Alexander Litvinchev remembers the Soviet Union’s rowers at the first Windermere Cup 30 years ago.
Specifically, he remembers all the guns.
“There were police during training to try and protect them,” Litvinchev said this week through an interpreter.
He was 15 at the time back in the USSR on his way to becoming a world-championship-qualifying rower. He is now in Seattle as the coach of Russia’s men’s national under-23 team that will challenge the University of Washington on Saturday in a bookending Windermere Cup through UW’s unique Montlake Cut.
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In 1987, he was a teenager as amazed as the rest of the rowing world at the USSR crew’s historic week in Seattle during the Cold War.
The Soviets trained on the water that groundbreaking week with Seattle Police boats full of armed officers following closely behind them. The visitors believed then-UW coach Bob Ernst, their main tour guide and van driver for that week 30 years ago, was a CIA agent. Ernst was convinced some in the USSR crew’s traveling party of about two dozen were in the KGB. Most were or had been in the Soviet Army. USSR coxswain Grigory Dmitrienko was 42 years old.
“It was,” Litvinchev said Thursday of that first Windermere Cup, held while Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were staring each other down from across actual, political and sociological oceans, “an interesting time in the world.”
By that week’s end, the Soviet rowers were aboard those Seattle Police boats curiously inspecting the local officers’ pistols and exchanging gun stories.
The uniting power of the Windermere Cup was born.
The older, world-champion Soviets swamped the Huskies that rainy May 2, 1987. This anniversary regatta celebrating three decades of world-class rowing in Seattle each spring is more of a fair fight for UW.
This is Russia’s fourth Windermere Cup; the national teams also came in 1996 and 2006. Litvinchev rowed as a 34-year old on that ’06 team that won the 20th Windermere Cup, beating UW and Michigan.
For the 30th Cup, Litvinchev has brought a crew that is in their late teens and early 20s. It’s a U-23 team that will develop athletes for Russia’s Olympic team for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“This team is a completely new team,” he said, distinguishing it from the Russian crew that finished third in last year’s Under-23 world championships. “They just got in the water in March. They just got in a bigger boat April 28. This will be their first competition.
“So I am excited to see how all this is going to turn out.”
His new team’s foes are Stanford, as well as coach Michael Callahan’s powerhouse Huskies. UW’s men have won an unprecedented five consecutive Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships.
“He’s approaching John Wooden status,” Stanford coach Craig Amerkhanian said of Callahan.
“Five national championships? I just like to say I know him,” the former rower at California said of Callahan on Thursday night at the annual Windermere Cup athletes’ dinner a few flights up the Space Needle.
“He’s an amazing leader at an amazing rowing university. I personally think Seattle and the University of Washington are the center of rowing in the United States.”
Callahan wants his Huskies varsity eight to start off faster at 11:55 a.m. Saturday than it did last month when second-ranked UW lost at No. 4 California.
The Windermere Cup is Washington’s final race before the Pac-12 championships in Gold River, California, on May 15. Starting on June 2 in Mercer Lake, New Jersey, the Huskies will go for their sixth consecutive IRA national title, and Callahan’s recent teams have be notorious for peaking by season’s end.
The coxswain of UW’s eclectic-as-usual varsity eight is Rielly Milne from Woodinville. The stroke is Philipp Nonnast from Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Viktor Pivac from Belgrade, Serbia, is the seven seat. The six seat is Finn Schroeder from Lubeck, Germany. Jake Zier from Orcas Island is the five. The four seat is Arne Landboe from Shoreline. The three is Ezra Carlson of Eureka, California. The two is Sebastian Devereux from Chalfton St. Giles in the United Kingdom. And the bow is Guglielmo Carcano from Mendrisio, Switzerland.
The Huskies’ women are trying for their 10th consecutive Windermere Cup title and will have to beat the University of San Diego, as well as Cambridge University from England and its team of post-graduates.
Rob Baker, Cambridge’s women’s coach, knows how big the Windermere Cup and UW rowing are — and not just around here.
“There aren’t many cities in the world that are impacted like this by a boat race,” Baker said of Seattle at the Space Needle dinner.
Connor Bullis is UW’s new, interim women’s coach after the abrupt firing of the iconic Bob Ernst the day before Thanksgiving over disagreements between Ernst’s old-school and a new-school way of training and disciplinary methods.
Bullis has been impressed with how his varsity eight and the second varsity boat have pushed each other to better and better times throughout the spring.
The Huskies’ women’s varsity eight entered the April 23 dual at Cal ranked seventh in the country. UW set new personal bests in almost every split time but lost by two-tenths of a second when top-ranked Cal set a record for its home course at Redwood Shores.
The UW’s women varsity eight has Phoebe Marks-Nicholes of Seattle as its coxswain. The stroke is Grace Spoors from Christchurch, New Zealand. The seven seat is Seattle’s Katy Gillingham. The six is Calina Schanze from Behlendorf, Germany. The five seat is Phoebe Spoors from Christchurch, New Zealand. Sarah Dougherty from Kentlake High School is Kent is the four. The three seat and team captain is Danielle Olson from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The two is Natasha Gay from Perth, Australia. And the bow is Valerie Vogt from Trout Lake, Washington.
They will be coming down the 2,000-meter course that is lined with fans screaming and blowing horns from the boats and yachts moored to a long log boom out in Lake Washington. The course ends under the old spires of the Montlake Bridge full of more screaming fans and inside the narrow Cut.
More of what makes the Windermere Cup so unique.
“It’s unique to have a course in a cathedral setting,” Stanford’s Amerkhanian said.
“It’s not a hostile environment, even for the visiting teams. This is a celebration. When you go into the Cut and under that bridge, it’s the best rowing venue in the world.”