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Joe Wright Sr.

16-Jul-2023 2:07 PM | Anonymous

Argonaut Olympian Issue #7

We are in the midst of honouring our past and present Olympians by documenting their achievements and establishing a permanent archive. An Argonaut Olympian is an athlete who has been a competitive member of the club prior to competing at the Olympic games. Until 1972, athletes represented their club as well as their country at the Olympics. In 1976 a National Team system was developed in Canada, thus ending club representation at the games. Other than footnoting this difference, there is no other discrepancy between the two systems for the purpose of this exercise.

The Argonaut Rowing Club has produced more Olympic crews than any other club in North America while that system existed fielding a total of thirteen crews. Many other members have competed in National Team programs and have been winning gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships with consistency for nearly three decades. This is the seventh of the series, compiled non-chronologically, of our athletes that have donned the double blue and gone on to compete in the Olympic Games.

Part 7 – Joseph Wright Sr. – 1904 St. Louis Olympics - Games of the III Olympiad

If you stand on our docks, listen hard enough, and let your imagination entertain you, you might hear Old Joe’s voice booming across Lake Ontario, telling his Jr. Boys crew to “pull harder, drive with the legs, pull together!” Known as the only rowing coach never to use, or need, a megaphone Joe Wright Sr. is one of the most decorated Argonauts of all time. Standing 6’2, 195 lbs., and sporting a renowned 45” chest Wright was a powerhouse across almost every sport conceivable. His fame went beyond Toronto and rowing and even beyond the national scene as his athletic prowess became the stuff of lore on both sides of our border. Here went some of the countless headlines:

“Wright Tops Bobby Pearce in Poll”, “Canadian Oarsman of the Half Century”, “Argonauts Win all of their Events”, “130 Victories for ‘Grand Old Man”, "Joe Wright Sr. is Selected as Outstanding Oarsman", "The Greatest Living Coach in America"

His career was defined as an oarsman and coach at the Argonaut Rowing Club but nary has there been as decorated a career as that belonging to our beloved Argonaut legend. His North American fame espoused stories of his accomplishments that at a glance seem too varied and too fantastical to be true. While many people are fortunate enough to dominate one sport, Joe Wright dominated many. While this article will focus on Mr. Wright’s rowing achievements and his history at the Argonaut Club although his accolades also include the following:

  • Canadian Champion and Record Holder – Shot Put and Hammer Throw
  • Canadian Amateur Heavyweight Boxing Champion
  • Canadian Track Champion, one of first Canadians to break 10 sec in 100 yd dash
  • Canadian Amateur Wrestling Champion
  • Canadian Billiards Champion
  • Argonaut Rugby Team – player for 18 years
  • Varsity Baseball champion – U of T toured US beating top five US college teams
  • City of Toronto Swim Champion – at 18 defeated the reigning Canadian Champion

Rowing Career

Joe Wright Sr.’s rowing career was one of over 30 years. His 137 victories/titles including 12 National Championships in rowing is a record unlikely to ever be broken at the Argonaut Rowing Club. This is partly because there are so few of such ability and fewer still that would entertain racing for so many years. Joe didn't start rowing until in his late teens or even 20 but success came quickly winning his first race on the Toronto Islands. By the age of 21 he had won his first US Nationals title in the Men’s Four. Four years later he was again a US Nationals champion winning in the Men’s Pair becoming the first international crew to do so. At the young age of 32 Wright started coaching at the Argonaut Club and the oarsman/coach trained, mentored, and raced with his crews. The victories, and fame, piled up as Wright and his Argos would show up at a regatta and medal in virtually every event, and most of them were gold. At 40 years old Wright competed in the Argonaut Men’s Eight at the St. Louis Olympics, which were just the third games of the modern Olympics, where his crew won the Silver Medal with Wright in stroke. Four years later, with Wright as coach and his son George Wright in the boat rowing two-seat, Argos sent another eight to the Olympics and this time captured the Bronze Medal in the same boat class at London, England. In 1912 Joe again attended the games as coach of an Argonaut eight at the Stockholm Olympics where they were denied an Olympic medal yet given a special medal for sportsmanship by the King of Sweden who was impressed with the Argos not contesting the race which saw them row a longer course than their competitors.

It seems age was of little consequence to Wright’s career as he rowed deep into his 40’s winning two heats as stroke of the Argonaut Eight at English Henley vying to win the Grand Challenge Cup at age 42. He was playing football until age 46 for the Argonaut team alongside his son George. His last competitive rowing race was rowed as a 51-year-old in his signature boat, the Men’s Eight. Known primarily as a sweep oarsman, Joe excelled, as later Argonaut Marnie McBean would, in almost every boat class except for the double, in which he never rowed. He was the first Canadian to win a heat in the single at the Henley Royal Regatta in the Diamond Sculls event and he won the Bedford Cup becoming the first Canadian to win the British amateur singles title. Joseph Wright Sr. made a career of competitive rowing, his favourite sport, for over 30 years of his life.

Coach Wright

“The name Joe Wright breathes sport” (J.P. Fitzgerald, June 28, 1945 – Toronto sports editor)

Wright was known as a “hard-driving” coach who knew how to create winning crews. Legend has it he took eight young Toronto men, seven of whom had never rowed before, winter-trained them and proceeded to destroy the competition during their first season together. This Novice crew led by Jeff Taylor won Gold in both the Jr. and Sr. Eights at the 1907 Canadian Henley Regatta and later won Gold at the US Nationals! Wright’s Sr. Eights won both Canadian Henley and the U.S. Nationals in 1905, 1907, and 1911. His Intermediate Eights accomplished the feat five times in 1905, 1906, 1909, 1910, and 1911. He took his Argonaut crews five times to England to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta.

In 1916 the University of Pennsylvania recruited Joe to be the Head Coach of their varsity program. Penn became a powerhouse in US rowing during his tenure there. Wright was later honoured by the American Rowing Association (now US Rowing) with a perpetual trophy, the “Joseph Wright Cup”. This cup is presented to winning 150 lb college crews and Joseph Wright was the first professional coach to have this honour. A.R.A. secretary John Brown wrote “you alone are responsible for the development in this country of the special 150 lb race among the colleges … this is in recognition of your efforts”. Charles Borie Jr., the board member who proposed the cup, was even more appreciative stating: “No one has stood for higher principles than yourself, and the dawn of a new day in rowing in this country for the sport of amateur rowing”.

While Old Joe left us in 1950, his legacy endures and there are still a few Argos around who remember him. Argonaut legend-in-his-own-right George McCauley of the famed ’52 Olympic crew remembers him well. Despite Joe being advanced in age, he remembers his larger-than-life persona and hulking presence. George says, “although I was never a personal friend of Mr. Wright’s, I felt it an honour to be in the great man’s presence until his death in 1950. Any crew I rowed in always rowed better when passing the club if we knew Mr. Wright was on the balcony, until at least we were out of his view." George also recalled how he and his high school friends were allowed upstairs at the club on Sundays when Mr. Wright would meet with a group of friends to hear the stories of the famous battles they waged in their rowing careers and to view all of the club’s history adorning the walls. Shortly after his passing, Mr. Wright was voted Canada's Outstanding Oarsman of the Half-Century and was second to Lionel Conacher as Canadian Athlete of the Half-Century.

So the next time you see the club double “Joe Wright” row past you, or if you are lucky enough to row in it, imagine his booming voice encouraging you to push harder. The name and the legend, endures long after this man who, like no other, promoted our sport throughout North America with a vigor and passion that was largely responsible for defining the Argonaut Rowing Club as one of the continent’s great sporting clubs. Many since have built on this reputation and to this day, the Argonaut Club is still recognized as one of the great rowing clubs of the Americas.

Medal Count - Rowing Events – Games of the III Olympiad – St. Louis, USA

   Gold  Silver  Bronze  Total
 Germany  5  4  4  13
 Canada  0  1  0  1

BIO & Selected Notable Rowing Achievements

  • 1864 - Born in Villanova, ON
  • 1884 – Joined Bayside Rowing Club
  • 1885-95 Rowed with the Toronto Rowing Club
  • 1885 – GOLD Men’s Four US Nationals
  • 1895 – GOLD Men’s Pair US Nationals (1stCanadians to win)
  • 1895 – GOLD Men’s Single Bedford Cup (1stCanadian to win English Amat. 1X title)
  • 1896 – Joined Argonaut Rowing Club
  • 1896 – GOLD Men’s Eight Baltimore Regatta
  • 1904 – Silver Men’s Eight St. Louis Olympics
  • 1906 – Won two heats at British Henley stroking Men’s Eight at 43
  • 1906 – Coached at Argonaut Rowing Club
  • 1908 – Coach, Bronze Men’s Eight St. Louis Olympics
  • 1912 – Coach, Men’s Eight Stockholm Olympics
  • 1916 – 1926 Head Coach, University of Pennsylvania Rowing
  • 1928 – 1931 Elected Alderman City of Toronto
  • 1950 – Died, Toronto, ON.
  • 1950 – Voted Canada’s Outstanding Oarsman of the Half-Century beating Bobby Pearce 15-14 votes
  • 1950 – Voted second to Lionel Conaker for Canada’s Athlete of the Half-Century
  • 1955 – Inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
  • Career – 137 rowing victories/titles.

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