Not Going Spare: Brothers Pulling Together

Prince William pictured afloat while at Eton in 1996. Perhaps his younger brother is standing on the bank, incredulous that he cannot also be in his sibling’s single and offering to sell the story of his pain to the “Eton College Chronicle.”

19 January 2023

By Tim Koch

The amusing Twitter page, Sleeps to Henley, recently noted that, “It’s great when brothers get on” and included pictures of three sets of famous rowing brothers. It prompted me to remember a few more fraternal crews that were well-known in their time and to recall a couple of Olympic finals involving two pairs of brothers.

Moscow Olympics 1980: The Landvoigt twins and the Pimenov twins

Twins, Jörg and Bernd Landvoigt were born in East Germany in 1951. They formed a famous and internationally known coxless pair that won four World Championships (1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979) and two Olympics Games, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.

The Landvoigt twins at the 1975 World Championships in Nottingham. Jörg at bow and Bernd at stroke.

Russian twins, Yuriy and Nikolay Pimenov, were born in 1958. Rowing in a coxless pair, they won three Gold, three Silver and one Bronze at seven World Championships between 1979 and 1990. They won Silver at the 1980 Moscow Olympics but could not compete at Los Angeles 1984 due to the Soviet boycott and finished in 6th and 15th place at the 1988 and 1992 Games.

I must add a footnote on the Pimenovs that may explain the lacklustre end to their career. This is taken from Peter Mallory’s four-volume, 2,500-page, The Sport of Rowing (2012). In his chapter on the Soviet Union, Peter quotes US coach, Ted Nash:

I made a study of films of the Pimenovs, and they were probably the cleanest in and the cleanest out of all rowers in the world. They were distinctly different-sized twins, but they made it work. They smoked cigarettes relentlessly, in and out of the boat. I’ve actually seen them smoking in the boat, and in the dining hall they would constantly be told they weren’t supposed to be smoking, but they did. Their starts were phenomenal, and often they held on to win, but their tendency to falter in the last 150 meters was their undoing in many, many races. I think there must have been two or three major races where they were rowed through by the end, and I wondered if some of their losses weren’t a result of their smoking.

Yuriy Pimenov at stroke, brother Nikolay at bow. Yuriy died in 2019 aged 61.

In the final of the coxless pairs at the 1980 Moscow Games, the Landvoigts won in a time of 6.48.01 and the Pimenovs came second recording 6.50.50. Several internet sources confidently cut and paste the supposed fact that, in a race held after Moscow, the Soviet twins beat the East German twins for the first and only time. However, I can find no details of this alleged win and I think that the Landvoigts retired from competition after the 1980 Olympics.

Barcelona Olympics 1992: The Abbagnale brothers and the Searle brothers

Giuseppe (stroke) and Carmine Abbagnale, in 1987.

The Abbagnale brothers, Giuseppe (born 1959) and Carmine (born 1962), formed a famous Italian coxed pair (steered by Giuseppe Di Capua) that “medaled” in ten World Rowing Championships between 1981 and 1993, winning Gold seven times. They won Olympic Gold at Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988, and Silver in Barcelona in 1992. Giuseppe and Carmine are the older brothers of the three-time Olympic champion Agostino Abbagnale (born 1966).

Greg (left) and Jonny Searle after receiving the Olympic Gold medal for winning the coxed pair at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

The rowing careers of the British brothers, Jonny (born 1969) and Greg (born 1972) Searle did not overlap as much as many other brothers-in-oars, but they were in the same boat for their most important wins. In the World Championships, they were both in the eight in 1991, the coxless four in 1994 and 1995 and the Gold medal winning coxed pair (with cox Gary Herbert) in 1993. In the Olympics, the Searles won Bronze in the coxless four in Atlanta 1996, and Gold in the coxed pair steered by Gary Herbert in Barcelona 1992.

In the Barcelona final of the coxed pairs, the Abbagnale brothers, Olympic Champions in the previous two Games and seven times World Champions, looked like certain winners. However, a couple of hundred yards from the finish line, the third placed Searles took their rate up to 44 and managed to overtake the leading Italians in the last fifteen strokes. The finish of this race is always worth rewatching.

More Row Bros

The Wards and the Biglins

In the heyday of professional rowing in the mid to late nineteenth century, there was a far greater chance of brothers rowing competitively together. Those who raced for prize money were often working watermen and this trade was usually a family affair with one generation following the next. One notable example of this were the five Ward brothers of New York who were very successful in racing singles, pairs and fours between 1857 and 1871. Their father owned working boats that operated along the Hudson River.

Josh, Hank, Ellis and Gil Ward. They were sometimes joined by brother Charles.

Ellis was perhaps best known as a coach, notably for the University of Pennsylvania between 1879 and 1912. Amongst the Ward brother’s wins were Joshua’s victories in the American Sculling Championships in 1859 and 1863; their defeat of the famous “Paris” four from Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1867 and 1868; beating Harvard fours twice in 1868; victory in the International Regatta at Saratoga Lake, NY, in 1871 with a four-oar record time over four miles giving them the title “World Champions.” In 1865, they won a hard-fought five-mile race at Sing Sing, NY, against some other rowing brothers from New York, the Biglins, for the professional four-oared championship of America. There were many Ward – Biglin races but this was the most famous.

If the Biglin brothers, John, James and Barney, veterans of over a hundred races, are more famous than the Wards, this is probably because they were immortalised in a series of eleven well-known paintings by Thomas Eakins. This picture shows John and Barney racing Harry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt (not shown) in 1872. Image: National Gallery of Art.

The Hansens

The Hansen brothers from Norway, Frank (born 1945) and Alf (born 1948), had separate successful rowing careers before forming a double scull together in 1974. Notably, Alf had won a Silver in the double sculls with Svein Thøgersen in the 1972 Olympics.

In the World Championships, the Hansens won Gold in 1975, 1978 and 1979 and Silver in 1974. In the Olympic Games, they won Gold at Montreal 1976.

The Hansen brothers, winners of the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. 

Frank and Alf had a six-year career together, 1974 – 1980. The Norwegian Rowing Federation boycotted the Moscow Olympics so the brothers were unable to defend their Olympic title and Frank officially retired after Moscow 1980. 

Alf continued sculling in doubles and quads until 1991. He won World Championships Bronze in 1981, Silver in 1983 and 1987, and Gold in 1982. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he was in the Norwegian quad that won Silver. 

The Winklevoss Twins

Identical twins, Cameron (left) and Tyler (right) Winklevoss pictured in 2010 when they rowed for Oxford. 

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss were overachievers from an early age. Wanting to row at a high school that did not offer the sport, they founded a rowing programme. Within two years, they were competing in the coxed pair at the Junior World Championships. At Harvard, the twins were in the 2004 Varsity eight that won the Eastern Sprints, the IRA Championship and their Harvard – Yale race. The same crew came sixth at that year’s Worlds and reached the final of the Grand at Henley.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Winklevoss twins represented the US in the coxless pairs and finished sixth in the A Final. In 2009, they were in the Bronze medal winning US coxless four at the World Cup in Lucerne. While studying for an MBA at Oxford, the brothers rowed in the 2010 Boat Race (though the Dark Blues unexpectedly lost by 1 1/3 lengths).

Since their Harvard days, Tyler and Cameron have been something to do with computers.

The O’Donovans

Paul at stroke and Gary at bow at Henley in 2018.

The O’Donovan brothers won fame not only for their successes in the lightweight double scull but also for providing tremendous entertainment value off the water, even for those who usually have no interest in rowing. Their appearance on the popular BBC TV chat show, The Graham Norton Show, is regarded as a television classic.  

Gary (born 1992) and Paul (born 1994) became overnight stars after winning Silver in the lightweight double in Rio in 2016, with their post-race interviews going viral across the globe. Their advice on how to race (“Close your eyes and pull like a dog”) has entered the lexicon and their analysis of the sport of rowing has not been bettered: “Tis a fairly simple sport like… Yer man says ‘Go’ at the start and there’s a hooter at the finish…”). 

On land, the brothers often conform to the stereotype of mad/eccentric Irishmen, both giving the impression that, if Craggy Island had a rowing club, they would be members. However, should anyone think the boys “tick”, they should know that both are graduates and that Paul is currently studying medicine. 

Paul and Gary joined Skibbereen Rowing Club, County Cork, in 2001 and were coached by their father. In 2016, they won Silver in the lightweight double sculls at the year’s first World Cup and Gold at the European Rowing Championships. At the Rio Olympics, the O’Donovans won Silver behind France, the first Olympic rowing medal won by Ireland.

In 2017, there was Silver at the Europeans, Silver at the Second World Cup and Bronze at the Third. The next year, 2018, there was more Silver at the Europeans but Gold in the lightweight double at the World Championships. 

Since 2019, Paul has been paired with Fintan McCarthy and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021, they set a world’s best time of 6:05:33 while winning their semifinal and went on to win Ireland’s first rowing Olympic Gold.

Above: A wonderful 12-minute documentary about Paul and Gary.

The Sinkovićs

The Sinković brothers from Croatia: Valent (stroke, born 1988) and Martin (bow, born 1989). Picture: @sinkovicbrothers.

It is not just because of chronology that I make the Sinković brothers the final pair on my list of rowing siblings – I am (arguably) also saving the best till last. Martin and Valent have been racing together internationally since 2008 and their success has been such that it is easier to reproduce their medal table from Wikipedia than to list their achievements. Presently, they have 49 international medals. 

This table has not been updated to include the brother’s 2022 return to the double sculls. They had a hat-trick of wins at all three World Cups and gained another European title – though they came fourth at the Worlds.

At the 2014 World Rowing Championships, Valent and Martin were the first double sculls to race 2,000 metres in under six minutes, breaking the old world record by four-seconds. Most notably, however, the Sinković brothers are double Olympic champions in two separate two-man disciplines, winning Gold in the double sculls at Rio 2016 and Gold again in the coxless pair at Tokyo 2020. They are the first athletes to be World, European and Olympic champs in both the pair and the double.

What of the Sinković brothers’ future, particularly regarding the Paris Olympics of 2024? After Tokyo, they were interviewed by row2k.com who called them “large, likeable, and really good at rowing”. The interview took place in July 2021, before their largely successful return to the double in 2022.

row2k: What is the plan for Paris? When will you be in for that?

Valent: We’re going to have a rest, and we won’t row the pair anymore… Five years is enough. It’s challenging, especially for scullers… Probably for the first year, we will go in a double, but we’ll see. Maybe if there will be someone in Croatia to row a four, we’ll see.

row2k: You still think of yourselves as scullers?

Valent: Yeah, definitely!

Martin: We won the pair, but I think we are scullers, and it was really difficult to adapt – not that much the sweep rowing, but that the pair is really special. We have a lot of challenges there, and I think we managed it well psychologically. I think it really helps that we are brothers because, if we are not, I think we will have much more fighting in the boat…

It is probably important to note that, when brothers row together successfully, they can both wear the Crown.

3 comments

  1. Thank you, Frantuite. Yes, I was thinking about a sisters post. Some names there that I did not know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.