roger jackson own the podium
Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium

To be the best athlete in the world often means overcoming overwhelming fatigue, excruciating pain, and suffocating fear and anxiety. As described by Olympic swimming champion Dick Roth, pain not only must be tolerated, it must be befriended.

I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?

I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.

“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”

Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”

Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.

Jackson, Roger | Hungerford, George
Canada’s Roger Jackson and George Hungerford celebrate their gold medal win in the rowing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (CP Photo/COC) Roger Jackson and George Hungerford du Canada célèbrent leur médaille d’or au deux d’aviron aux Jeux olympique de Tokyo de 1964. (Photo PC/AOC)

“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”

“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”

Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?

Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.

George Hungerford and Roger Jackson in shell
George Hungerford and Roger Jackson after winning gold in the coxless pairs in Tokyo.
They were an afterthought, really.

Canada’s rowing eight was coached by Glen Mervyn, a protégé of the famous Frank Read, who coached the eight crew that got Canada’s only medal at the Rome Olympics – silver. George Hungerford and Roger Jackson were thrown together in the coxless pair, without a coach, in a “clunker of a boat”, only weeks before flying to Tokyo for the XVIII Olympiad.

Hungerford was supposed to row in the vaunted eight, but fell ill, and then, got kicked off the premier crew. That decision led to other decisions. A rower named Wayne Pretty assumed Hungerford’s spot on the eight. And since Pretty had been in the coxless pair boat, Jackson was left without a teammate. With the rowing roster set at 15, and the coxless pair considered a lesser priority to Team Canada, Hungerford and Jackson were asked to pair up to provide representation in this event at the Olympics, assuming Hungerford could get in good enough condition in time to compete.

“When I was selected to the eights, it was a dream come true,” Hungerford told me. But when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis in July, 1964, he was told to rest for four weeks. “It was a depressing time for me. And four weeks later my doctor told me the symptoms were gone, but my chance to join the eights was gone.”

But if they wanted to go to Tokyo, Hungerford and Jackson had to make it work. Team Canada’s expectations for coxless pairs was low. And when Hungerford and Jackson got into a shell to train, they didn’t immediately click on the water. “No, there wasn’t an instant connection,” said Hungerford. “We had to come to terms with our issues. We yelled and screamed at each other after the first few rows. But we realized that if we we’re going to Tokyo we had to put these differences aside and work together.”

Despite the bad luck that brought the two together, Hungerford observed one good bit of fortune – “As it turned out, physically we were a perfect match. We were the same height, same weight, same mental toughness and determination.” Their determination drove them to train hard, harder than anyone else in the remaining weeks to Tokyo.

And their hard work paid off in another bit of fortune. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Canada was able to borrow a boat from the Americans. And it turned out to be a George Pocock shell, a hand-crafted boat from the most reputable craftsman of his time in the US. As Hungerford explained, while everyone else was already in top condition and thus focusing on their mental preparation, Jackson and Hungerford worked hard on their rowing. “We had a full endurance training program in the last week. We were doing interval training, only 500 meter sprints. We hadn’t done a full 2000 meters and we wanted to do a time trial so we asked the eights coach to time us. We knew we had the ‘swing’. We had a sense the boat was moving, the boat was working for us. But after the 2000 meter time trial, the coach told us his watch wasn’t working properly so we didn’t know how fast we were.”

They didn’t know, until they entered the first heat, which they won. After the heat “The coach told me his watch wasn’t really broken, but he hadn’t believed it the first time he timed us,” said Hungerford. “We had the fastest time of all the heats. That put us directly in the finals – no repechages. That gave us confidence. With four or five days between the trials and finals, we kept training and we rowed our hearts out. Rowing and sleeping. Rowing and sleeping. Endurance over 2000 meters was critical.”

The Germans and the Dutch were favorites in the coxless pair competition. But once you get to the finals, you have a one in six chance, was how Hungerford and Jackson were thinking. Unfortunately, they started the race by catching a “crab” – one of the oars didn’t hit the water the right way getting the boat off to a slow and awkward start. But another boat had false started so Jackson and Hungerford got a second chance and had a good start.

At 900 meters into the 2000-meter course, they decided to go for it with a power 30 – 30 extraordinarily hard strokes up. “The boat just flew,” said Hungerford. “We were neck and neck up to 900, but then we took a length and a half on the other boats. It was a fantastic feeling. The boat was just moving, an incredible feeling, an adrenaline rush knowing we had the lead. Now we had to not let the other boats catch us. The Dutch boat was challenging. The last 200 meters was hell. Our tanks were drained at 1500 meters – I don’t know where we found that inner strength in the last 500.”

“They might have caught us if the race was longer. I was starting to fade so Roger had to adjust. We’re rowing as a pair in a sensitive boat, sensitive to one rower overpowering the other. You have to perfectly synchronize. If one loses strength the other has to match, match each other in all respects. It was challenging. As Roger told me, he had heard this burst come from the stands. They were calling out in German for the German crew, which was also coming on strong. But as Roger said, ‘there was no bloody way we were going to lose’.”

George Hungerford and Roger Jackson  on podium

In fact, they won. Canadian’s only gold medal of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics came thanks to a pair of rowers who through sickness and circumstance were thrust together in a shotgun marriage. And there they were, jelly legged, nothing left in the tank, standing at the winner’s podium with gold suspended from their necks, listening to the Canadian anthem, the only medal ceremony it was played in Tokyo.

“It was an incredible moment for us,” said Hungerford.

When it was time to leave Tokyo, to pack everything up and say goodbye to a life-changing experience, the Pocock shell, a championship shell, was returned to the American team. The boat had no name. But when they gave the boat back, it had a new decoration on the bow – a decal with the Canadian flag.