American swimmer (and future Tarzan star) Johnny Weissmuller set a new world record in the 100-meter freestyle. The Englishmen Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell defeated a pair of heavily favored American track stars in the 100- and 400-meter races, feats later depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire.

The Yale 8 was not witness to such events, staying on the outskirts of Paris in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Though confident, the team took their training seriously, eschewing alcohol and shooing away visitors. Each morning, they would leave the Hotel Francais and drive 30 minutes to a boathouse on the Seine. By 10:30, they were in the water, running speed trials with Coach Leader barking instructions from his trailing float. Returning to their hotel for lunch, the team relaxed with blackjack before returning to the river at 6 p.m. for additional practice.

It was widely believed that the biggest obstacle to the Americans getting the gold were the British, who had won the silver at the 1920 games. But the Belgians were also a team to watch, and Leader was wary of the Argentines and Australians, too—mostly because no one had seen them race.

The concerns about the British proved well-founded. In the first Olympic heat, they defeated France, Belgium, and Argentina. The following day, the Yale 8 raced against Canada and Holland, grabbing the lead after the first 100 meters and never relinquishing it.

Two days later, the Americans faced off against Great Britain, Canada, and Italy in the championship race. A stiff wind was coming from upstream and the current was running strong. After the race started, fans unable to make their way to the riverbank to view the action heard reports that seemed to indicate that the British were leading. The judges monitoring the progress of the first 500 meters listed the British in first place and the Americans in last. But those actually watching from the banks of the Seine knew better. The judges had reversed the order of the boats. Yale was in the lead throughout. By the three-quarters mark of the race, the team’s lead was two lengths over Italy. They eventually won by three lengths, but the wind prevented another world record. The British finished last.

The New York Times called Yale’s undefeated 1924 season one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport. Sports columnist Damon Runyon called the Yale 8 “America’s greatest heroes.”

Yet as heralded as the crew was at the time, the fate of the teams members illustrates just how different the world was 84 years ago: There were no book deals, television careers, or endorsement contracts awaiting the rowers when they arrived home. The seniors got jobs or went to graduate school. Several of the underclassmen toured Europe before classes resumed in September.

At the team’s final meeting, held a few days after their Olympic triumph, Wilson was elected captain of the 1925 team (it, too, would go undefeated). After graduation, he worked on Wall Street before returning to Minnesota in 1941 to take a job with Honeywell. He retired in 1968 and died in 1989 at age 85.

The best athlete in the group, Lindley, became a lawyer, and was among the first to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska. In 1936, he returned to the Olympics as a member of the U.S. ski team. He lost a bid to represent Minnesota’s Third District in Congress in 1950 and died in a plane crash the following year.

For Carpenter, the Olympic finale was his last race for Yale. He returned to Minnesota, worked for his family’s lumber company, and became a board member of the Minnesota Orchestra. Carpenter downplayed the Olympic triumph in an interview he gave in 1992, two years before his death: “We did our best,” he said, “and came home and got about our business.”

Bob Hussey is a freelance writer who lives in Edina.