Henry Robert "Bobby" Pearce (30 September 1905 – 20 May 1976) was an Australian-Canadian sculler of the 1920s and 1930s who won the gold medal in the single sculls at the
1928 Summer Olympicsin Amsterdamand the 1932 Summer Olympicsin Los Angeles. He won the World Sculling Championship (Professional)in 1933, a title he defended successfully twice in 1934 and 1938. He was also a winner of the Diamond Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta.
Pearce was born in Sydney, Australia into a family with sporting pedigree. His great-grandfather emigrated from England in 1850 and settling in Double Bay, in Sydney's inner east district, where he worked as fisherman and ran a boatshed. Pearce's grandfather Henry John "Harry" Pearce, Sr. was an Australian champion in sculling. Harry Pearce had five sons and seven daughters.
Pearce's father, Henry J "Harry, Jr" Pearce Jr., was an Australian sculling champion and challenged for the world championship twice (in 1911 and 1913), losing to
Richard Arnst(NZL) and Ernest Barry(GBR) repectively. One of Pearce's aunts was a New South Walesswimming champion. And Pearce's uncle Sandy Pearce, was a national rugby league representative inducted into that sport's Australian Hall of Fame. Sandy's son Cecil was also a sculler, representing Australia at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Pearce entered a U-16 handicap race at the age of six, managing to finish second. Pearce left school early to become a carpenter, and then worked in the fish industry with his father. He joined the
Australian Armyin 1923, rising to the rank of master-sergeant. He left in 1926, after winning the Army heavyweight boxing championship to become a full-time rower.
Standing at 188 cm and 95 kg, Pearce entered the amateur national sculling championships in 1927, which he won and retained in 1928 and 1929. This gained him selection for the Olympics in 1928, where he was the only rower selected. At the games, he carried the Australian flag at the opening ceremony.
Pearce won all of his races with relative ease. He defeated his first opponent
Walter Flinschof Germany by 12 lengths and his second opponent Danish rower Schwartz by 8 lengths. In the quarter final he was easily beating French opponent Saurin when a family of ducks strayed into his lane. Pearce momentarily stopped rowing to let the ducks pass; he still won by 20 lengths and broke the course record. In the semifinals, Pearce was pressed by David Collettof Great Britain, winning by three-quarters of a length (roughly 1.5 sec). In the finals he became the first Australian to win gold in the single sculls by defeating Kenneth Myersof the United States by 9.8 seconds. In winning he established a new Olympic record, some 25 seconds faster than the previous mark. This also earned him the Philadelphia Gold Cup, which represented the amateur champion of the world.
In preparation for the 1928 Olympics, Pearce attempted to enter the Diamond Sculls at the
Henley Royal Regatta, but was barred as he was a carpenter by trade: the rule relating to amateur status then in force barred anyone "Who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer." This socially discriminatory wording was deleted in 1937.
Pearce was unemployed during the
Great Depression, only entering the 1930 British Empire Gamesin Hamilton, Ontariothrough the charity of friends. He won the single sculls at the Empire Games and attracted the attention of whisky magnate Lord Dewar, who offered Pearce a job in Hamilton as a salesman. This made Pearce eligible to compete in the Diamond Sculls at Henley regatta and he entered again in 1931.
In the first round at Henley he was against Tom Brocklebank, who had served as stroke of
Cambridge University Boat Clubin the Boat Race. Pearce had a weight advantage of three and a half stone (22 kg) over Brocklebank and was a clear favourite. Having taken an early lead Pearce was content to scull a couple of lengths in front until half-way along the enclosures (in the last 500m of the course) where Brocklebank pushed hard and came back level. Pearce countered, but only just in time. C.T. Steward commented in the Henley Records that 'Pearce won comfortably by half a length'. However, Richard Burnell, who watched the race as a schoolboy from the Stewards' box on the finish line wrote that Pearce looked anything but comfortable in the last few strokes. Pearce had no such trouble in later rounds and won the final against F. Bradley of Pembroke College, Cambridgeby six lengths. [cite book
author= Burnell, Richard
title = Henley Royal Regatta: A celebration of 150 years
publisher = William Heinemann
year = 1989
isbn = 0 434 98134 6]
Pearce defended his Olympic title in 1932, this time winning by 1.1 seconds over American
William Millar. The remainder of the field trailed by nearly 30 seconds. Although he was a Canadian resident, Olympic rules required that he represent Australia. Pearce turned professional the following year, making himself ineligible for further Olympic competition. He won the 1933 world championship in Toronto and won again in 1934 in London. In 1938, he defeated Evans Paddonof Australia in a three-mile race during the Canadian National Exhibitionin Toronto where his world sculling title was at stake. The race took place just a few days after Pearce's wife died following an illness. Pearce was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophyas Canada's top athlete of 1938 and retired undefeated.
In 1939, Pearce became a
professional wrestler, performing in preliminary matches for Toronto promoter Frank Tunney until the spring of 1940.
World War II, Pearce joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was made a lieutenant in charge of training new soldiers. He also did public relations work for the Royal Canadian Navyand rose to the rank of lieutenant commander by his retirement in 1956. He then resumed his work as a liquor salesman, and in 1972 became a Canadian citizen. Pearce died in Toronto of a heart attack in 1976, at the age of 70. He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Famein 1952 and the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1986. He is also an inductee of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.
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