‘The most important thing in the Olympic games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.’ Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic committee

Henry Robert Pearce was an Australian sculler of the 1920s and ‘30s who was and still is viewed as an iconic sportsman. He was inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame in 1985, where they named him “The finest sculler of all, professional or amateur, in all the years before World War II.”

His legend might spring from the fact that he was the first singles sculler in the world to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, but it was an act of compassion, not of physical prowess, that truly immortalised him in people’s hearts and minds.

Henry Pearce

In the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928, Pearce was leading in his quarter-final race when he heard shouts from the bank. He turned around, coming face to face with a duck, followed by a line of fluffy ducklings crossing the Stoten Canal right across his path.

He could have simply cut through them, but instead he slowed and leaned on his oars, waiting until the ducks had passed. His competitor Saurin, a powerful rower who would win nine national titles at three European championships, took advantage of his opponents’ gentlemanly pause to create a five-length lead.

In an incredible display of skill in the final 1,000 metres of the race, Pearce caught up to the Frenchman, securing an almost 30 second lead as he crossed the finish line.

He not only won the race but ultimately the final, setting a new Games record, and simple act of compassion has never been forgotten.

Pearce went on to prove himself to be leagues ahead of his competition, winning the Olympic title again in Los Angeles in 1932, then ruling over rowing for 12 years from 1933 as world professional champion.

Henry Pearce
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