Don Spero: The 1966 World Sculling Champion

The 1966 World Champion in the single sculls, Don Spero.

21 May 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

As a continuance of his recently published article “The Coni Invitation” how he managed to salvage some material from the ‘toss pile’ when the National Rowing Foundation’s Rowing Hall of Fame moved out from Mystic Seaport Museum, Göran R Buckhorn presents the story of American sculler Donald ‘Don’ Spero and some photographs* from the 1966 World Championships in Bled.

Going through some of the material I managed to ‘save’ when NRF’s Rowing Hall of Fame and the exhibition Let Her Run had to move out from Mystic Seaport Museum in November 2014, I found a folder marked “Bled 9/66”.

On 8-11 September 1966, the World Championships were held in Bled, in then Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. This was only the second time the World Championships had been held for amateur men. The first time was in 1962 in Lucerne, Switzerland. (To be compared with the World Professional Sculling Championships, which saw the light of day already in 1831.) Women had to wait until 1974 to race for the world championship titles. A kind of ‘world championships’ had been the European Championships, held for the first time in 1893 for men (since 1954, women had been able to row for the European titles). At the 1930 European Championships in Liege, Belgium, the USA was represented by two American crews competing in the coxed fours and eights; the first time Americans rowed for European titles. The Penn AC crew became the champions in the eights. According to FISA records, in the American crew were ‘a sergeant in the Philadelphia motorcycle police, a minister of religion and an undertaker’.

The championships in Bled were the first international regatta where the American oarsmen were aided by the National Rowing Foundation, NRF, which had been founded the previous year. It was NRF’s plan to raise an endowment of one million dollars to be able to not only send U.S. top oarsmen abroad every year but also to invite foreign rowers to compete in the USA.

In the “Bled 9/66” folder was a list of the U.S. National Team travelling to Bled. All together 31 oarsmen and coxes were on the list, including five so-called ‘alternates’ or spares, everyone with their educational backgrounds and previous rowing experiences. To the list was added Head Coach Edwards Washburn, Assistant Coach Kent Mitchell, Boatman/Rigger ‘Scotty’ Galt and Manager William Knecht. The U.S. crews were going to race in the Coxed Fours, Coxless Fours, Coxed Pairs, Coxless Pairs, Eights, Double Sculls and Single Sculls.

The single sculler, Don Spero, who was born on 9 August 1939 and one of the founders of the NRF, was introduced with an unfortunate typo:

Donald Spero, 6’12” comes from Gelcoe, Illinois. He rowed at Cornell University and now rows for the New York Athletic Club in New York City while attending Columbia Graduate School. He is majoring in Physics. Don was National Champion Sculler in 1963, 1964, and 1966. He represented the United States at the 1964 Olympics and in 1955 [sic] won the Diamond Sculls at Henley Regatta.

Don Spero in Bled, Yugoslavia.

Spero began rowing as a freshman at Cornell University in 1957 and was a member of the university freshman eight who won the 1958 Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Championship. During the next three years, he took two more IRS Championships with Cornell crews. As a Jew, Spero participated at the World 1961 Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, Israel. There, Spero rowed in the coxed four together with Dick Schwartz, Harvey Rubenstien and Dick Millman. Allen Rosenberg acted both as coxswain and coach. The American crew won the gold medal. (About rowing at these games, watch a short 2013 interview with Spero here.)

After leaving Cornell, Spero started sculling and won the U.S. National Championships in the single sculls in 1963, taking the title from Seymour Cromwell, whom he raced with in the double sculls, winning the national title the same year. They also took the silver medal in this boat class at the 1963 European Championships in Copenhagen, though they had never really trained in the double, Spero told Rowing News in a 1997 interview.

As the national title winner of the single sculls in 1964, racing for New York Athletic Club, Spero represented the USA in the single sculls at the European Championships in Amsterdam in August 1964 and the Olympic Games in Tokyo in October. In Amsterdam, the gold medal went to Vyacheslav Ivanov of the Soviet Union, while Spero took the bronze after Robert Groen, of the Netherlands, who took the silver. Later, at the Olympics, to everyone’s surprise, the American beat the Olympic holder of the title, Ivanov, in the preliminary heat. This was big news in the USA, which is shown in this video news clip of the race. However, in the Olympic final, Ivanov took his third Olympic title, while Spero ended up in sixth place in the final.

In 1965, when training in Europe, Spero went to Henley Royal Regatta to compete in the Diamond Challenge Sculls. In the final, Spero defeated the Brit Hugh Wardell-Yerburgh. The Diamonds final gets a few seconds in this video:

The American also took the gold in the single sculls at 1965 Duisburg International Regatta. Back home in the U.S., he became the champion in the quadruple sculls.

After again becoming the U.S. champion in the single sculls the following year, Spero was picked to represent the USA at the 1966 World Championships in Bled. At the championships, he won the preliminary heat, overpowering, among others, Ivanov, who put on an extreme final spurt in vain. The Russian won his repecharge heat, which eventually took him to the final.

Don Spero after his winning race at the 1966 World Championships.

In the final, the lead changed three times between Spero and the Dutch sculler Jan Wienese. The American sculler produced a powerful final spurt that took him over the finish line as the winner, with Wienese as second. Ivanov, who was nearing the end of his magnificent sculling career, ended up in sixth place. The Russian did, however, take a silver medal in the single sculls at the European Championships in 1967.

Don Spero being congratulated after his winning race in Bled.

In 1966, Don Spero was inducted into the NRF’s Rowing Hall of Fame and was a director of the NRF from 1967 to 1984. Thereafter, he began a very successful business career.

Spero now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

*The four photographs of Don Spero in this article were also in the folder. Unfortunately, the name of the photographer is unknown.

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