Down Under Series: Australia’s rowing icon – Bobby Pearce
It was the quarterfinal of the men’s single sculls at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games. The 22-year-old Australian, Henry ‘Bobby’ Pearce was leading France’s Victor Saurin in this two-boat race.
Pearce heard shouts from the bank and looked back to see a duck and her ducklings crossing the race course just ahead of him. Pearce stopped his boat and waited for the ducks to cross. Saurin, meanwhile, took the lead, but not for long. Pearce soon passed the Frenchman and moved away to set a new course record.
This story became legendary and Pearce not only won the hearts of the Dutch public he cemented his reputation in Australian society. It also showed how superior Pearce’s boat speed was compared to his competitors at the time. His son, Rupert later said dryly, “Dad was extremely competitive. If the race had been close he would have gone right through those ducks.”
Pearce went on to win the Amsterdam Olympic final and pick up the only gold for Australia from those Games. His finishing time of 7:11 was a record over the 2000m distance. This time stood for 45 years.
Bobby Pearce grew up in a sporty family in the Sydney seaside suburb of Double Bay. Father, Harry II was a former Australian rowing champion. His grandfather, Harry also sculled. The women in Pearce’s family rowed and brother, Sandy was a top rugby league player. Sandy’s son Cecil rowed at the Berlin Olympics while Cecil’s son Gary competed as a rower at three Olympic Game, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich.
One of the earliest stories of Pearce goes that the six-year-old won his first race in an under-16 handicap event. Rowing thus became the cornerstone of Pearce’s life and at the age of 14 he won his first open event.
Father, Harry II was Pearce’s coach and he was well-known as an incredibly tough taskmaster. Almost unheard of at the time, Pearce trained two to three times a day.
On leaving school Pearce became a carpenter and then worked in the fishing industry before joining the Australian Army where he became the Army heavyweight boxing champion. He then left the Army in 1926 to concentrate on rowing. From 1926 to 1928 Pearce was Australia’s single sculling champion and thus earned his ticket to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games.
Still an amateur rower, Pearce was unemployed during the great depression and on earning a spot in the 1930 British Empire Games to be held in Canada, Pearce was only able to compete there due to the financial support of friends. In the final of the Empire Games, Pearce raced Joe Wright Jr. of Canada who was considered the best single sculler in the world at the time. Pearce won.
Going to Canada for the Empire Games cemented Pearce’s superiority in the single and also changed his direction in life. He was offered a job with a Canadian company which he accepted, moving to Canada to take up the position. In 1932, despite living in Canada, he competed for Australia at the Los Angeles Olympics. Pearce again won gold. At that time no other single sculler had won two Olympic golds in a row.
Following the Olympics, Pearce turned professional and in 1933 he won the World Professional Sculling Champion title. According to the rules of the day turning professional meant that he was no longer eligible to compete at the Olympics. Pearce remained professional and retained the sculling title for a staggering 14 years, only giving it up on his retirement in 1947. During this time Pearce had to defend his title only twice. According to Stuart Ripley in Sculling and Skulduggery (2009) this lack of racing was due to the “perceived invincibility of Pearce” and also due to the demise of professional sculling. Disruption caused by World War II also played a factor.
Pearce was regularly portrayed for his incredible strength and fitness. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1939 finished an article about Pearce by saying, “He has splendid physique.” Gary Lester, in Robin Poke’s book, Olympic Gold says of Pearce in 1930, “fit and enduring beyond any contemporary in the rowing world.”
While racing professionally Pearce also engaged in wrestling and in 1939 it was noted in an Australian newspaper that Pearce had made his first appearance as a professional wrestler.
After Pearce retired from professional rowing he remained living in Canada until his death at the age of 70.
Despite his time in Canada, Pearce was and still is viewed as an iconic Australian. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 as one of its inaugural members. The Hall of Fame called him, “The finest sculler of all, professional or amateur, in all the years before World War II.” Pearce was also inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (in 1975).
Leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games an auction selling Olympic memorabilia included a collection of Pearce’s Olympic gold medals, letters, photographs and posters. The collection was offered by Pearce’s son, Bob Jr. who hoped that a home for the collection would be found in Australia. The collection was the top seller at the auction going for $USD75,000. It was sold to an Australian buyer.
- Melissa Bray