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Heigh-Ho Silver!

by Susan Antoft

Winners of the bronze medal at the 1977 World Rowing Championships (Champion, March 1978), women’s pair without coxswain, Susan Antoft and Betty Craig took the silver medal in 1978. In the continuing saga of their quest for gold, Antoft, whose racing talismans are earrings and perfume, writes about their training for ’78, commenting that the pair are “more serious” and have “grown up” since ’77. Readers can decide for themselves.

TWO OF CANADA’S top rowers, Susan Antoft (L) and Betty Craig relaxing off the water.
DEUX DES MEILLEURS rameuses canadiennes, Susan Antoft (g.) et Betty Craig relaxant sur la terre ferme.

In 1977, our first year together, Betts and I were the team clowns. 1978 was no different. After two years, we can tell our jokes and anecdotes and perform our skits in unison, running out of breath only every couple of hours. And our repertoire has expanded to include vaseline, scarves, and Newfies driving Hondas.

Looking towards the ’78 World Rowing Championships, our coach, Alan Roaf, also known as “Uncle Al, the kiddies’ pal”, “Unca Alwyn”, and “Big A”, plotted with us to overthrow the East Germans in the pair. We figured that if we worked even harder than last year, we should better our third place finish.

We decided to join Hanlan Boat Club in Toronto, a decision that was not influenced by the male-female ratio of 35-2 (us). I hold the dubious distinction of being the club’s senior oarperson, being older than my clubmates by at least six years, although a couple are old enough to drink.

We quickly exposed our new pals to the more serious side of our natures. For example, last Easter, all of us attended a training camp at Princeton University, also known as PU. Naturally, we didn’t want anyone to miss out on Easter fun. So, at breakfast, two sweatsuit-clad “bunnies” hopped about the dining hall distributing chocolate eggs to 35 stunned boys, coaches, and the club president.

During training, the unexpected can occasionally happen. Betts and I have a general agreement that I set the pace and she follows. Being taller, I steer, watching to see how the boat is centred in the lane. This is useful for racing. Betts looks around for obstacles to avoid and directs me. She rarely steers because she says I need the practice, which I don’t.

In one incident, when Betts was steering, my oar crashed into a channel marker big enough to be seen from the bridge of a freighter. Rowing shells are tricky to balance. The oars can be likened to the balance poles used by tightrope artists, with one oar per side. In this case, my oar popped out and drifted alongside the boat. Somehow, the oar was retrieved and we didn’t end up swimming. Perhaps we learned from last year’s flip.

The next time, it was my turn.

We had just received three grand worth of new boat. Warming up for a race, we went into a 30 foot high course marker. Not a scratch! During the race, the referees had to assist with steering directions because the lanes weren’t marked. I found the refs confusing so I ignored them, assuming we were going straight. BAM! Bett’s oar crunched into a course marker, the same one we hit warming up. Getting ourselves back together, we managed a second in the heat.

Gearing up for our attack on the gold medal, we went so far as to change our appearances. During training, we took to wearing tights, sans feet, instead of bulky, ugly, sexless sweat pants. The tights, which are standard gear in Europe, get their name from the fit — tight. Our impressionable young clubmates asked us why we bothered to wear clothes.

The 1978 World Championships were held on Lake Karapiro, New Zealand in November, their spring. We arrived in time for Hallowe’en which isn’t celebrated there, except by the Canadian and American rowing teams.

BETTY CRAIG (L) and Susan Antoft are edged out of the gold medal by the East German pair of Cornelia Biigel and Uta Steindorf at the World Rowing Championships
BETTY CRAIG (g.) et Susan Antoft perdent du peu la médaille d’or aux mains des Allemandes de l’Est Cornelia Bügel et Uta Steindorf, lors des Championnats du Monde d’Aviron en Nouvelle-Zélande, en novembre. in New Zealand in November.

Betts disguised herself as a baby and I dressed like a little girl (at 155 and 170 lbs. respectively)!

I am now the world champion apple-bobber, defeating, with the aid of some gentle shoves, a fern-skirted Yank who thought he was the Wild Man of Borneo.

The entire regatta was superbly run by the Kiwis — facilities, organization, food — it was all great. And on opening day, 22,000 people showed up!

As race day neared, the shenanigans eased off. It was time to get serious.

Unlike 1977, we weren’t gobbling antacids. In fact, our opposition didn’t scare us a bit. We simply ignored reports and rumours of their speed. According to our philosophy, they would have to beat us if they wanted to win.

Our race day was one of those days when the wind was going to slow down the race by about 30 seconds. It was bad enough to delay everything by an hour and a half.

Pre-race nerves disappeared as we stretched out on some foam, Betts with the first half of my paperback, me with the second, and Saturday Night Fever blaring from my tape deck.

We had come halfway around the world to race in a final. With only six entries, there were no heats so no one had a chance to even test the opposition.

So what happened? We took the silver medal in a photo finish, with the East Germans a mere foot ahead of us. That’s called a sprint started one stroke too late.

If there’s a classic textbook example of sore losers, it was us — crying, cursing, and beating the sides of the boat with our fists.

But — being so close has made Betts and I more determined than ever. As a constant reminder, that photo finish hangs above my bed.

As consolation, I suppose, I was selected for doping control. For the uninitiated, this means free beer. Next year, it’s going to be champagne.

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