Thursday, July 25, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don Hannula

Looking Back 36 Years At An Olympic Moment

Times Editorial Columnist

OLYMPIC moments last forever. They stamp indelible impressions on the minds of those few who have stood on the world's top pedestal of their sport.

John Sayre's golden moment in rowing came 36 years ago on a lovely lake in the foothills outside Rome.

In this Olympic year during rowing events, I asked him to reflect on his 1960 gold medal in the four-oared shell without coxswain.

"You get pretty well totally choked up," Woodinville's Sayre says. There is a pause. A lump in the throat. "You know, I still do when I watch TV and see the kids on the platform and hear the Star Spangled Banner played.

"It's a rarefied feeling. It's an incredible privilege."

Sayre, 60, is executive director of Long Live the Kings, a private, nonprofit salmon-enhancement organization. I've long admired his intense commitment to restoring wild salmon runs. He has been good to the water. The water has been good to him.

At Clover Park High School outside Tacoma, he was a competitive swimmer - placing sixth in the 100-yard breaststroke in the 1954 state championships.

In his freshman year at the University of Washington, he was walking through the Quad and saw some rowers holding crossed oars with a string between them.

The string was 6 feet off the ground. There was a sign: "If you have to duck to get under this string, you should turn out for crew."

At 6-foot-5, Sayre had to duck. He went out for crew. It was a long row to glory.

"I was a skinny kid - about 160 pounds," Sayre recalled. "I got a frosh letter but was on the second freshman boat." His sophomore year wasn't much better. He labored in obscurity in the fourth or fifth boats. He stroked the JV shell his junior year.

Hard work put about 10 pounds of muscle a year on his body. Finally, as a 210-pound senior, he made the UW varsity shell that rocked the rowing world in 1958.

The UW shell lost to the Soviets on the Fourth of July at Henley. That supposedly unbeatable Soviet team invited the Husky crew to Moscow. Sayre and the UW crew pulled off an incredible upset. From that heady success, Sayre moved to four-oared competition that led to his Olympic gold.

He credits his coach, Al Ulbrickson, for cajoling and inspiring him.

"They never quoted Al because usually what he said couldn't be quoted," Sayre recalled. "He would say: `Sayre, you're hunched over so much you look like a monkey peeing in a jug.' "

Or Ulbrickson would tell a rower: "Keep your oar flat like the top of your head." Sportswriters called Ulbrickson "the Dour Dane." He wasn't into flattering his athletes.

But, at the end of Sayre's junior year, Ulbrickson told him: "You're coming along fine. See you next year." Sayre said: "That inspired me. I just floated out of there."

Sayre was on the four-oared shell without coxswain that won the gold medal in the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago.

Only once had the United States won an Olympic gold medal in the four-without-coxswain. That was in the 1904 Games in St. Louis - the first time the event was held.

The United States has not won a gold in the event since Sayre, Ted Nash, Arthur Ayrault and Richard "Rusty" Wailes set a record of 6:26.26 for the 2,000 meters in 1960.

Wailes is now a Paccar engineer. Nash coaches rowing for the Pennsylvania Athletic Club. Ayrault died after serving many years as headmaster at Seattle's Lakeside School.

They won the gold the hard way - up through the second chance of the repechage.

"Ted Nash's oar hit a buoy in the preliminary," Sayre recalled. "He was rowing with two pieces of oar, then just a chunk." Still, they made the repechage.

Then they beat a favored West German team to advance to the final. Sayre said he looked over and thought the Germans were laughing at him. "That made me mad," he said. That was the Germans' mistake.

In the finals, the Soviets were the team to beat. With Sayre at stroke - often pushing the tempo to 36 to 38 strokes a minute, the U.S. team came from behind in the final 500 meters to win.

"I yelled: `We're going up' and they all responded," Sayre remembered. "I knew that either you crumble, or they crumble. They crumbled. The Russians died like they were sunk." Italy slipped past them for the silver.

"We were never the underdogs in our minds. We had one goal: to win the gold."

Sayre said a New York Times reporter asked him the American strategy when behind. "To catch up," he said. The reporter wanted more. What was the strategy when the team was ahead. "To stay there," Sayre answered. No rocket science.

Sayre, Ayrault, Nash and Wailes. Four Americans standing on the top pedestal, listening to the Star Spangled Banner. Of his Olympic moment, Sayre says:

"It's a feeling that never leaves you. You are proud to be an American. Proud and grateful."

Don Hannula's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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