Australia has a remarkable heritage in the sport of rowing, dating back to 1876 when Parramatta quarryman Edward Trickett won the single sculls world championship on the Thames River, Great Britain. The first Australian to achieve this distinction in any sport, Trickett was followed by many others in the years to come. In 1888 Henry Searle repeated Trickett’s achievement, whilst another compatriot of Trickett who was an early Australian world sculling champion was William Beach. In the early years of the next century one of the prodigies of Australia rowing was Frederick Septimus Kelly, who as part of the Leander Club’s rowing eight helped with a gold medal for the host nation at the 1908 London Olympics. However it took until 1928 and the Amsterdam Summer Olympic Games for an Australian rower to win a gold medal; that Olympian was Bobby Pearce, and his regatta in the Netherlands was marked by one of the most unusual events in Olympic history.
Henry Robert Pearce was born in London in 1905, but was known for most of his life as Bobby Pearce. His father Harry was a much accomplished rower who had twice challenged for the world championship. His grandfather Harry Pearce Senior had sculled against Ed Trickett and had beaten William Beach before Beach went on to win the world championship in 1885. With so much sculling heritage in his family, it was no surprise that at the age of six Bobby first entered a regatta and won an under-16 handicap race. Pearce then went on to win his first open event at the age of 14, and in 1926 he took the Australian single sculls championship title. Growing up in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Double Bay, his immediate rowing future before the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics came under a shadow due to accusations of professionalism. Convincing the New South Wales Amateur Rowing Association that this was a case of mistaken identity (arguing it was one of his brothers who had received payment for race rowing, an insurmountable bar to Olympic competition which was firmly amateur in 1928), Bobby Pearce was confirmed by the then Australian Olympic Federation as Australia’s single sculls entrant.
The Amsterdam 1928 rowing regatta was held on the Sloten Canal, and in the single sculls (also known as the skiff) there were fifteen countries represented with fifteen entrants. The format of the competition was an initial round of seven match races, followed by a reclassification/repercharge round, a second round of six matches races and two reclassifications, a third round of four match races, a semi-final and then the gold medal final scull. Bobby Pearce had carried the Australian flag at the front of the Australian team in the Antwerp opening ceremony and this honour was a tribute to his potential results in the upcoming Olympic regatta. The leading rivals for Pearce were the Briton Theodore Collet, the American Kenneth Myers and the local sculler, Dutchman Lambertus Collet.
In the opening round Pearce demonstrated his superiority over his German rival Walter Flinsch, a five-time national champion, reaching the finish of their scull 26 seconds in front of the German. In the Sydney Morning Herald it was reported that Bobby Pearce had actually pulled up and waited for Flinsch to finish. Amongst the other potential medallists Myers had defeated De Kok from South Africa, Collet beat Candeveau of Switzerland and Gunther had narrowly lost to the Canadian Wright. Importantly Pearce had set the quickest time for the distance, winning in 7 minutes 55.75 seconds.
The next round of sculling matches were even more promising for Pearce. Rowing against the Dane oarsman Schwartz Bobby Pearce won with eight lengths to spare, taking almost a full half minute off his previous race time. Gunther had won through his reclasification round and won his race, whilst Myers defeated Collet. It was obvious by now that Bobby Pearce was in gold medal winning form. It was going to take a lot to stop Pearce in his quarter-final race against the French rower Victor Saurin. No one would have expected what did stop the Australian on his way to gold.
As recorded by Harry Gordon in his book “Australia and The Olympic Games”, the following story was reported by a Dutch newspaper and had many and varied retellings. However Pearce himself gave only one recorded version of the incident that occurred in his scull against Savrin, in an interview given to sports historian Henry Roxborough in 1976, just after Pearce’s death;
“I had beaten a German and a Dane in earlier heats and I was racing a Frenchman when I heard wild roars from the crowd along the bank of the canal. I could see some spectators vigorously pointing to something behind me, in my path. I peeked over one shoulder and saw something I didn’t like, for a family of ducks in single file was swimming slowly from shore to shore. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time for I had to lean on my oars and wait for a clear course, and all the while my opponenet was pulling away to a five length lead.”
With an effort that would have been considered impossible from any of his competitors, and even today is hard to believe Pearce chased Savrin after stopping for the duck and its ducklings, caught up with the Frenchmen and then by the time the race was over Pearce had finished almost 30 seconds in front of his challenger. In fact Bobby Pearce’s time even with the stop included was the fastest of the remaining eight scullers in that round. Not even swimming ducks could halt Bobby Pearce.
In the semi-final Pearce came up against the Briton Collet, and won through to the gold medal race by four lengths. The American Myers was unbeaten like Pearce, but his fastest time for the course was still a good 12 or so second behind the Australian’s best. The final race, held on smooth water in the Sloten Canal on 15th October 1928 ended as it was expected. Pearce took the gold (in a time of 7 minutes 11 seconds, a record that would remain for the Olympic single sculls until Munich 1972) and was thus the greatest single oarsman at the 1928 Olympics. He was the first Australian rower to win a gold medal at the Olympics, then four years later he was the first Australian to successfully defend an Olympic title when he took gold at the 1932 Los Angeles regatta. Arguably the greatest pre-World War Two Australian Olympian, Bobby Pearce will always be remembered as the man who stopped rowing for ducks at the Olympic Games.