9 November 2020
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd remembers Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie.
Standing out among the many achievements of Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie, who has died aged 83, is winning Henley’s Diamond Sculls for six consecutive years. As news of the Aussie’s final passage to the Great Enclosure in the Sky spread, tributes flooded in from round the world.
The journalist Phil Mangelsdorf says: ‘He was my sculling idol, sports hero and inspiration when I started single sculling in 1966.’
John Boultbee, Henley Steward, summarises one aspect of Sam’s character: ‘Of course we Australians were very proud of his legendary ratbag/rascal/larrikin status in the UK, even though he drove Australian and Olympic rowing officials to distraction just as he did the Henley Stewards.’
Stuart Alexander Mackenzie burst on to the sculling scene as a 17-year-old just out of The King’s School, Parramatta. He rowed for New South Wales in the Interstate eight-oared championship in 1955 and decided to challenge the Olympic champion Merv Wood for Australia’s sculling seat at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Mackenzie was a superb all-round athlete, 6 ft. 4 inches tall and 14 stone, single minded and dubbed Sam the Unquiet by Harry Gordon in his 1961 book Young Men in a Hurry. Gordon’s take on Sam was a strange mixture – boastful, extrovert, infuriating at times and thoroughly likeable at others, often saying and doing wrong and boasting big, but ‘his boasts are authentic’.
Mackenzie beat 39-year-old Wood easily and gave the ageing hero a perfunctory handshake as he qualified for the Olympic slot. On the lake at Ballarat, he came second to the Russian Vyacheslav Ivanov after, he claimed, being led astray by the marker buoys at the end of the course. He may have missed the gold medal, but the son of a poultry farmer who was an expert chicken-sexer emerged as the latest in an honourable line of world-class Australian scullers before he was out of his teens.
The new boy on the circuit who at one time or another was associated with Leichhardt, Sydney and Mosman rowing clubs, decided to exchange Sydney and the family farm near the Blue Mountains for England. ‘All I need is some real competition, and I won’t get it here,’ he said. He could support himself by sexing the chickens of Berks and Bucks. His answer to the question ‘how do you sex chickens?’ was ‘Pick‘em up and rattle ‘em’, a technique that he was to use on his sculling competitors.
His 1957 season was capped by winning the Diamonds at Henley, and he went on to win for the next five years in some phenomenal and controversial races that echoed the gamesmanship of 19-century professionals. His Henley triumphs also included the Double Sculls in 1959 and the Silver Goblets in 1963, both with Chris Davidge.
He disregarded dress convention, washed his opponents down, played cat and mouse on the two-lane match course, and was hugely popular among the rowing community, including the large tut-tut legions. And he always beat Olympic champion Ivanov at Henley, but often lost to him on 2000-metre multi-lane courses, including the first world championships in 1962 at Bled, where Mackenzie won a silver for Britain having refused to return home for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. Sam did, however, win the European sculling title in 1957 and 1958. He was set to challenge Ivanov again at the 1960 Rome Olympics but withdrew ill after arriving in Rome. His achievement there was ducking to drive his topless sports car under the barrier to the stadium car park, much to the shock of the security guard.
From my perspective, Sam divided his life between going to ground and making sudden appearances when least expected. I first saw him doing his stuff at Henley in the 1950s when, as a schoolboy oarsman with a day off before sitting ‘A’ levels, I hitchhiked to the regatta.
In the 1970s, I collected stories about his exploits while researching Henley Royal Regatta. When I followed that with a history of the Boat Race, I uncovered the reason for his short reign as an Oxford coach in 1965. Briefly, Sam wrote to the wealthy father of Jim Rogers, an American coxing Isis, suggesting that if his bank account should receive a considerable sum, Sam would ensure that Jim would be promoted to the Blue Boat. Rogers Sr, who knew nothing about rowing, coxing or Oxford, forwarded the letter to Rogers Jr. Arraigned before the President of OUBC, Sam agreed to resign ‘for family reasons’, but a week later alleged to the Daily Express that he had been sacked by toffs.
Not knowing Sam’s whereabouts to ask him for his take on the incident, I sent my account to his last known address in Australia, and eventually received a brief reply threatening to sue. When I told Jim Rogers, whom by now was a venture capitalist living in a huge New York brownstone, he volunteered to underwrite the case in the English court. We published but were never damned. Incidentally, Rogers was reinstated to steer Isis to victory and coxed the Blue Boat to beat Cambridge a year later.
I first met Sam in the flesh when he turned up masquerading as a journalist at the 1981 World Championships in Munich. He was exasperating and entertaining in equal measure – chiding Thomi Keller, the president of FISA, now World Rowing, who, like Sam, could fill a room as long as the other wasn’t in it; always first in the press stand of a morning to make use of an absentee’s private line for calls to Oz; conducting endless arguments with British correspondents on everything under the sun on a day out to Regensburg by boat, and generally being a week-long congenial pain in the arse.
I next saw him at Henley in 1989 when the Stewards celebrated 150 years of the Diamond Sculls by inviting all living winners to a tea party. Sam was determined to scull over the course, while chairman Peter Coni was determined to prevent him doing so. Coni recalled a Sam escapade against Ivanov in the Diamonds when the Australian crossed the line first with a goodly margin and paddled back down the course for a few yards before pretending that his blade was stuck on a boom. Ivanov passed him and raised his arms in victory, only to discover that he was not the winner.
It was about this time that Sam moved back to England and went to live near Taunton. When he offered to donate his six pineapple cups and the silver goblet that he won at Henley to the River & Rowing Museum, I spent a congenial day listening to his stories from the horse’s mouth.
Sam enjoyed a chequered coaching career. His initial appointment at Oxford ended in disaster, as we have seen. He moved to Columbia University in New York for a short spell before returning to Oz in 1977, where he had some success at Sydney Rowing Club and New South Wales level, coaching the Australian men’s eight for the World Championships in Amsterdam. But according to John Boultbee, a former executive director of World Rowing and former director of the Australian Institute for Sport, the athletes of the time were unable to handle his ‘innovative and left-field’ coaching style and he was replaced. He stayed around to offer ‘advice’ to the Australian Rowing Council officials ad nauseam. But somehow, Boultbee says, you couldn’t take offence for long, as he was just too funny.
A clue to difficulties with his ‘left-field’ coaching may lie in his wingspan which was a hand or two wider than others of similar build (it was once marked up on the wall of Leander’s members’ room but has been obscured by new décor). His gamesmanship and mastery of psychological warfare made him a crowd-puller at regattas, particularly in the nether world east of the Iron Curtain where he would turn up with nylons and other scarce goodies stuffed under the canvas of his boat, an array of vitamin bottles to line up at the breakfast table, and the trick of laying his sculls beside those of opponents to illustrate the aforementioned wingspan, thus giving his rivals something to think about before they had even gone afloat.
While Sam was always on the lookout for lucre, he had a generous side. In the early ‘60s, he often took Britain’s top female sculler, Penny Chuter, on his travels when she had no money or sponsorship to get herself to regattas.
Sam Mackenzie’s record of six wins in the Diamond Sculls lasted until 2018 when the New Zealander Mahé Drysdale equalled it. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985. Whatever his achievements and failures, the chicken-sexer from Oz rocked the rowing establishment like nobody else. Long may he remain the scion of the Diamonds.
Stuart Alexander Mackenzie, born 5 April 1937, died 20 October 2020.