Memoir: Boats and Brotherhood

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There are few things more thrilling than gliding at the helm of a racing shell. The oarsmen's raw strength is matched by their delicate balance, while the cox plays a game of mental chess, making the thousands of tiny tactical decisions that can separate victory from disaster. It's more than a quarter of a century since I raced in competition, but last week, carrying the Olympic torch through cheering spectators in the New South Wales town of Mittagong, all the memories of my coxing career returned. Most of them are joyous; others make me relive some of the saddest moments of my life.

Twenty-eight years ago in Munich, I stepped, legs like jelly, into the Olympic stadium. Every athlete who has done that has their own story, but the struggle, the glories and disappointment, we all share. Mine, like that of most Olympians, is not a tale of gold medals or world records. But I offer it as a tribute to two men who should have marched into that arena at my side.

I started rowing as a Sydney schoolboy in the 1960s. My family lived at Chiswick, and the nearby waters of Iron Cove Bay were my training ground. For me, the sport came second to the camaraderie; but in 1968, everything changed. In Mexico, the Australian eight won silver, losing to West Germany by 0.98 sec. To my teammates and me, it was a sudden, profound inspiration. From then on, a place in the Olympics became our dream.

We trained twice a day, every day, going out on the silent dawn water before work, at night attaching small kerosene lanterns to the front of the boat. The hard work began to pay off, and in 1971 we won the N.S.W. championships. Among my crew was 26-year-old Ian McWhirter. Cheerful and phenomenally talented, he became my mentor. When we trained, Ian, freckled and beaming, led the way. We lost our title the next year, but there was a consolation: Ian was chosen for the Olympic eight trials.

Our delight was short-lived. In April, Ian told us he was dying of liver cancer and was pulling out of the team. He'd kept the news to himself and trained, despite the pain, for as long as he could. But in the end, he said, he couldn't let the team down. We were devastated, but he urged us all to continue. Next month our coxed four won the Olympic trial, setting a new Australian record. Suddenly it was real-we were going to the Games. We were euphoric. All mates from the same rowing club, representing Australia. Training became even fiercer; the dream was in reach.

Through all of this, our squad's backbone was 28-year-old Brian Denny. A superb stroke oar and everyone's hero, he is still considered one of Australia's finest ever rowers. We were right up there; our practice times were world class. Then it ended. Eight weeks before we were due to leave, Brian was killed, electrocuted at work. Even now, it hurts to think about that day. Our hearts were broken; the team was never the same. We got on the plane to Germany like robots.

I attended two memorial services in Munich. The first we held for Brian in the athletes' village; the second, days later, was for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists. But amid the sorrow, we never lost sight of our Olympic ideal. We didn't win a medal, but we couldn't have expected to; we went for the honor of competing for our country. That was more than enough in 1972; sometimes, as I see the modern obsession with medal tallies and victory bonuses, I reflect on how much we have lost.

This week I'll be in the Homebush crowd with my 14-year-old son, Tim, and 11-year-old daughter, Tegan. I'll be thinking of the young people everywhere who will watch athletes do remarkable things, and who will maybe start nurturing an Olympic dream of their own. And I'll hope that they learn to treasure the competition more than the prize, as Ian and Brian always did.

Vern Bowrey is publisher of Time South Pacific