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Life’s Work: Part I The River & Rowing Museum opened on 6 November 1998. Chris Dodd celebrates its 21st birthday by recalling its origin and passage to fame.

The road from the Pacific Coast Highway leads uphill towards a hazy hint of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Here and there a nodding donkey is etched on a bluff against the dawn, doing what rowers would call steady state at a regular low rating of twenty beats a minute. Santa Ana Road turns off Highway 33 and climbs steeply through woodland and orchard to the Corner Market coffee stall open at first light, before rising again into bare rocky blue-rinsed chaparral country. As the road surmounts the final ridge, a balloon hangs motionless in the air and the first rays of sun creep over Topa Topa range to reveal another vista. Lo! The level lake! A deeply opaque mirror stretches away toward the pine and live oak-covered slopes of Red Mountain. “Welcome to Camelot,” Dick Erickson says.

Smelling the coffee at dawn in 1984 at Lake Casitas was my introduction to the Olympic games as a rookie rowing correspondent. Casitas was tucked into the hills behind Ventura, 80 miles up the coast from LA, and a long way from the Olympic bubble that the City of the Angels had turned itself into. The rowers had their own village at Santa Barbara, an hour’s drive north up the Californian coast, and were bussed in and out of Casitas by armed convoys to protect them from they knew not what. The razor wire fences surrounding Olympic villages were America’s answer to the Soviet Union’s boycott of the games because of security fears. In reality, staying at home was retaliation for President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of Moscow four years earlier in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I spent my time driving a rent-a-wreck between Casitas, Santa Barbara and the Wagon-Wheel Motel where I slept in a cabin beside the pool for $19 per night.

When I meet Dick Erickson, (who will sadly die aged only 65 in 2001) he is coach of the University of Washington. He’s tall and tough and keeps his voice box in his socks. But at Casitas he is dressed overall in official caramel and pastel pinks and greens and riding a catamaran as a volunteer TV commentator. He looks a tad abashed, but such garb is a key element of the Tinsel Town Olympics. The patina of the Hollywood musical stands out against the primary colours of competing nations. While the national ensigns hang limp above the grandstand, the softest of breezes stirs streamers and sprinklers moisten the flowerbeds. The athletes’ rest rooms and massage tent, the food outlets and souvenir stalls, the binocular rentals and officials’ offices are turreted towers of glitter with conical or four-poster roofs. Minstrels on flute and harp entertain early birds, and a barbershop quartet harmonises fresh as the morning dew. An anglers’ retreat is transformed into a medieval tournament arena.

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