Stuart Alexander ‘Sam’ Mackenzie (1937-2020)
Stuart Alexander ‘Sam’ Mackenzie burst onto the sculling scene at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. The teenager led the field all the way along LakeBallarat until the Soviet sculler VyacheslavIvanov caught him to take the gold medal.
Mackenzie was aprofessional chicken-sexer brought up on a poultry farm outside Sydney. In 1957, he moved to Henley to seek competition, and won The Diamond Sculls for six consecutive years from 1957 to 1962 – a feat unsurpassed in his lifetime. He represented Leander in 1960 and 1962 and either Sydney RC or Mosman RC on the other four occasions. He also won The Double Sculls in 1959 and The Silver Goblets in 1963, both with Chris Davidge in Leander colours.
Sam also had a distinguished international career representing Australia. He won the European sculling title in 1957 (Duisburg) and 1958 (Poznan), and two medals at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff – gold in the single sculls and silver in the doubles. In 1962, he won the silver medal at the World Championships in Lucerne, this time wearing a GB shirt.
Sam was no ordinary sculler. His height of 6 feet 4 inches and his immensely long arms gave him a gearing advantage against opponents, and his antics on the water trounced rivals and infuriated officials the world over. There was hardly a race in the Diamonds where he refrained from gamesmanship, whether it be washing down his opponent, stopping to doff his cap to the crowd or misleading his opponent into thinking that he was done. Before he was 20 he had earned a reputation of being infuriating at times and thoroughly likeable at others, an extravert who boasted big-time. He disregarded dress convention, was exasperating and entertaining in equal measure, and was hugely popular among the rowing community, love him or hate him.
When he stopped competing, Sam turned to coaching, with limited success. His time with Oxford and Columbia universities were short-lived.When he coached the Australian men’s eight for the World Championships in 1977, his athletes were unable to handle his ‘innovative and left-field’ coaching style, and he was replaced. He stayed around to offer ‘advice’ – sometimes humorous – to officials of the Australian Rowing Council ad nauseam.
The kernel of his problem was that Sam taught a technique suitable for scullers endowed with a Mackenzie wingspan that was a hand or two wider than most (at one time his span was marked on the wall of the Leander Members’ room). He would turn up out of the blue at clubs and regattas in Australia and Britain and irritate scullers and coaches alike by advocating impossible changes in their stroke.
Sam was an outstanding sculler and a chancer with bucket-loads of cheek and charm. He would blag lifts to regattas with boat transporters and add his accommodation to the team’s bill. He would masquerade as a journalist and phone Australia on other people’s dedicated telephone lines. His complicated personal life involved four wives. Above all, he startled the rowing worlds of Australia, Britain and the Pink Palace.