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Scrappy local rowers left a mark on 1956 Olympics

They almost wrote a storybook tale – a Miracle on Water – this scrappy, undersized crew hailing from the West Side, North Buffalo and South Buffalo.

Thrown together a mere 11 days before the U.S. Olympic trials in 1956, the West Side Rowing Club four-man boat with coxswain shocked the national rowing community by rallying from six lengths back to edge a more experienced and heftier Princeton crew for a berth in the Holy Grail of rowing:

The Olympic Games.

Their victory in the U.S. Olympic trials in Onondaga Lake was such a shock that Sports Illustrated noted they had been an “afterthought” at the trials.

These five Buffalonians – three in their teens, the other two 24 – shuffled off to Melbourne, Australia, where they won their first heat, before being ousted in the semifinals.

As the Rio games approach, few people remember that a crew that pulled together beautifully on the Black Rock Channel waters in less than two weeks represented the United States in the 1956 Olympics.

After all, it was 60 years ago this November.

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RELATED: West Side Rowing Club enjoys century-old tradition

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Three members of the five West Side Rowing Club Olympians have died: James Wynne, who became a hospital administrator in Niagara Falls; Dr. James A. McMullen, a Buffalo dentist; and Ronald E. Cardwell, a highly decorated Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.

But two are still alive – Edward A. Masterson, now 78, and Douglas L. Turner, 84. Six decades have done little to dull their memories.

They remember the big things, of course, like the come-from-behind win against Princeton; the victory over host Australia and two other nations in their first Olympic heat; and the disappointing last-place finish in a semifinal heat that knocked them from medal contention.

But they also remember the little things: The magic of this five-man crew the minute it launched from the West Side Rowing Club in June 1956. The early-morning training sacrifices, whether it was getting up at 5 a.m. to take two buses to practice or loading a scull onto a car and breaking the ice in Tonawanda Creek. The moment when a loudspeaker announcement in Syracuse convinced them they were Olympians. The apparently training-challenged Italian crew, often seen smoking or drinking wine in the Olympic Village. The personal dinner invitations from Australians still grateful to the Americans over World War II. The meeting with Olympic celebrities, like basketball star Bill Russell. And, of course, the lingering memory of the hated Russians at the height of the Cold War.

Neither Masterson nor Turner wears his Olympic experience on his sleeve. Many of their friends and co-workers never knew they were Olympians.

“There’s probably only 20 people I’ve ever told I was an Olympian,” said Masterson, a retired Buffalo teacher now living in Florida. “I don’t brag about it. But I’m proud of it.”

Turner, semi-retired former Washington Bureau chief of The Buffalo News, learned life lessons about the correlation between working hard and being successful. But as an adult, he also tried to put his Olympic experience in perspective.

“The message is you get over it. It’s not your life. It’s kids’ stuff. After it’s over, you put away childish things, and you go to work. Many athletes never get over it.”

Building a team

Turner graduated from Brown in 1954, and two years later the special agent in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps was granted his release to chase his Olympic dream.

In April and May, when the Black Rock Channel was clogged with ice, Turner followed a demanding routine. In the morning, he’d prop his single scull atop his car and drive to Tonawanda Creek. He’d break the thin ice on the shoreline, step into the boat and row for hours. Then he’d repeat the drill in the afternoon.

“I lived like a monk for two months,” he said. “I had no crew or crewmates.”

He soon got them. Told by phone that legendary coach Thorman “Doc” Schaab had picked them for the select team, Turner and his four new teammates gathered for the first time at 8 a.m. on June 17, 1956.

While some of their future competitors at the U.S. trials and in the Olympics had rowed together for months or years, this hastily assembled West Side crew quickly learned it might have something special. After all, these weren’t exactly novices; all five had rowed in college, at University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Brown and Boston University.

“We knew we had a shot, because when we got in that boat, we sailed,” Turner recalled. “We just flew. That boat took off. It was glorious. We didn’t say anything, but we looked at each other, (thinking), ‘We’ve got a chance.’ ”

Meanwhile, Masterson, who had just finished his freshman year at Cornell, had a tough beginning with this crew.

He believed a coach wanted to put someone else in his coxswain’s seat. The coxswain, usually a much smaller athlete, faces the rowers, steers and sets the cadence of their stroke.

On the second day, Masterson, who had to take two buses from South Buffalo to reach the West Side club, was late.

“If you are ever late again, you are done,” one coach said.

So Masterson, all 113 pounds of him, started at 5 a.m. each day, taking the Abbott or South Park bus and the Niagara bus.

“I arrived at the club at about 10 to 6 and slept on the canvas boat rests,” Masterson said.

That routine and Turner’s icy trips in Tonawanda Creek were the types of sacrifices that build a successful team.

The U.S. trials

The West Side crew almost defined the term “underdog” at the Olympic trials in Syracuse.

First, they were small, even by crew standards 60 years ago. The West Side rowers, according to various estimates, averaged 6 foot tall and about 170 pounds. Masterson remembered that the four Princeton rowers were all at least 6 foot 3 and 190 pounds. That’s a huge difference.

And while West Side had a boat full of experienced college rowers, it competed in the finals with crews from Princeton, University of Washington and the Cornell alumni. All had been together much longer, and experience is huge in rowing, where coordinated teamwork is the essence of the sport.

The Buffalo rowers had been together for 11 days.

On a foggy Syracuse day, West Side had to defeat Princeton, which had beaten it in an early heat. The beginning of the race did nothing to suggest the finals would be any different.

“We are not intimidated, but we are getting dusted,” Masterson said, using the present tense to describe the beginning of the race. West Side, he recalled, lagged four to seven boat lengths behind the orange-and-black-clad Princeton rowers with roughly 600 meters to go in the 2,000-meter race.

The Olympic dream seemed to be fading.

“I was thinking we were done,” Masterson said. “But then Princeton started to flop around, and the water was really rough, maybe from motor boats. They started to get nervous, when we made a move.”

Cadence is key to rowing, and Masterson, as the coxswain, increased the stroke count significantly.

“We were able to get the stroke up very high in the choppy waters, and they were not,” he said.

West Side edged Princeton at the finish line, beating them with a time of 7 minutes 13.8 seconds, a mere four-tenths of a second faster.

Sports Illustrated summed up the victory in its July 9, 1956, edition, referring to “a four-oared shell with coxswain from the West Side Rowing Club that had entered as sort of an afterthought. Every one of the boys had rowed in national club championships, but as a crew they had been together just 11 days. They clicked at the last minute, and the elation of the club knew no bounds. They threw the coxswain in, and then the whole crew.”

A Cinderella story

Turner and Masterson have different memories of the moment.

“Four heroes slumped over their oars,” said Masterson, who had the closest view. “No showboating.”

Minutes later, the reality set in for him.

“On the loudspeaker, it said, ‘West Side Rowing Club report to the officials for your measurements,’ ” Masterson said. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘I’m in the Olympics.’ ”

Masterson put the victory into horse-racing terms, saying it was Silky Sullivan beating Secretariat, while Turner called it a “Cinderella story,” this patched-together crew winning the Olympic Trials.

Turner still remembers the feeling, especially with the close victory margin over Princeton.

“That made it sweet as hell. We were just a bunch of blue-collar working stiffs from Buffalo. It was absolutely delicious.”

This makeshift crew was Melbourne-bound.

The Olympic Games

Turner remembers one early confident moment at the Olympic Village.

“We kind of relaxed when we saw the Italian crew getting off the bus,” he said. “They’d start smoking, and they had wine for lunch. So we thought they were going to be pushovers.”

Ten nations entered the four-plus-coxswain race: Italy, Sweden, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil and Cuba.

The Americans drew a favorable preliminary-heat assignment, against Australia, Brazil and Cuba. Two would advance to the semifinals, with the U.S. and Australia considered co-favorites.

Masterson, the coxswain, remembered the unspoken communications he had with his Aussie counterpart. The thought was that the Americans and Australians might be able to qualify without expending too much energy for the semifinals.

“We gave each other hand signals,” he recalled. “We were going to go down the course together.”

Turner bristled at the thought of any such arrangement, saying that over all these years he’d never heard of the hand signals.

“That kind of arrangement was not in our culture,” he said.

Anyway, the two shells shot way ahead of Brazil and Cuba, before the Australians took off, upping their stroke count from 35 to 45 per minute.

That’s when the Americans’ competitive juices kicked in.

“Why do you want to be second in the heat if you can finish first?” Masterson asked rhetorically. “Nobody wanted to lose. They’d die before they lose.”

The U.S. nipped the hosts at the finish line, by one-tenth of a second, with both advancing.

The finish line

The semifinals were a different story, with the West Side crew drawing Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union.

The Americans had no trouble getting up for the Soviets.

“It was bitter,” Turner said. “Russia was in the process of invading and subjecting Hungary. Everybody hated them, and they knew they were hated. They wouldn’t mix with us.”

The Americans got swamped in the semifinal.

“We were last, dead last,” Turner said.

What happened?

Headwinds that blew across Lake Ballarat at 35 mph, with gusts up to 50, according to Masterson.

The lighter Americans, with their great balance, precision and smooth technique, were no match for the bigger crews against such a wind.

“It was just a weightlifting contest,” Masterson said. “We were peewees rowing against giants.”

Looking back 60 years, he talks about the loss in a matter-of-fact way, with no bitterness.

“I never make excuses, but the race never should have been rowed (because of the wind),” he said in one breath, before adding, “But we got beat.”

The gold medal, by the way, went to the Italians.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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