Pictured: The 1954 Empire Games gold medal eights rowing team, from right in back row, Herman Zloklokovits, Bob Wilson, Lawrence West, Glen Smith, Ray Sierpina; from right in front row, Ken Drummond, Tom Toynbee, Don Laishley (manager) and Doug McDonald (Mike Harris is not pictured).
Courtesy of Vancouver Sun: Story by Gary Kingston and photo by Steve Bosch
They all slipped on grey THUNDERBIRD CREW T-shirts — appropriate, cracked Tom Toynbee, given the prevailing hair colour.
Sixty years after they pulled off a huge upset by beating the heavily-favoured English crew for gold in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, the University of B.C. men’s eights team gathered at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame Tuesday for the opening of a new gallery dedicated to those Games.
Amazingly, even though they are now in their late 70s or early 80s, the crew members are all still alive. And all but one were at the Hall of Fame.
So it is clean living? Or, simply testament to the long-term benefits of rowing?
“It is amazing,” said Toynbee. “I actually had a heart event 15 years ago, had an angiogram and the cardiologist was looking at (the results) and said ‘Oh, look at that.’
“I thought, ‘God, it must be a big blockage.’ He said ‘No, you have big arteries. There’s no widow makers here.’ (The rest of the crew) are still alive, so …”
The big-hearted crew consisted of Ken Drummond, Mike Harris, Doug McDonald, Glen Smith, Laurie West, Bob Wilson, Toynbee, Herman Zloklokovits, cox Ray Sierpina and spare Phil Kueber. Legendary Frank Read was the coach and Doug Laishley the manager.
The young crew’s victory was huge news, producing newspaper headlines like “Canadian rowers sink mighty England” and “They did the impossible.”
The initial plan was to stage rowing at Burnaby Lake. But it was overgrown with weeds, so the rowing was set up on Vedder Canal in Chilliwack, with the athletes staying in the nearby military barracks.
Temporary grandstands were built and some 12,000 people lined the shores of the canal for the men’s eights, including Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
After the stunning win, they were invited by the Duke and the Thames Rowing Club to compete in the famed Royal Henley Regatta in 1955. They beat the world champion U.S.S.R. in a heat before losing the final to a strong crew from Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t just the rowing, though, that made a lasting impression on the UBC crew.
“The Thames Rowing Club guys invited us to come visit them (after the racing),” said Toynbee.
“Remember that?” he added, casting a glance at Zoklokovits. “I remember that well because you jumped up on the piano. We had quite a few beers.”
Several of the same crew, those who hadn’t graduated yet, were part of the squad that won silver at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
The 1954 crew brought a special guest to Tuesday’s dedication, Stan Pocock, part of the famous boat-building family from Seattle and builders of the Canadian team’s cedar shell.
In their final practice session in Coal Harbour before heading to Ontario for the ’54 Games qualifier, the rowers had hit a submerged log, cracking the shell’s exterior.
“We recovered the wreck and placed it on the dock,” said Toynbee, speaking to other athletes from the ’54 Games, family members and HOF inductees. “Frank immediately got on the phone to George Pocock. A few hours later (George and his son Stan) arrived and immediately began to work their magic, drilling, clamping and patching. Our BEG dream was intact … and we won the gold medal on the Vedder Canal.”
Saying it was better late than never, Toynbee and the crew presented the 90-year-old Pocock with a THUNDERBIRD CREW T-shirt and made him an honorary member.
“I remember we were sitting at the start, but the Duke of Edinburgh hadn’t arrived yet,” said Wilson, who was just 18. “We couldn’t start until he showed up, so we just sat there and burned nervous energy. It seemed like we waited half a day.”
The English, represented by the Thames Rowing Club, got off to quick early lead as the crew from UBC and the Vancouver Rowing Club struggled to get in sync. McDonald, who was in the five seat, “caught a crab, caught his oar on the way by and he lost control,” said Toynbee.
“The boat really shuttered. Usually that will kill you in a race. But he recovered it and we sort of said ‘ah, the hell with it, let’s go.’ We were behind by a fair amount, but we rowed at a very high rate of speed for those days.
“Pretty soon we saw we were catching them and you get that wonderful feeling. It became clear we were going to pass them.”
“We just rowed like hell,” added Wilson. “There was no stopping us. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first medal won by Canada in that Games, so that made it even better.”
The Canadian boys won by 2½ boat lengths. They attributed the win to their superior fitness, saying they “trained like hell” under a fantastic coach.
They would row three to five miles in the morning and the same at night during the school year, Zloklokovits said. On the weekends, they rowed 10 miles each day. They also ran and did specific exercises in the off-season.