Spurned by Henley, Kelly made his mark at Antwerp en route to 126 straight single scull wins.
photograph by USOC

A stroke of genius in the racing shell
by Ron Fimrite

"It was always a challenge trying to equal my father," John Brenden Kelly Jr. once said in a sweeping understatement. In fact, it was hard trying to compete with most any of the Kellys, including John's sister, Grace, a movie queen who became Princess of Monaco, and his uncle George, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1926 play, Craig's Wife. Yes, the Kellys of Philadelphia were quite a family. It was dad, Jack Sr., who set the pace and inspired the enduring Kelly legend - and Jack Jr. who bore the burden of it.

The familiar story goes something like this: In the summer of 1920 Jack Kelly, a poor but honest bricklayer and an expert oarsman, seeks to enter England's snooty Henley Royal Regatta in the single sculls race. But he is turned away at the dock by the aristocrats in charge because as someone who "works with his hands" he obviously is no gentleman. Wounded by this insult but undaunted, Kelly two months later wins an Olympic gold medal in the single sculls at the Antwerp Games, trouncing, in delicious irony, the Henley champion, Jack Beresford. He then mails his kelly-green racing cap to King George V with the note, "Greetings from a bricklayer." Twenty-seven years later he gains even sweeter revenge when, by now a multimillionaire, he sends Jack Jr. to Henley, where, of course, the lad wins the very race the snobs had previously denied his father.

As with all good stories, only parts of this one are true. Jack Sr. was hardly a poor bricklayer in 1920. As a matter of fact, he hadn't laid a brick in 10 years and was by then the owner of his own brick manufacturing company. He had been assured by American rowing officials that his application to race at Henley would be accepted, but two days before he was to sail to England with a new shell, he received a cryptic wire saying he had been excluded from the race. So he never did get to Henley. The reason for the rejection, he himself concluded, was that his rowing club, the Vespers of Philadelphia, had been at odds with the Henley people ever since 1905, when, in an apparent violation of Regatta rules, the club doled out money to its oarsmen for a postrace tour of Europe.

Far from being obscure, Kelly was at that time the world's premier oarsman in a sport at the very peak of its popularity. His Olympic victory was one of 126 consecutive races that he won in 1919 and '20, and it didn't come easily: Kelly crossed the finish line one second ahead of Beresford in a thrilling stretch duel. Both men were so exhausted afterward that they couldn't even shake hands. Yet just 30 minutes later Kelly won his second gold, this time with his cousin, Paul Costello, in the double sculls. (The single and double sculls are among the rowing finals that will be held today at Lake Lanier.) He and Costello returned in 1924 to the Paris Games and won yet another gold in the doubles. Then, at age 35, Kelly retired to make his millions, run unsuccessfully for mayor of Philadelphia and raise a family that included a princess and another oarsman. He died in 1960 of intestinal cancer.

After his initial victory in '47, Jack Jr. returned to win again at Henley two years later, but he fell far short of his father's achievements in Olympic competition. He rowed out of contention in 1948 and '52 before winning a bronze at the 1956 Melbourne Games. He had promised Grace, who had married Prince Rainier III of Monaco that April, a medal as a wedding gift. "I finally got one," he said later, "but it was the wrong color." Jack Jr. tried again at the 1960 Rome Games and once more finished out of the running. Finally, in 1964, he did, in a sense, get his gold, acting as sponsor for the Vesper Club's eights crew that won in Tokyo.

Then, like his father before him, he became active in Philadelphia politics and as a spokesman for amateur athletics. In 1970 he was elected president of the Amateur Athletic Union and on Feb. 9, 1985, he became president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Just 22 days later he suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging near his Philadelphia home. He was 57. His famous sister had died three years earlier in an auto accident.

In the end, the Kellys had everything except longevity.

SI Olympic Dailies, "http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/events/1996/olympics/daily/july27/flashback.html"


Charlie McIntyre told me in June, 2006 that he and his two brothers, Joe and Dick(?) along with Jack Jr. were sent over to the Vespers Boat Club by Jack Sr. to be the nucleus of the "Modern Vespers Boat Club". Charlie also said that Jack was never better than at the 1956 Olympics after he trained for a while in Seattle with George Pocock but then he turned to the Germans for coaching. "The Pococks never tooted their own horn".

Pocock Singles Project
Copyright 2005 - 2007 Wooden Boat Foundation
All rights reserved.