Sam Mackenzie (1936 – 2020): Larrikin and Oarsman

The great Australian sculler, Stuart Alexander ‘Sam’ Mackenzie, has died, aged 84, in Somerset, England, after a long illness. Here, he is pictured training for the Diamonds at Henley in 1960. His ‘Kelly For Brickwork’ T-shirt is a reference to another exceptional sculler who also had a fractious relationship with Henley Royal Regatta, John B. Kelly.

6 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a world-class sculler and all-round athlete who was also a colourful and controversial character.

The only time that I ever met Sam Mackenzie, he said just four words to me – they were all unsolicited and one of them was rather rude. Sometime in the mid-1980s, I came across a large gentleman who had wandered into the Auriol Kensington Rowing Club in Hammersmith. He looked rather bemused as he cast a critical gaze over the pictures of rowers adorning the walls. Fixing on a recent image of the club’s then best sculler sitting at the catch, the stranger caught my eye, gestured towards the photo and said dismissively, ‘Rigged like a c – – -’. At the time, I was very new to rowing and I did not know (1) what the distinctive features of such a rig were and (2) who this forthright person was – save that he was clearly an Australian. A senior Auriol Kensington member quietly informed me that the Antipodean visitor was in fact a famous sculler and chicken-sexer named Sam Mackenzie. I was not sure if he meant that Mr Mackenzie had achieved fame for both activities or just for the aquatic one – but I did not pursue the matter. It was only some time later that I realised that I had met a rowing legend who was on typical form.

Sam in action in 1957

In writing this tribute to Sam Mackenzie, I have relied heavily on three sources: Rowing Australia published a short obituary on its website on 5 November; The Sport Australia Hall of Fame website has a surprisingly blunt account of the life of the man they inducted in 1985; Andrew Guerin’s Australian Rowing History website has reproduced The Unquiet Australian, an essay about Mackenzie written in 1961 by the great Australian sports historian, Harry Gordon.

Mackenzie (centre) pictured after winning the Diamonds at Henley in 1957. Flanking him are that year’s winners of the Silver Goblets, Chris Davidge (left) and Tony Leadley (right). Together, Davidge and Mackenzie would win Henley’s Double Sculls in 1959 and Goblets in 1963.

Lists can be boring, but they can also give a succinct overview of a very full career. This is based on a chronology put together by Andrew Guerin:

1956 – Australian Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship – First
1956 – Olympic Games – Single Scull – Silver
1957 – Australian Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship – First
1957 – Henley Diamond Sculls – First win
1957 – European Championships – Single Scull – Gold
1958 – European Championships – Single Scull – Gold
1958 – British Empire & Commonwealth Games – Single Scull – Gold
1958 – British Empire & Commonwealth Games – Double Scull – Silver – with Mervyn Wood
1958 – Henley Diamond Sculls – Second win
1959 – Henley Diamond Sculls – Third win
1959 – Henley Double Sculls — Win with Chris Davidge
1960 – Henley Diamond Sculls – Fourth win
1960 – South African Rowing Championships – Single Scull – Gold
1961 – Henley Regatta Diamond Sculls – Fifth win
1962 – Henley Regatta Diamond Sculls – Sixth win
1962 – World Championships – Single Scull representing GB – Silver
1963 – Henley Silver Goblets — Win with Chris Davidge

For the 1956 Olympics, Mackenzie also qualified for shooting and discus events. He was later a scratch golfer.

Sam at Henley in 1960.

The Hall of Fame biography begins:

It is more than possible that Stuart Mackenzie was Australia’s greatest single sculler, but a combination of ill health, over exuberance, and lack of Olympic gold medals makes it difficult to be too definite.

Harry Gordon’s piece starts in a similar vein:

Australia has produced three world-beating scullers, and two of them were barred for a time from competing at Henley because they weren’t officially gentlemen. The other was Stuart Mackenzie, probably the beefiest, brashest, most confident and efficient practitioner of the sport never to have won an Olympic gold medal. He wasn’t much of a gentleman, either, in the eyes of Henley officials.

Sam afloat in 1961.

The Hall of Fame account shows that Sam started as he went on :

Mackenzie was a fine all-round sportsman at King’s School, Sydney, and rowed in the school eights. After leaving school he… was selected for the New South Wales King’s Cup eight. In the Melbourne Olympic year of 1956, Mackenzie, overwhelmingly super confident even at the age of 19, announced to all who would listen that he had decided to step out of the eights, and gain Olympic selection in the sculls. To a stunned press corps, unused to such bravado, Mackenzie added that should he fail, he would make the Olympic team per medium of his proven skill as a discus thrower.

Harry Gordon picks up the story:

At Ballarat, (Mackenzie) and (Mervyn) Wood duelled for the Australian single sculls championship, each knowing that the winner would gain automatic Olympic selection. Wood was 39 and had competed in the Olympics a year before Mackenzie was born; he was almost over the international hill, but there was a great deal of public sympathy for him. This Mackenzie did not share; he indulged in fact in a good deal of prickling gamesmanship before the race….

Mackenzie beat Wood but failed to pay proper tribute to the old champion. The resulting furore in the press made the youngster into a national figure in Australia. Not for the last time, a rowing official noted that Sam was ‘too cocky for his own good’.

In the 1956 Olympic Sculls final, Mackenzie led to the last 100 metres. Then, he faltered and the great Soviet sculler, Vyacheslav Ivanov, passed him to take gold, over five-seconds ahead, leaving Sam with silver. His excuse was that the placement of the red buoys marking the finish had been confusing and he misjudged his final burst. Ivanov had beaten Mackenzie by over two-seconds in the first heat – but this may have been a deliberate tactic on the Australian’s part as the first two went to the semi-final.

MacKenzie congratulates Ivanov after the Russian beat him to take gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

Apparently unperturbed by his Olympic mistake, Sam announced that he was off to England to compete as he had no serious opposition in Australia. The Hall of Fame website records:

1957 saw Mackenzie come of age as an international rower. He instantly became the most controversial character to ever row at a Henley Regatta, ever eager to upset the ‘old boy’ brigade controlling English rowing. Once he rowed wearing a bowler hat. On another occasion, he stroked away into a vast lead, suddenly stopped to adjust his hat, peered down the river and exhorted his labouring rival to ‘hurry up’. It simply was not done, then and now, and Mackenzie was continually being called before the officials….

Gordon agreed that he was:

… one of those Australians who become more brashly, assertively Australian when they go abroad. His reaction to the ‘old boy’ stuffiness of the English rowing world was to show off outrageously; he got a tremendous kick out of startling the natives.

Mackenzie (left) beating Ivanov (right) by four feet in the 1957 Diamond Sculls. He was criticised for unapologetically moving in front of his trailing opponent and washing him down. The next year, the Henley rules were changed to forbid this.

As he matured a little, Mackenzie perhaps became a little less outrageous and conformed a little more. Gordon quotes the Daily Mail:

Today he finds us quaint, and rather endearing, like an eccentric aunt… His critics brand him ‘no gentleman’ – but his supporters regard him as a breath of fresh air at too-stuffy Henley, a gay personality, an entertainer.

As an indication of how high-profile Mackenzie became, at his first wedding in December 1961 in Henley, the Australian High Commissioner was a guest.

Twenty-five minutes into the above 1989 television programme on Henley is a wonderful two-minute interview with Sam plus some splendid archive film of him racing at the regatta.

The Hall of Fame biography continues:

(Mackenzie’s) record in Europe and England was just as spectacular as his antics. He won the Diamond Sculls from 1957 to 1962 in one breathtaking six-year display of power sculling. He also won the 1957 and 1958 European championships, outclassing his Russian (Olympic) conqueror, Ivanov, on many occasions. He was the first Australian to win a European Rowing Championship.

Top: Mackenzie and Ivanov in 1958. Below: Ivanov and Mackenzie in 2010. The colour picture is from the Rowperfect blog.

Although favoured to win the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Mackenzie fell ill before the race and was forced to withdraw. Sam Mackenzie, probably the best sculler in the world, had to watch from the stands as his old rival, Ivanov, someone that he had consistently beaten since losing to him in the 1956 Olympic final, won his second consecutive Olympic gold sculling medal (the Russian was to win again in Tokyo in 1964).

Soviet oarsmen congratulate Mackenzie on winning his fifth Diamond Sculls, Henley 1961.

Health problems after failing to compete at Rome did not prevent Mackenzie from winning the Diamonds for a fifth time in 1961 and for a sixth time in 1962 (a record only equalled by New Zealand’s Mahé Drysdale in 2018). Asked to return to Australia to compete in trial races for the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Mackenzie did not feel that he had to prove himself against ‘mediocre opposition’ and decided to represent Britain instead, earning GB a second palace in the sculls at the 1962 World Rowing Championships.

Sam continued to compete in Europe until 1965 when he raced in the double sculls in the European Championships, finishing eighth. He retired shortly afterwards.

A magazine report from February 1965. Mackenzie was briefly a finishing coach for the 1965 Oxford Crew but had to resign after writing an unwise letter. Sam and controversy were never too far apart.
The “Columbia Daily Spectator” of 8 Apr 1966 on Mackenzie’s new role in New York as the Columbia Crew Coach. Six months later, the paper recorded that he was asked to resign when the heavyweights went all season without a win, possibly because they could not adapt to Sam’s requirement that they raced at 40-strokes-per-minute. It wrote that MacKenzie could not be reached for comment but ‘it has been reported… that he spent the summer in Ithaca, N. Y., sexing chickens’.
In 1977, Sam successfully coached the winning crew in the prestigious Australian Interstate Men’s Eight Championship, The King’s Cup. Picture: rowingaustralia.com.au

In 1961, Harry Gordon summed up the man thus:

(Mackenzie) has always taken most things as a matter of course. He is a strange mixture; boastful, extrovert, infuriating at times and thoroughly likeable at others. He says and does the wrong thing often, and is usually surprised to find out that he has. His boasts are big, but they are also authentic. The truth is that at 6 feet 4 inches and 14 stone, he is a superb physical specimen who could have reached world class at any one of half a dozen branches of sport. (He has an) almost ruthless single-mindedness… if he can’t do his best, he’d rather not compete.

Sam with his six Pineapple Cups and his Silver Goblet. He donated these to Henley’s River and Rowing Museum where they are on display.

Mackenzie had lived in the UK for the past 30 years. In 2018, he was the guest speaker at a Rowing Australia lunch at Australia House in London. By all accounts, he was in good form and his cheeky stories and exuberant personality charmed all who were present. The old Larrikin had not changed.

Sam at a Rowing Australia Henley Lunch at Australia House, London, in 2018, Picture: Rowing Australia.

Stuart Alexander Mackenzie, born 4 April 1936, New South Wales, Australia, died 20 October 2020, Taunton, UK. He is survived by his fourth wife, Heather, his children, Rebecca, Alistair and Rachael, and his sisters, Margaret and Diana. His funeral took place under Covid regulations on 5 November in Taunton, Somerset. His ashes will be scattered at a later date, possibly at Henley. Sam’s old friend and rival, Vyacheslav Ivanov, sent a message of condolence to his widow. Music at the funeral service included ‘Waltzing Matilda’, the ‘Eton Boating Song’, ‘Jerusalem’ and, most appropriately, ‘My Way’.

For an explanation of ‘Larrikin’, see here.

One comment

  1. Brilliant – thank you, Tim! Stuart is my uncle (Diana is my mother) and I now writing an obituary for him to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald to focus more on his youth in Sydney… If you don’t mind, I will make reference to this wonderful piece in my obituary.

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