Swedish Olympian Evert Gunnarsson Dies

The Swedish coxed four showing off their 1956 Olympic silver medals. From l to r: Evert Gunnarsson, Ivar Aronsson, Bertil Göransson, Gösta Eriksson and Olle Larsson. This was the second Olympic medal for a Swedish crew. The first Olympic medal in rowing came at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, in the coxed inrigger four.

10 February 2023

By Göran R Buckhorn

Swedish legendary Olympic oarsman Evert Gunnarsson has died at age 92.

Belated sad news comes from Sweden that Olympian Evert Gunnarsson, one of Sweden’s most distinguished oarsmen in the late 1940s, the 1950s and early 1960s passed away in November last year at age 92.

Evert Gunnarsson, who competed for Kungälvs Roddklubb, on the west coast of Sweden, a club that has produced many brilliant rowers through the years, including Maria Brandin, started his rowing career in the coxless pairs. Gunnarsson and his club mate Bernt Torbentsson, both 20 at the time, had an early success in the boat class by becoming the European Champions in 1949. The previous year, at the Olympic rowing in Henley, the young Swedish duo failed to reach the semi-finals.

Evert Gunnarsson (stroke) and Bernt Torbentsson.

The Kungälv-pair were back on the Olympic rowing course in 1952 at Mei Bay, Helsinki. They came third in their semi-final heat and never reached the final. All the Swedish crews did poorly in the Helsinki Games. Already at the 1948 Games, the Swedish manager, Gunnar Nittzell, had talked to the U.S. boatman George Pocock about getting a coach for the Swedish crews. Pocock mentioned one name: Gösta “Gus” Eriksen, whose parents had emigrated to Seattle from the Swedish-speaking part of Finland in the 1910s.

In 1952, Gus Eriksen was visiting the Games as he was in Finland to see his parents, who had moved back to the old country in 1930 to take over the family farm when Gus’s grandfather died. The Swedish Rowing Federation drew up a contact that Eriksen was to visit Sweden the next summer to train the Swedish oarsmen. When Eriksen arrived, he toured the Swedish clubs and soon realised that the country had many good rowers, but no good crews. Eriksen, who had a coaching position at Syracuse University, and his family also spent the two summers of 1954 and 1955 in Sweden.

Gus Eriksen had rowed at the University of Washington under Al Ulbrickson. Gus had stroked the Washington coxed four at the 1936 Olympic Trials on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia but through skullduggery, Gus’s crew lost by a hair.

What he brought to Sweden from Washington was the Conibear stroke, the American style which originated from Hiram Conibear. After Conibear’s early death in 1917 – Conibear was only 46 years old when he fell down from a fruit tree and died – his style was handed down to the Washington coaches who followed him, Ed Leader, Rusty Callow and Al Ulbrickson.

Between the summer sessions, when Eriksen was not in Sweden, he wrote training programmes for the oarsmen. He also wrote a paper about the Conibear stroke. It begins: “The basic requirement for Conibear is the perfect simultaneity.”

Gus Eriksen created a stir in the Swedish rowing community by combining oarsmen from the three rowing clubs Kungälvs Roddklubb, Strömstads Roodklubb and Trollhättans Roddsällskap. Earlier the custom had been that a club boat would represent Sweden at national and international regattas. In 1955, under the new “club” name Three Towns, Gus’s crews won two silver medals in the coxed fours and eights at the European Championships in Ghent. Evert Gunnarsson rowed in both crews.

Gus Eriksen

In 1956, Gus resigned from Syracuse, whereafter the Eriksen family – Gus, his wife Jean and their four daughters – moved to Sweden where Gus took a full-time job as the Swedish national team coach. As the first Swedish crew, Three Towns, with Gunnarsson at stroke, raced at Henley Royal Regatta, in the Grand Challenge Cup, where they met a very good eight from the French Army in the final. The French crew won by a length.

In the July 1956 issue of British Rowing, the magazine’s editor Hylton Cleaver wrote about the Swedes:

Sweden were also a good crew, and everyone liked the charming way they lined up after defeat and walked past the French crew, each man shaking hands warmly with each of the winners.

Otherwise, it did not go well for the Swedish boats leading up to the Olympic rowing on Lake Wendouree at Ballarat, Australia. At the 1956 European Championships in Bled, the Swedish coxed four placed fifth, and the Swedish eight did not even get to the final. A bigger blow came when the crews came home from Yugoslavia. The Swedish Olympic Committee told the oarsmen that due to the poor results – obviously being the runner-up in the Grand at Henley did not count – there were no funds to send them to the Olympic Games.

In January 1956, Roddklubben Three Towns had become a member of the Swedish Rowing Federation. President for the club was the wealthy shipowner Gustaf B. Thordén. When Thordén heard that the club’s oarsmen were not going to be sent to Ballarat due to lack of money, he promised them to pay for their trip and lodging from his own pocket. Thordén gave Gus and his rowers SEK130,000 (which in today’s money is SEK1.982,500 – £155,243/US$187,585).

At the Games, the Swedish coxed four took a silver medal. The Italians, who came third at the European Championships eight weeks earlier, became the Olympic champions. The European champions, Finland, were eight seconds behind Sweden, taking the bronze. Less the two hours later, the silver medallists raced in the Swedish eight, placing fourth as the only European crew in the eights’ final. USA won the gold, Canada took the silver and the home crew, Australia, took the bronze. The crew from the French Army, who so handedly had beaten the Swedes at Henley and had taken the silver medal at the European Championships, came last in their Olympic repechage heat.

Swedish Olympic medallists. From l to r: Gösta Eriksson, Olle Larsson, Evert Gunnarsson, Ivar Aronsson and Bertil Göransson.

When the Swedish oarsmen came home from Australia, they were met by the Swedish press who wanted a statement on how the Swedish Olympic Committee could be so wrong refusing to send them to the Olympics in the first place. Coach Gus Eriksen said diplomatically: “You can’t expect everyone to understand rowing.”

Throughout his rowing career, Evert Gunnarsson took an Olympic silver medal, a European gold medal and two European silver medals. He became Nordic champion eight times and became Swedish champion 25 times.

The only living member of the 1956 Swedish Olympic crews is now Gösta Eriksson, 92.*

Evert Gunnarsson, born on 28 December 1929; died on 30 November 2022.

*For the Swedish readers, here is a special treat – an interview with Gösta Eriksson about rowing at the 1956 Olympics. (From July 2021 from the Swedish Radio (P4 Väst). Please click here.

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