John B. Kelly Sr: a historic achievement in Antwerp, and a legendary dynasty

John Brendan (known as “Jack”) Kelly Sr achieved a unique feat on the Willebroeck Canal in Brussels in 1920 during the Games of the VII Olympiad: In half an hour, he took first place in the single sculls, and then first place again in the double sculls with his cousin, Paul Costello. Originally a bricklayer, he gained another title in 1924 in Paris and went on to make a fortune in construction. He was father to John B. Kelly Jr, also an Olympic medallist in rowing, and Grace Kelly, the famous American actress who became Princess of Monaco.

5 min
John B. Kelly Sr: a historic achievement in Antwerp, and a legendary dynasty
(Picture by IOC)

John B. Kelly was born in Philadelphia on 4 October 1889, one of a family of 10 children. His Irish parents had emigrated to the United States a few years earlier. Athletic and also tall for his time (1.89m), he learned to row on the Schuylkill River that crosses Pennsylvania and flows into the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Even as he started working as a bricklayer, he excelled in other sports, such as basketball and American football. He became one of the best rowers in his country, achieving victory in many competitions, and enlisted in the US Army in the First World War, where he became a lieutenant.

Demobilised in 1919, Jack Kelly created his own construction company, keeping his eye on a major objective: to take part in the most prestigious rowing competition in the world, the 1920 Henley Royal Regatta at Henley on the River Thames, and to aim for the coveted Diamond Challenge Sculls event for single rowers. But his registration was refused, on the pretext that he was a “manual worker” when this grand event was strictly reserved for amateurs. Already a six-time champion in the United States, he stepped up his efforts to prepare for the Olympic events in Antwerp.

IOC - Antwerp 1920
IOC - Antwerp 1920

Three Olympic titles, including a double in 30 minutes 

The Olympic sculls competition took place on the Willebroeck Canal in Brussels. Jack Kelly’s main rival was Britain’s Jack Beresford, who had won the Diamond Challenge Sculls that year, and for this reason he was particularly determined to beat him.

They achieved the two best times in the quarter-final series, which brought together 10 rowers from 10 different nations. Kelly was roughly one second faster than Beresford. They both went on to win their semi-final. The American had to see off New Zealander Darcy Hadfield, while the British contender comfortably beat the Dutchman, Frits Eyken. The two rivals then faced each other in a duel to win the title.

The final proved to be memorable in every respect. It was a battle worthy of Homer, which saw Beresford firmly take the lead, and hold onto it until about 100m from the finish line. At this point, Kelly caught and overtook him, managing to keep a second ahead at the finish line, in front of an enthusiastic crowd excited by this display.

John B Kelly Sr
John B Kelly Sr (IOC - Paris 1924)

At the same time, Kelly qualified for the double sculls final, together with his cousin Paul Costello. It took place about 30 minutes after his victory in the single sculls event. Kelly and Costello proved to be far superior to their opponents, winning gold in 7:09.20 with a 10-second lead over the Italian boat (7:19.0); the French boat followed in 7:21.0. John B. Kelly Sr's achievement has never been repeated at the Olympic Games. The legend goes, and his family confirmed this, that he then sent his competition cap to King George V accompanied by this note: “Greetings from a bricklayer”, for having been snubbed by Henley.

Four years later, Kelly and Costello returned to the Olympic stage to defend their title at the 1924 Games in Paris. On the River Seine, the two Americans achieved the fastest time of the series with an 18-second lead over the French boat. The final represented a greater challenge, but the defenders stepped up their effort 500m from the finish line, and won with a lead of four seconds over France's Marc Detton and Jean-Pierre Stock, who were themselves ahead of the Hungarian boat which took the bronze medal. Kelly thus became the first three-time Olympic rowing champion.

 John B Kelly, Jr  with his father, John B Kelly Sr,
John B Kelly, Jr with his father, John B Kelly Sr, (IOC - John Brendan Kelly Sr & John Brendan Kelly Jr)

A wealthy entrepreneur behind a famous dynasty

Kelly ended his athletic career after the Paris Games, and made a fortune with his construction company, which became one of the largest in the United States. He became briefly involved in politics, generously supported amateur sport throughout his life, and died at the age of 70 on 20 June 1960. Today, a bronze statue showing him in his scull holding his oars, on which his three Olympic titles are inscribed, is located at Philadelphia's Fairmount Park on the Schuylkill River.

With his wife Margaret, who was also an accomplished athlete, he had four children, including John Brendan Kelly Jr, born in 1927, and Grace, born on 12 November 1929. John Jr succeeded where his father had been thwarted: in 1947, bursting with pride, he won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley, and repeated the victory in 1949. He competed in four Olympic Games from 1948 to 1960, and won a bronze medal in the single sculls at Melbourne in 1956. In 1985, he became President of the United States Olympic Committee, but died of a heart attack just three weeks later.

KELLY, John Brendan Jr  KELLY, Grace  GRIMALDI, Albert
KELLY, John Brendan Jr KELLY, Grace GRIMALDI, Albert (IOC - Grace Kelly)

For her part, Grace pursued a career in acting. She became famous throughout the world in the 1950s when she starred in three well-known Alfred Hitchcock films. In 1954, her role in George Seaton's “Country Girl” earned her the Oscar for Best Actress. Two years later, she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and gave up her career. Princess Grace brought up three children before being killed in a car accident on 14 September 1982. Her son Albert, grandson of John Brendan Kelly Sr, is an Olympic athlete, a member of the IOC, and has reigned over the Principality as Albert II since Rainier's death in 2005.

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