Olympic Champion Conn Findlay Dies

Sixteen days shy of his 91st birthday, eminent American oarsman Conn Findlay, two-time Olympic champion, died on 8 April. From left to right: stroke Conn Findlay, bow Ed Ferry and cox Kent Mitchell. From The Sport of Rowing (Richard Krahenbuhl LBRA 1959-1977).

19 April 2021

By Göran R Buckhorn

Legendary American four-time Olympic medallist in rowing and sailing, Conn Findlay, passed away on 8 April. He was 90.

Francis Conn Findlay was born in Stockton, California in 1930. Findlay studied at University of Southern California, where he rowed in his senior year in 1953-1954. He began coaching the freshmen at Stanford and became varsity coach there in 1959. Findlay then served as Stanford coach for several years. He went on to take an MBA at the University of California, Berkely.

In 1956, after having viewed Olympic rowing trials at Lake Onondaga, Mort Lund, of Sports Illustrated, wrote in the 9 July 1956 issue:

In the pairs with coxswain, Conn Findlay and Dan Ayrault of the Stanford Crew Association led the field in a shell built for them by Pocock. It’s said of the event that you need two horses to row a coxed pair. Findlay, an unpaid Stanford coach, can pick up a 150-pound outboard in each hand and lug them to the dockside like milk pails. Ayrault is just as stout a fellow.

At the 1956 Olympic Games, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound Findlay stroked the coxed pairs to a gold medal with Dan Ayrault at bow and Kurt Seiffert as cox.

The 1956 U.S. Olympic champions in the coxed pairs, from left to right: Dan Ayrault, Conn Findlay and coach George Pocock, sitting Kurt Seiffert. Photo from 1956 Unites States Olympic Committee Report (Thomas E. Weil Collection).

At the 1960 Olympic Games, Findlay again stroked the coxed pair, now with Dick Draeger (bow) and Kent Mitchell (cox). The American boat took a bronze medal behind a united crew from Germany (gold) and the Soviet Union (silver).

1960: U.S. coxed pair ready for the Olympic Games in Rome, from left to right – Conn Findlay, Kent Mitchell and Dick Draeger. Photo: “Bob Miller of Seattle”. Courtesy of Bill Miller.

In 1961, the 31-year-old Findlay (with cox Mitchell) partnered up with 19-year-old Ed Ferry, who only had a year of rowing at Stanford. At the 1962 World Championships, they finished fifth in the coxed pairs. Findlay and Ferry, with 18-year-old Charles Blitzer as a substitute for Mitchell (please see the comment section below), won the gold medal at the 1963 Pan American Games. The following year, the trio, now with Mitchell in the cox ‘seat’ in the bow, took the Olympic gold medal in the boat class. During Findlay’s active years as a U.S. National Team member, 1956 – 1964, his crews were all Stanford alums.

‘Conn always raced from behind, tracking the leaders and rowing them down by the finish line,’ Kent Mitchell told Row2k. ‘Though competitors knew this and dreaded his finishing assaults, Conn once told me “I never reached the halfway point in a race without serious doubts that I could finish.”’

The 1964 Olympic champions in the coxed pairs – Ed Ferry, Kent Mitchell and Conn Findlay on the cover of Rowing News, December 1964. Courtesy of Bill Miller.

In an almost one-hour-long recording from around 2010 posted recently on YouTube, “Surviving Five Years as Conn Findlay’s Coxswain”, Kent Mitchell muses how he and Ed Ferry managed to stay in Conn’s crew. Conn was very particular whom he picked as a rowing partner and whom he allowed to steer the boat. How come they were not discharged from the Conn crew as others had been before them? Mitchell says in his recording that ‘after almost 50 years pondering this question, I concluded it was because Ed was simply that good, and I was simply that lucky.’ Mitchell gave this ‘talk’ in March 2010 at the Rowing History Forum in Mystic. I was lucky to be present at this forum and can attest that Kent’s talk was very entertaining.

Conn Findlay on the cover of N.A.A.O. Rowing Guide 1965. Cover drawing by John Hutton, Jr. Courtesy of Bill Miller.

Rowing historian Bill Miller told HTBS: ‘Imagine an athlete who starboard-stroked the coxed pairs to the 1956 Olympic gold medal. Then in 1960, port-stroked the pair with a different partner for the Olympic bronze. At this point, Conn was known as the “Old Man”. Back again in 1964 with his third Olympic partner, and stroke on starboard, for another gold medal.’

Miller continued: ‘Not only was Conn a legend in the rowing world, but even more of a legend in the sailing world. Known as the ultimate “grinder”, he was recruited to be on all the major high-performance boats. He added two victories on Courageous in America’s Cup in 1974 and 1977 to his successes and then a 1976 Olympic bronze medal sailing in the Tempest class with Dennis Connor.’

‘From 1974 to 1986 [Findlay] was an essential member of the team on the winning Maxi Ocean Racer, Windward Passage,’ it states on the ‘nominees list’ on the National Sailing Hall of Fame’s website.

Conn Findlay has been inducted twice in the National Rowing Foundation’s Rowing Hall of Fame, the first time in 1968 with Ed Ferry and Kent Mitchell, and the second time in 2000 with Dan Ayrault and Kurt Seiffert.

At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Findlay was honoured as one of the 100 greatest living United States Olympians. He was named USRowing’s Man of the Year in 2007.

In the masterpiece The Sport of Rowing (2011), rowing historian Peter Mallory’s four-volume history of the sport, Conn Findlay got two chapters dedicated to him. See “Conn is Conn”, part I and part II.

After Findlay quit coaching, he ran a boat leasing business and officiated at rowing regattas.

Ed Ferry (left) and Conn Findlay at the IRA in 2009. Photo courtesy of Peter Mallory.

Conn Findlay married late in life. He married Luella Anderson when they were both in their 60s. They travelled widely and bought and restored a boat that they sailed on. Luella Anderson Findlay died two years ago.

Conn Findlay died at a care facility in San Mateo, California. Conn’s two-year-younger brother, Bill, died on 11 April. ‘It was like a race. They would joke about who was going to finish first,’ his nephew Will Markle said according to an article in The Washington Post.

‘Conn was the most amazing person I ever knew. An athlete extraordinaire with an unforgettable character and a way of accomplishing tasks that no one else could conceive,’ Bill Miller said. ‘The stories about Conn are legendary, a whole book’s worth. Someday, the book will be written. My bet, it’s going to be a best seller.’

Francis Conn Findlay, born 24 April 1930, died 8 April 2021.

This article has been updated to reflect what is mentioned in the comment by “nedlitam”. It has also been corrected regarding Findlay’s middle name, Conn, which was not a nickname for Conrad.

2 comments

  1. Hello, Goran.

    Such a great memorial piece on Conn Findlay. Thanks. One small error (Kent Mitchell was not in the winning 1963 Pan Am Games 2+) corrected by this Conn anecdote: for the Games, he chose a young Stanford cox, Charles Blitzer, to steer. Blitzer, who would go on to earn a Stanford Ph.D. in Economics, remembers it fondly: When I was a freshman, Kent [Mitchell] could not go with Conn and Ed Ferry to the Pan Am Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Conn picked me to most imperfectly substitute for Kent. It was my first trip outside the US except for our nearby border town of Nogales. It was a super experience for an 18-year-old, and Conn and Ed kindly took me with them for a several day visit to Rio staying on the beach at the classic Copacabana Beach Hotel.

    • Thank you, much appreciated. I have now updated the article to mention Charles Blitzer as the cox at the 1963 Pan American Games.
      Best wishes, ~ Göran

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