Jack Kelly a Diamond

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

This past weekend marked the annual Head of the Charles Regatta. When I saw some photos of the 8,000 rowers in various boats, gliding down the Charles River on a crisp, quintessential New England October day, with some 300,000 people watching and cheering from both shores, I got to wondering about the history of rowing. I had a general sense that the upper-crust chaps of Oxford and Cambridge had been rowing down the Thames in London since the 1800's and that the sport as the domain of the elite had soon thereafter come over to Harvard and the Ivy Leaguers here in the US. But it hadn't occurred to me that rowing is as ancient in its roots as running and wrestling. There are references to ancient vessels racing by their brawny oarsmen by Virgil in the Aenid. And in fact there was a lot of racing around the world's flat oceans. When a boat was not at war, its sailors would wager on races for sport and the strongest oarsmen were lauded and lavished with prizes.

Through the centuries, it became de rigeur in many cultures to have the best rowers in the land sweep a ruler or dignitary down the local river as he lay in state on a barge. The citizens would gather on the river banks to pay their respects as their king floated by, trusted to the skilled hands of the rowers. Such was the custom for many years in England and it was from those processions that rowing races eventually evolved on the Thames. The most famous, The Henley Royal Regatta, started in 1838 and is still a marquee event every summer among the world's finest oarsmen. The final event at the Henley is the men's single sculls. They call it the Diamond Sculls because the winner takes home a pair of crossed oars, nearly a foot long, made entirely of diamonds. The Diamond Sculls are revered among rowers as much as, if not more so, than an Olympic Gold medal.

The most famous among the Diamond Sculls stories is that of Jack Kelly, a Philadelphia bricklayer who was the world's best rower in his day, the 1920's. Kelly wore a Kelly-green ski cap every day when he practiced on the Schuylkill River in Philly and lore has it that he never once washed that cap. It was soaked with a million hours of sweat from those days of hard sprints up and down the river.

In 1920, earlier in the summer before the Antwerp Olympic Games, Kelly applied to the Diamond Sculls but was rejected. It turns out that Henley had a hard-and-fast rule that stated no man who had worked as a day laborer, such as a bricklayer, would be eligible for the Diamond Sculls. The elite students of Oxford had originally thought that a man who works with his hands all day would have unfair advantage over a man who was holed up in the library all day. Blue-collar discrimination was at play at Henley for many years.

Kelly did win both the single sculls and the doubles at Antwerp that year, 1920, and then he won his third Olympic Gold medal in Paris in 1924. But he was never allowed entry to the Diamond Sculls so, in frustration, he sent his Kelly-green, unwashed ski cap to King George V upon his retirement, with a note that read: “Greetings from a bricklayer.”

Well, that bricklayer, later a millionaire contactor and prominent Philadelphia citizen, father of movie star Grace Kelly, had a son, Jack Kelly, Jr., who rowed at four Olympic Games himself. And he did win the famous Diamond Sculls. Twice, 1947 and ‘49. The soon to be crowned Queen Elizabeth II was on the dock, waiting to give Jack, Jr. his Diamond Sculls after his first victory at Henley. He bowed his head to the Queen and she surprised him by putting his father's Kelly-green cap on his head, an apology of sorts, for keeping him from racing for the only title he didn't win during his superior career.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image of Henley Royal Regatta © oepkes.com



Diana Nyad