From June 2009 Tips & Tales

Reflections on 1952 Olympic Games

Note: May 31, 2020 is Frank Shakespeare's 90th birthday; be sure to wish him well!

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A half century and six years ago change came to the summer Olympic games. These games, in 1952, were just the second games held after WW II, and were the first of the “modern” summer Olympic games in which the USSR participated. They were held in Helsinki, Finland, adjoining the Soviet Union territory.

Here all of the Iron Curtain country athletes were established in a separate village compound, completely isolated from the Olympic Village which housed the rest of the world’s athletes, thus creating quite a stir in the political world at that time. Something special -- 17 Midshipmen from the US Naval Academy represented USA in the Olympic Games in rowing, the Navy 8-oar and 4-oar boats with respective substitutes, along with Navy coach Rusty Callow, and a US Navy Ensign single sculler, John B. Kelly Jr. (Grace Kelly’s brother).

Those were the days when the USA Olympic athletes were truly amateurs, not receiving monetary compensation for their athleticism in their respective sports. The US basketball team was made up of several seven footers and others chosen from what was then called industrial leagues and from colleges and universities. Mr. Avery Brundage, our USA Olympic Committee Chairman, was quite adamant about pure amateurism at that time. How times have changed!

As for my experiences, before entering the US Naval Academy in July 1949 the only rowing I knew anything about was in a boat fishing or crabbing at Rehoboth Beach Bay in Delaware. Basketball was my sport at Dover High School; however, my skills did not match up with what was needed as a freshman (Plebe) at the Academy to make that team. So the sport of rowing (CREW) was  suggested, a true blessing in the making!

Not much there until late my sophomore (Third Class) year, 1951, when my coach gave me a shot at rowing bow-oar in the varsity eight. At our nationals in Marietta, Ohio, Navy boats sank or were swamped by the severe flooding of the Ohio River there. (Headlines: NAVY SINKS!) However, the following spring of 1952 I was integrated in with six new sophomores and one fellow junior who went thru that entire 1952 rowing season undefeated , including the US Nationals and the Olympic trials to become the USA rowing 8-oar representative at the Olympics, where we were undefeated in all qualifying heats and the finals -- GOLD - USA; SILVER - USSR; BRONZE - AUSTRALIA.

What a thrill, bringing tears of pride to my eyes. Our team was also invited into the Iron Curtain compound as HONORED GUESTS of the USSR 8-oar crew. What a humbling experience seeing, meeting and developing camaraderie with the USSR and other world athletes! As our event was one of the first, we had the opportunity to see many other events, including Decathalon -- Bob Mathais; Diving -- Dr. Sammy Lee; Pole Vault -- Rev. Bob Richards; and Czech runner Emil Zatopek winning the GOLD in the 5,000 M, 10,000 M and the Marathon. Wow!

--Frank Shakespeare

Frank doesn’t mention it in his story, but he and his crew were known as the “Great Eight” in rowing circles. During three years of rowing, from 1952 to 1954, they won 29 consecutive races, including the Olympics in Helsinki -- a record unmatched by any other crew in the history of the sport, according to a story in the Washington Post on October 10, 2002, marking the 50th anniversary of the Olympic event, when surviving members of the crew met for a ceremony at the Naval Academy. The entire crew was inducted into the National Rowing Foundation Hall of Fame in 1956. Frank still has his Olympic Gold Medal, along with other memorabilia from the Olympics. There is a splendid documentary about The Great Eight available on Youtube:  Many of the crew, including Frank, are interviewed. In 1996, Frank carried the Olympic Torch in the traditional relay leading up to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo, Japan, have been postponed until July 2021 because of the current “situation.” You can read more about Frank’s Olympic experience by “googling” his name and “rowing” online.

--Galen Moses -- Photos in slide show by Mary Rouse