9 July 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch’s post inspired by the fact that the delayed Tokyo Olympic Regatta is now two weeks away.
As most HTBS Types will know, timing is rather important in rowing. However, this applies not just to the need of a rower to execute the various parts of the drive and recovery at the varying speeds conducive to a fast boat. Clearly, time spent on the water in training is of paramount importance and this is most famously expressed in Steve Fairbairn’s maxim from the 1930s, “Milage makes champions”. In modern times, the idea that up to 10,000 hours of practice is needed to gain expertise in a particular skill has become popular.
The idea that every stroke taken by a crew in a race must be matched by many hours of training together seems an obvious one – but, 57 years ago, when the Olympic Regatta was last held in Tokyo, there was a spectacular breaking of this apparent rule. It resulted in one of the most unlikely of Olympic victories.
For the 18th Olympiad, Canada sent a sculler, a coxless pair and an eight to Tokyo. Canadian Olympic rowers had not won any medals in the first two post-war Games, 1948 and 1952, but in 1956 there was a Gold in the coxless fours and a Silver in the eights and, in 1960, the eight got another Silver, Canada’s only medal of the Rome Olympics. Thus, all attention was on the big boat and the chance of them finally winning Gold.
Three months before the Games began, George Hungerford, “5” man in the Canadian eight, developed glandular fever and was told to rest for four weeks. His place was taken by the bowman from the pair. Naturally, Hungerford and the pair’s stroke man, Roger Jackson, were both less than happy. After a four week lay-off, Hungerford’s symptoms were gone but, with reduced endurance and fitness, so was his seat in the eight. With six weeks to go, the unlucky duo of Hungerford and Jackson were put together in the low priority pair. It was a selection simply made by default for a boat class that is notoriously difficult to crew successfully. Even if the two people in a pair are otherwise good rowers, this does not necessarily mean that they will work effectively together.
A website honouring Canada’s top athletes, The Lou Marsh Legacy, takes up the story:
Neither had been in a boat together and George had never rowed in a pair. Their boat was a dilapidated shell that should have been decommissioned. It had lost its rudder so they learned to steer by balancing the power of their strokes and by reading each other’s body language. It forced them to become a team. They drove their training intensity and pain thresholds to the limit. They could barely get out of the boat after a workout. George, nowhere near one hundred percent, would go straight to bed between sessions.
Another website,The Olympians, adds to the tale:
(When) Hungerford and Jackson got into a shell to train, they didn’t immediately click on the water. “No, there wasn’t an instant connection,” said Hungerford. “We had to come to terms with our issues. We yelled and screamed at each other after the first few rows. But we realised that if we were going to Tokyo we had to put these differences aside and work together.” Despite the bad luck that brought the two together, Hungerford observed one good bit of fortune – “As it turned out, physically we were a perfect match. We were the same height, same weight, same mental toughness and determination.” Their determination drove them to train hard, harder than anyone else in the remaining weeks to Tokyo.
Although they eventually managed to get a boat with all its parts, according to the Lou Marsh Legacy account, they had by then managed so well without a rudder that they continued without one, fearing that its drag would slow them down (fortunately, they did not encounter any cross winds in Tokyo). “I was told, if we deem you’re good enough not to embarrass us in Tokyo, we’ll let you row with Roger Jackson,” Hungerford later recalled.
On arriving in Tokyo, Hungerford and Jackson had still never raced together – their goal was to simply make the final – but they finally began to have some good luck when the University of Washington lent them a fine George Pocock shell.
All the other crews newly arrived at the Toda course were “tapering off” from the hard work done over many months and were mostly rowing light and for short periods. However, the pair did not have this option. In 2016, Hungerford told The Olympians:
We had a full endurance training program in the last week. We were doing interval training, only 500 metre sprints…. We knew we had the ‘swing’. We had a sense the boat was moving, the boat was working for us.
Having done only one 2000-metre piece together, Hungerford and Jackson’s first race was Heat 2 of the Olympic Pairs. Many Canadian officials and journalists were not present for a race in which they considered success unlikely. Ultimately however, the pair won by a length-and-a-half, the fastest boat in a field of fourteen. Thus, they directly qualified for their second ever race – the Olympic final. Hungerford again:
We had the fastest time of all the heats. That put us directly in the finals – no repechages. That gave us confidence. With four or five days between the trials and finals, we kept training and we rowed our hearts out. Rowing and sleeping. Rowing and sleeping. Endurance over 2000 metres was critical.
Come the final, the Canadian pair crabbed off the start. However, the crews were called back as another boat had gone early, the second start went well and, approaching halfway, Hungerford and Jackson were level with the German and Dutch favourites. Here, they put in a power 30 and went half-a-length up. According to The Lou Marsh Legacy:
By the 1500 metre mark there was a lot of open water to the number two boat – the Dutch. Then, with 200 metres to go, George (Hungerford) began to weaken causing the boat to veer. If Roger (Jackson) took the stroke up to put the race away, he risked pulling them right into the next lane creating the possibility of a disqualification. Focused on keeping the boat straight he was shocked to find the Dutch right on top of them with precious distance left. Roger yelled “up.” They stumbled but managed to regroup for the final few strokes to the finish line.
In The Olympians, Hungerford recalled:
The last 200 metres was hell. Our tanks were drained at 1500 metres – I don’t know where we found that inner strength in the last 500… I was starting to fade so Roger had to adjust. We’re rowing as a pair in a sensitive boat, sensitive to one rower overpowering the other. You have to perfectly synchronise. If one loses strength the other has to match, match each other in all respects. It was challenging. As Roger told me, he had heard this burst come from the stands. They were calling out in German for the German crew, which was also coming on strong. But as Roger said, ‘there was no bloody way we were going to lose’.
After an agonising wait for a photo finish, the result was Gold for Canada (7.32.94), Silver for Netherlands (7.33.40) and Bronze for Germany (7.38.63). Few of Hungerford and Jackson’s countrymen saw the win as two Canadian track favourites had finals that day. While the runners were getting Silver and Bronze, Canada’s random pair, together for six weeks, were winning their country’s only Gold of the Tokyo Olympics. There were no post-race interviews and few cheering fans. Hungerford remembered:
We had never been interviewed in our entire lead-up to the games, and we were quite happy with that… Our pressure was self-imposed. We knew what we wanted, and once we got to the final, we had the burning desire to win.
The 2020 Olympic Regatta will take place between 23 and 30 July 2021 at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay. Fourteen events will be contested by 263 men and 263 women.