When Washington hosted the inaugural Windermere Cup in 1987, it was the first competition for Soviet rowers in the United States in 25 years.
Both the men’s and women’s teams were world champions, and the men also had won the world title in 1985. But it was still the Cold War era, and to get the teams here UW officials were part of planning meetings more than 30 people deep with FBI agents, State Department officials and Seattle police.
But once the Soviets landed in Seattle, they created many unforgettable memories.
They arrived the Wednesday morning before the inaugural Windermere Cup, exhausted from a more-than-two-hour layover in Detroit. They stayed in UW dorm beds and, with the exception of a tour of Seattle by bus, they rested, ate and trained that first day.
Simple things about American culture fascinated the Soviets. They weren’t used to potato chips, or root beer, which only one tried with displeasure.
After training that following Thursday, they hopped on a bus driven by women’s coach Bob Ernst, who brought a boom box with popular music of the day. Some thought he was an undercover FBI agent, and wondered why he’d be driving the bus if he really was the coach.
At the time, Ernst was also the women’s national team coach and he was excited to be around competitors who otherwise wouldn’t carry on conversations at the world’s championships.
“And I wanted them to see Seattle,” Ernst said, “and I wanted them to see how we did it.”
John Jacobi, the Windermere Real Estate founder, arranged for the Soviets to have some spending money “so they could go to Northgate and go to an American shopping mall,” Ernst said. “Windermere right from the beginning of doing the Windermere Cup, it’s been total first class.”
The Soviets were captivated at the North Seattle Kmart, where they looked at stereos, and hand towels with gold-colored trim, and people pushing shopping carts with only one item. A blue-light special – one piece of apple or cherry pie with a cup of coffee for $1.09 – also interested them, though no one went for it.
Kmart gave each of the foreign visitors a $10 gift certificate for the store.
“They have none of these stores in Moscow,” interpreter Reda Ribinskaite told a Post-Intelligencer reporter as she carried a pair of $8.90 shoes.
Whenever the Soviets practiced, they had a police escort.
“The Soviets thought that was to make sure they didn’t escape,” Ernst said. “We had contingencies for if they wanted to defect. And actually the Seattle police wanted to make sure nothing happened.”
Some of the Soviet athletes, men and women, were in the military, assigned to the national rowing team.
“Of course they wanted to look at the cops’ guns,” Ernst recalled. “And the cops were good; they just took the bullets out of their guns and let the guys look at their guns, and they’re sighting their guns out over the lake. It was great.”
Though the wet and gray Seattle weather wasn’t ideal, tens of thousands came to watch that inaugural Saturday. The night before, more than 500 boats anchored in Portage Bay or on the Lake Washington side of the Montlake Cut to watch an 1,800-shell fireworks show that lasted nearly 20 minutes.
The Soviet men easily won the 2,000 meter course in 5:41:16. The Huskies finished nearly four lengths behind in 5:56:23. The Soviet women also won, finishing 2 1/2 lengths ahead in 6:11:73. The Huskies were second in 6:21:58, and California was a distant third in 6:44:84.
“In my opinion, that was the fastest we’ve rowed in the last two seasons,” UW varsity coxswain Ben Holtz told the Seattle Times that Saturday.
Ernst said after the race that the Soviet women’s team had a world class time, and even the Huskies second place time was especially good for a college team.
“It was the real deal: they brought their best rowers,” Ernst recalled of both teams. “They brought the 10-megaton crew, and we pretty much knew we were going to get killed by them.”
“But at the same time, we were very excited to have them here.”