It was the biggest race of his life, and Toronto’s Edward “Ned” Hanlan was hot-dogging it. The single sculls rowing champion of Canada, the United States and Britain, the 5-foot-8-3/4-inch, 150-pound, 25-year-old Hanlan was competing on England’s Thames River for the world title against Edward Trickett, the 6-foot-3-inch, 185-pound, 29-year-old Australia champion on November 15, 1880.
Hanlan was born on Toronto Island, a water baby who rowed across the harbour to school and—some say—transported bootleg booze for his hotelier father.
Rowing was a big nineteenth-century spectator sport. Six months before the Thames race, some 100,000 people lined the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., to watch Hanlan beat the U.S. amateur champion, for the third time. It was also a big gambling sport. Punters swamped London bookmakers to wage “enormous” sums on the Hanlan-Trickett race, the Toronto Globe reported.
The London Times thought that Hanlan’s “superior skill and science” would “put him on an equality with the greater strength and weight of the Australian.” Trickett’s backers claimed—“perhaps not without good grounds,” according to the Times—that Hanlan lacked the strength to keep up on a long race.
After a rain delay, the racers were off at 12:22 p.m. Trickett took an early lead, rowing 40 or more strokes per minute to Hanlan’s 36. But Hanlan’s strokes were longer, and at the one-mile mark he was ahead by a length and a half; after 9 minutes and 35 seconds, he was ahead by 2-1/2 lengths, and “Trickett’s chance of success was evidently hopeless,” the Times reported. Hanlan began to hot-dog it, to the laughter and amusement of the crowd. He stopped rowing five times. When Trickett pulled up to within a length, Hanlan began to row again. At one point, he pulled alternately with each scull, “a water frolic which in many cases would lead to a capsize.” The race had now, said the Times, “become a mere farce.” Hanlan crossed the finish line at 26 minutes and 12 seconds, with the game but exhausted Trickett 10 second behind.
Hanlan was Canada’s first world champion athlete. He successfully defended his title six times during the next four years and continued to race for another 13 years. He was, says Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, “Canada’s most prominent athlete of the nineteenth century.”
Unfamiliar Canadian history