Jumbo rows to victory

Few athletes have put their sporting skills to more important use than Hugh “Jumbo” Edwards. During World War II, while serving in the Royal Air Force, the British oarsman saved his own life by rowing four miles through a minefield in a dinghy after his plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Until that point, Edwards may rightfully have considered the 1932 Olympic Games to be his finest achievement in a boat.

Born in Oxfordshire in 1906, Edwards’s earliest exploits as an oarsman came while studying at Christ Church College, Oxford University, which was the alma mater of so many distinguished rowers down the years. However, in 1926 he collapsed during a boat race and a year later he left Oxford after failing his exams.

He took up a role as schoolmaster and continued to row regularly with the London Rowing Club, before returning to Oxford to complete a degree – the only way he could achieve his new-found aim of following his brother into the Royal Air Force. During his second spell at Oxford, Edwards devoted more time to flying than to rowing and obtained a licence that enabled him to keep his private plane at the university.

Nevertheless, in 1930, Edwards achieved success as part of the London Rowing Club crew before travelling to Canada for the British Empire Games (the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games).  It turned out to be his breakthrough competition, as he won gold medals in both the coxless fours and the eights.

Everything was now set for Edwards to compete at the Los Angeles Olympics and he travelled to the Games as part of a highly regarded British team, which included his Christ Church contemporary Lewis Clive.

Competing on the specially constructed Olympic course at the Marine Stadium in Long Beach, flanked by thousands of spectators watching from the genteel sandy shores, Edwards became only the second man in Olympic history to win two rowing gold medals on the same day.

First he won the coxless pairs with Lewis Clive and then formed part of the crew in the coxless fours, having been drafted in as a late substitute for Thomas Tyler who contracted influenza after arriving in America. Edwards grabbed his surprise inclusion with both hands, helping the team to victory to earn his second gold.

While the Olympic Games were certainly his sporting pinnacle, Edwards also achieved dis-tinction as a racing pilot, finishing second in the King’s Cup of 1935. He also served with the RAF Coastal Command during the War, leading to his death-defying escape across the ocean in a dinghy after his plane crashed.

Group Captain Edwards retired from the RAF in 1946 before becoming a notable rowing coach. After resigning as coach of the Oxford team, he provoked a rebellion on his return to the role with several members quitting in protest against his controversial training methods

Nevertheless, Edward’s record suggests his methods were effectives. After overseeing Brit-ain’s Olympic eight at the 1960 Rome Games he then led the Wales four containing his two sons – David and John – to silver at the Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia two years later.

He died in 1972 and to this day a coxed four belonging to Christ Church Boat Club is named Jumbo Edwards in his honour.