Canada's Jackson, Hungerford made Tokyo rowing magic out of a muddle in 1964

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Misfortune put Roger Jackson and George Hungerford in a boat together in Tokyo in 1964.

Two young men who had trained together for less than six weeks produced Canada's lone Olympic gold medal of those Summer Olympics.

A 22-year-old Jackson had moved from Ontario to Vancouver in the spring to make the Olympic rowing team as the stroke in the men's four.

Vancouver's Hungerford, 20, was trying to secure a spot in the men's eight for Tokyo.

Now 79 and 77 respectively, Jackson and Hungerford recounted their journey to gold to The Canadian Press.

THE UNION

Jackson's four lost a teammate to a strained back at the trials in St. Catharines, Ont.

The only replacement available was a man who had spent five days driving the boats from Vancouver.

"This poor chap got put in a boat made up of three thoroughbreds and one guy that wasn't," Jackson recalled. "We started in Lane 2 and ended up steering off the course."

So Jackson and Wayne Pretty were asked to spare for the men's eight, as well as row a pair.

Hungerford, meanwhile, had established himself in the eight.

"I made the cuts and kept on making the cuts," Hungerford said. "They had some amazing rowers with international experience.

"This was a big moment for me. I had made the Canadian team."

Hungerford was diagnosed with mononucleosis at the end of July, however.

"There was no medicine to take in those days," he said. "You just had to go to bed, so I went to bed."

Pretty drew into the men's eight to replace Hungerford.

"I was left alone to scull in Vancouver Harbour on my own to keep training and determine what the hell was going to happen," Jackson said.

"At the end of August, it was a question of George being able to row or not to row? The team would be leaving at the end of September."

The clock was ticking on Hungerford.

"Even though the symptoms are gone, it sort of stays with you," Hungerford said. "I saw the coach who said 'you're not strong enough. You've been in bed for five weeks. This is an endurance sport and you're out of the eight.'

"I was pretty broken up about this opportunity that had been dashed."

Hungerford was given the option to join Jackson in the pair.

"I was definitely in a weakened condition," Hungerford said. "I had never rowed a pair before. I was used to being in a boat with a lot more stability. A pair is very unstable and requires a huge amount of finesse and timing.

"The first week or so was not a very happy week. Roger was not happy being left with me. And I wasn't very happy having to listen to Roger, who was nattering away at me. I guess I would natter back at him."

Still suffering the effects of mono, Hungerford was given no quarter.

"We had intensive twice-a-day training and it was killing him in the afternoon workout," Jackson said.

"He would be sleeping pretty well all day long. We were training really hard with no compromise on his part. He had to do the work even though it was really, really tiring for him. But he did it."

"I think we both realized we had to make it work," Hungerford said. "We were going to have to be a team. We wanted to go to Tokyo.

"We had about a month to pull this off. We weren't talking about medals. We were talking about being able to row 2,000 metres and hold our heads high and compete at the Olympic level."

RUDDERLESS

Jackson, the stroke at the front of the boat, was overpowering Hungerford operating the rudder.

"After I, probably the word is complaining . . . 'I'm not going to get up at 4:30 in the morning and pull this goddamn boat around' something like that, we decided to take the rudder off the boat, so he could just concentrate on rowing," Jackson said.

"That was part of our magic," Hungerford said. "It forced us both to be perfect. Both rowers became responsible for the direction of the boat. If your oars don't go in perfectly synchronized, then the boat is going to pull one way or the other."

TOKYO

The duo continued to train twice a day upon arrival in Tokyo. They slept on tatami mats between workouts at the Toda Rowing Course.

Jackson and Hungerford had yet to compete together in an actual race. Three days before their heat, the pair rowed a 2,000-metre time trial.

"The eight was on the water at the same time ahead of us and of course, they were a lot faster because had eight people pounding their boat and we just had two of us," Jackson said.

"We came up upon them and they started going hard and we kept with them. At the end of that time trial, they actually clapped and said 'wow, you guys really had the boat moving.'"

A coach came over with a stopwatch. The two young men wanted to know their time.

"He said 'my stopwatch broke,'" Hungerford said. "The boat was moving. We felt really good. How we were going to do against the competition, we didn't know. He never told us what the time was.

"All eyes were on the eight. We were just a sideline. We were determined. If we were going to go all that way, suffer through the agonies to get there, we were going to do our best."

The duo posted the fastest time in the heats, which gave them a berth in the six-boat final.

"The coach came up after that race and he said 'you know that stopwatch I had that I said didn't work? It was working. I just didn't believe it,'" Hungerford said.

"We had rowed a strong race and thought we could do better than in the heat. We had a time now. We had a baseline. And we had no rudder."

THE RACE (FALSE START)

"George crabbed on the first two or three strokes," Jackson said. "He didn't square his blade when he applied the power and it sucked down into the water rather than propelling us. It turned us a bit sideways.

"We were a boat length behind after three strokes or something like that. A few words between me and George ensued because I was the older of the two."

"The false start was not good," Hungerford said. "He was pretty worked up.

"If you missed that first stroke, it's very demoralizing to say the least because the boat dies on you. I had gone too deep on the stroke. Luckily we had a friend on the British team that false-started. The race was called back.

"Having been chastised by Roger, I didn't make the same mistake twice."

THE RACE 2.0

Their strategy was to make a move at the halfway mark.

"My strength was going to be at that part of the race and it wasn't going to be at the end," Hungerford said.

"We were first to the 500, we were first to the thousand," Jackson said. "We kept it going for quite a while at that higher rate before we settled into about a 95 per cent effort as we were approaching the three-quarter mark."

"We took about a length and a half on the whole field, which is a lot," Hungerford said. "The boat was just flying. It was just a sensational feeling to feel the boat working for you, not against you.

"We were really humming. It was an incredible feeling looking back on it, where we were able to take that shell, without a rudder."

As he predicted, Hungerford's tank emptied in the final quarter.

"We were coming down the final 200 metres of the race and what to do?" Jackson said. "Do I take the stroke up and apply more power or do we keep it going? I decided to keep it going. He was hanging on beautifully. He was working his butt off to try to keep where we were.

"About 10 strokes before the finish, I just quickly looked over to see what was happening and I noticed the Dutch had done a sprint and they were on our tail.

"I just said to George 'up'. We struggled for a couple of strokes to get up to a higher rate, took four or five strokes and we were over the line."

"I can't recall too much because I think I was close to blacking out," Hungerford said. "The last 100 metres, I can't even really describe it. It was just awful. But I had to hang in there. There was no other choice.

"The boat was starting to move towards my side because Roger was overpowering me. We were very close to being into the next lane. We could see the markers, the buoys going by and my oar was overtop of them. We couldn't have the shell going over top of them or we'd be disqualified."

PHOTO FINISH

"The horn went 'beep, beep' and I thought 'did I just screw this up?' because I was really worried my decision not to take it up earlier might have cost us the race," Jackson said.

"We were in the lane right next to land and I called over to a photographer 'did we win?' The guy said 'I don't know.'

"We sat there waiting as they reviewed the photos and then up on the board came 'Canada.' It seemed like ages. This is the old days, 1964, so I don't know what the technology was like."

"I was not really functioning particularly well, but I knew we'd accomplished something pretty amazing," Hungerford said.

"The other boats all had rudders. Every time they used that rudder, it would cost you something. A fraction of a second and we only won by a fraction of a second. I think it was a factor."

GOLD MEDALS

"George was having trouble getting out of the boat. He didn't have any energy left," Jackson said. "I remember reaching down and grabbing his arm and pulling him up to get him out of the boat.

"We walked up on the red carpet and the thought struck me 'what national anthem are they going to play and what flag are they going to hoist?' because it was the time of the flag debate in Canada. Debate was raging in the fall about our current flag design versus the Red Ensign.

"I didn't know if they were going to play 'O Canada'. They played our current national anthem 'O Canada,' but they actually flew the Red Ensign as Canada's flag."

"There was nothing left in the tank, which I guess is the way you'd like to finish any race," Hungerford said. "It was such a thrilling moment. I think it took a while for the impact of what we had done to sink in."

AFTERMATH

Canadian track star Harry Jerome raced the 100 metres that day and won bronze. The media were camped out at the stadium and not the rowing course.

"Here the big story was, what the hell happened out at Toda Lake? A gold medal from rowing? Who are these guys?" said Jackson.

"We got on the bus and went back to the village. Being Canadians, we still had our gold medals around our necks but we had our track suits up around our necks.

"Our gold medals were covered. We went into the dining hall to splurge and finally had nothing to do the next morning. A couple of Canadians came by and said 'how did it go today?' And we just said 'great' and went to bed."

To appease demanding editors back in Canada, reporters said the two young men couldn't be located because they were celebrating their victory in the fashionable Ginza district "which is not exactly what happened," Hungerford said.

"The press corps was an interesting group. They enjoyed their nights out."

TODAY

Jackson and Hungerford are high achievers.

After finishing his doctoral degree in biomechanics, Jackson went onto serve as director of Sport Canada, president of the Canadian Olympic committee for three terms and was the first chief executive officer of Own The Podium.

He founded the University of Calgary Sport Medicine Centre. Jackson co-chaired the drive to build Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary and led the group that established a National Music Centre in the city.

Hungerford, a corporate lawyer, heads a commercial and residential property company. He's raised millions of dollars for the B.C. Cancer Foundation and Salvation Army.

Hungerford was the founding chair of the Pacific Salmon Foundation conservation group and is a member of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games Operating Trust Society.

Jackson and Hungerford were hustled into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame the same year they won gold in 1964.

"It was a fortuitous matching of two athletes," Jackson said. "Our friendship has been just absolutely marvellous. He's been so supportive and so much a part of family in a way. That's really been the best part of the whole thing."

"When they put us together, they put together two young men of identical height and weight," Hungerford points out. "We were a perfect fit physically. I guess you could say mentally we had the same alignment of interests.

"We developed telepathy, I call it. We still have it today. Roger and I pick up the phone all the time.

"We talk to each other regularly, once every week or two we're on the phone and we're always conspiring to get together with our wives.

"In life, you don't have too many friends you know really well. A sentence that wasn't completed the last time you talked you pick it up again and you just continue on.

"It's a wonderful friendship. Rowing gave us that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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