Tom Sullivan – The ‘Old Devil’

The other week, I received an e-mail from Michael Grace, who is writing the story of his club, the Wellington Rowing Club in New Zealand. One of the great characters at the club was Tom Sullivan (1869-1947). Michael asked me for some help with a couple of pictures I have of Sullivan, who, of course, is getting his own chapter in the book.

Tom Sullivan was born in Auckland, and won his first rowing race at the age of 13. As an amateur sculler, Sullivan met with huge success, which made him join the professionals’ ranks in late 1890. Already in 1892, Sullivan raced the reigning world champion, Jim Stanbury of Australia, for the title. Sullivan lost, and the following year he challenged George Bubear of Chelsea for the Championship of England on the Championship course on the Thames in London. The New Zealander won, but was later challenged by his own professional coach, Charles ‘Wag’ Hardy, for the title. In a race on the ‘northern river’, the Tyne in Newcastle, in February 1895, Harding beat Sullivan, and again in September that year.

Later, Tom Sullivan turned to coaching, and being very successful, he moved to Berlin where he trained crews at the Berliner Ruder-Klub. Sullivan was interned during the Great War, where he organized the physical training for the Allied prisoners in the concentration camp where he was held. After the war, the ‘Old Devil’, as he called himself, spent some time at De Amstel in the Netherlands before returning to the Berliner RK in 1925. The ‘Old Devil’ – he ruled his oarsmen with severity – coached the German coxed four to an Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1932, the same year his adepts Herbert Buhtz and Gerhard Boetzelen took an Olympic silver medal in the double sculls. Buhtz also won the Diamonds that year, and also in 1934.

There are some great stories about Tom Sullivan in Hylton Cleaver’s Sporting Rhapsody (1951) and A History of Rowing (1957), and also in Chris Dodd’s eminent The Story of World Rowing (1992).

I am eagerly waiting for Michael Grace’s book about Wellington RC, which is coming out next year to celebrate the club’s 125th anniversary.

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