How Did It All Start?

Excerpts by J. Thomas West

Curator, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

If there ever was a “superstar” in the sport of rowing in Canada, it had to be Ned Hanlan, “The Boy In Blue”. He was born on July 2, 1855 of Irish immigrants. They had settled near today’s regattas course at Mugg’s Landing, where his father built a hotel. As a youngster, Hanlan worked for him and spent his spare time building and rowing a make-shift shell.


His early enthusiasm paid off. Between 1873 and 1876, he established himself as the best singles sculler in Ontario. In 1876, as a relative unknown, he competed at the United States Centennial Regatta in Philadelphia, where he defeated the best oarsmen in North America. In 1877 he defeated Wallace Ross of New Brunswick for the Canadian Championship. The next year, he took the American Championship from Evan Morris. In 1879, he set off to England where he defeated William Elliot by eleven lengths for the English Championship.


Rowing enthusiasts marvelled at Hanlan’s ability. A diminutive man in a sport where big men excel, he was 5’8″ tall and weighed 155 lbs. Yet at his peak, he had little difficulty defeating much bigger men. He had speed, which he used to advantage in the early part of a race as he would try to build up an early lead in an effort to exhaust or discourage his opponents.

He also possessed great skills, and is even today regarded as one of the greatest scullers of all time. He was very smooth, his boat never appearing to lose speed between strokes.He was the acknowledged master in the use of the sliding seat. One observer thought that his boat moved through the water as though it was being pulled by a string.

His most famous race came in 1880, when he rowed against Edward Trickett of Australia, on the Tyne River in England. Trickett was the reigning world champion and stood six-foot four, and weighed over 200 lbs.World-wide attention was given to the race, with money on the outcome being wagered in every English-speaking country.
hanlan and courtney

hanlan and courtney

Hanlan was the popular favourite. While his rival trained in secret, Hanlan and his backers were open to the public and the sporting press.

The race itself was really no contest. Hanlan quickly built up a lead of two lengths and kept Trickett at that distance. Whenever his lead became too great, he stopped to wave to the crowd or take a drink of water. Hanlan finished the 4 1/4 mile course seven seconds ahead of Trickett, and looked as fresh as he did at the start. His rival was “all in”. His victory generated a tremendous popular response. London, New York and Toronto went wild. The London Stock Exchange ceased transactions, and brokers carried him about above their heads in a chair. A public reception was held for him in Madison Square Garden. A giant reception awaited him at the Toronto waterfront.

Hanlan, without doubt, was a first class athlete who enjoyed a long career. He successfully defended his title six times before losing to William Beach in Australia in 1884. His reception in that country was almost overwhelming. He and his wife were showered with gifts by wealthy admirers when they arrived in Sydney to prepare for the race with Beach.

Possessing handsome good looks and wearing a distinctive blue racing costume, Ned Hanlan summed up, in his career and personality, the aspirations of Canadians in that era. In winning International acclaim against the best rowing had to offer,he continued to display a manly modesty that the Victorian age admired. He was Canada’s first great international champion and our first national sporting hero. He was never called a “superstar”. The term was not in use then. He preferred the label, “the Boy in Blue”.

The excitement created by Ned Hanlan awakened the spirit of other Canadians who became outstanding world scullers. There was Jake Gaudaur from Orillia; Joe Wright, and Jack Guest from Toronto.

Rowing today is a world wide, scientific, highly competitive sport. Despite the problems of geography, population and facilities, Canada continues to develop fine competitive athletes who earn their laurels around the world. Who knows when and where the next “superstar” will arrive.