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History of Rowing at Sydney Boys High School, 1947-1960

by Graham Pilger


Finally, a brief last look at the High crews of those post war years. The record alone demonstrates how different they were, firstly, from many of their GPS contemporaries during that time and, most unfortunately, from their own ‘heirs and successors’ on the river ever since: 

With notable exceptions, including the last two winning eights, High had usually fielded the lightest and youngest crews amongst the GPS schools. Bob Sample, later to stroke the ’57 eight, was 14 years and three months when he stroked his third four to success in 1954. He was, and possibly still is, the youngest ever, perhaps from any school, to win at Penrith - but there were quite a few others of similar age in the junior fours at High in those years. The advantages of being able to retain an experienced younger rower for senior crews in later years was not lost, of course, on High’s coaches. However, an enthusiastic coaching presence was always expected - and provided - to supervise and share in much of the hard work and longer training hours needed to make up for frequent age and weight disadvantages in most of the High crews. Logbooks kept by crews of that period attest to the hundreds of miles spent on the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers in a typical season. There was no magic formula - High crews earned their reputations for disciplined success the hard way. 

And what longer term effects, good or bad, did these regimens have on those who gave their all on the river in those days? Of course each participant would have to answer that question for himself. Perhaps, therefore, the writer might be excused for concluding these reminiscences by introducing some personal insights gained some 62 years ago when a member for the first time of a Penrith crew: 

Neither of my two kids rowed; hence it was difficult to explain to them, let alone to myself, their father’s abiding fascination with such an ‘alien’ sport. Recently, however, while disposing of the last of my memorabilia from those years, I came across an old B&W print of me, aged 15 at Penrith, taken by the Daily Telegraph directly before the second fours race - which we went on to win in record time. Thinking back some six months before that was taken, I compared the image in the print with the unconfident, uncoordinated kid I remembered all too well starting to learn to row at the Drummoyne shed under Alan Callaway’s patient hand. The difference was almost palpable. 

The original post war coaches, by their actions and attitudes, somehow managed, repeatedly and successfully, to impart a common if unspoken belief that rowing - like the rest of life - is competitive, and that a high level of personal effort and teamwork was just what was needed, not only to win boat races, but to help turn the child into a young man under the best possible circumstances. 

I recall that I grew two inches in height that year but, more importantly, grew about two feet in confidence and self esteem. 

Graham Pilger
January 2019

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