Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bert Bushnell Dies at 88

This photograph of Bert Bushnell is picked from ‘Dickie’ Burnell’s book Sculling: with Notes on Training and Rigging (1955). The photograph was also published in Burnell’s Sculling for Rowing (1968).

The other day, the local newspaper in Henley-on-Thames, the Henley Standard, reported that Bert Bushnell, the oldest surviving rowing gold medalist, had died on the 9th, at the age of 88 years. Bushnell (b. 1921) won the gold in the double sculls together with Richard ‘Dickie’ Burnell (1917-1995) at the 1948 Olympic rowing events held in Henley.

Bushnell and Burnell were the two best single scullers in Britain after the war. They were thrown in a double only six weeks before the Olympic races began on 5 August, 1948. At first they seemed to be a very odd couple. The 31-year-old Burnell was a giant at 6ft 4in, educated at Eton and a winning Blue at Oxford, while Bushnell, 26 and only 5ft 9in, was educated at Henley Grammar School. In an interview some years ago, Bert Bushnell revealed that, after their third or fourth outing, they had a couple of arguments. Bushnell wanted to re-rig his riggers as they were rigged for a much heavier oarsman, but Burnell told him not to touch the boat. When Burnell walked off, Bushnell re-rigged the boat and that did the trick!

Bushnell was rowing bow and Burnell stroke, or as Bushnell puts it in the article: “I was on the bridge and ‘Dickie’ was in the engine room.” In the interview Bushnell also made public that they deliberately lost their first Olympic race against the French boat, as they did not want to meet their main opponents, Denmark, in their semi-final race. Through an easy repecharge and semi-final, the Brits met the Danes in the final. At one point during the race, Bushnell saw the anxious face of the Danish bowman; Bushnell called out to Burnell, “Now!”, and they spurted away from the Danes and won with two lengths.

A year later, the Danes beat the British double at the Henley Royal Regatta.

What the British newspapers also like to tell about Bert Bushnell is that he befriended the American sculler Jack ‘Kell’ Kelly, Jr., and actually asked Kelly’s sister out on a date. At that time she had dreams of becoming an actress, she told Bushnell when they were walking on the towpath along the river. A couple of years later she went to drama school, and would eventually hit the big screen. Her name? Grace Kelly.

Bert Bushnell’s Olympic gold medal is now kept at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.

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