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Don Arnold and his teammates became Olympic champions after failing to qualify for the varsity eight crew at the University of British Columbia.Courtesy of Jason Beck

Don Arnold rowed stroke for an unheralded crew of university students who stunned the sporting world by winning a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.

Mr. Arnold and his teammates became Olympic champions after failing to qualify for the varsity eight crew at the University of British Columbia. Since they were spares for the eight, it was decided they might as well compete in the coxless fours.

Their victory was the more remarkable for their lack of experience. Mr. Arnold, at 21, was the veteran of the crew though he was only in his sophomore season. The others, all 19, had taken up rowing only nine months earlier.

After their shocking triumph, the quartet was dubbed the “Cinderella Fours” for their fairytale win.

Mr. Arnold, who died at 85 on June 27, was a blond, freckle-faced farm boy from British Columbia’s Okanagan region. He was joined in the shell by teammates Walter d’Hondt (No. 3), Lorne Loomer (No. 2) and Archie McKinnon (bow).

After winning the Canadian championship and the right to compete at the Olympics, the crew was told they would have to pay their own way. A grassroots campaign raised enough money from the public to send them to Australia for the Games.

The four, who left British Columbia in near anonymity, returned home as heroes. Their airplane was met by the university president and the mayor of Vancouver, who escorted them by motor cavalcade to a reception at the Vancouver Rowing Club attended by the premier, the lieutenant-governor and other dignitaries.

Donald John Arnold was born on July 14, 1935, in Kelowna, B.C., a second son for the former Mary Alexandra Laing and Nelson John Arnold. He was raised in nearby Winfield (now Lake Country) on a family orchard that lacked electricity and running water until after the Second World War. Don Arnold drove trucks as a teenager after the family business expanded into serving local fruit growers with transport and a refrigeration plant.

In 1954, Don and childhood friend Waynne Pretty left the Okanagan to study agriculture at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The bus driver who dropped them off in the big city jokingly advised the youths that a horse and buggy would be along soon to take them to campus.

After a long wait, Mr. Arnold finally asked another bus driver about the schedule for the next horse to the university. The driver howled with laughter.

“A couple of greenhorns, that’s for sure,” Mr. Arnold told Jason Beck, the curator of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, who is writing a book about the Vancouver rowers of that era, after recounting the story. “Green as grass.”

Mr. Arnold’s physique caught the eye of some of the varsity rowers, who invited him and Mr. Pretty to visit them at the Vancouver Rowing Club’s shell house. (The unworldly farm boy at first thought he’d been invited to a clam bake, rather than a storage place for lightweight racing boats.) In the end, Mr. Pretty qualified for the eight boat, while Mr. Arnold, who considered quitting the program, wound up as a spare.

They trained on the waters of Coal Harbour along the Vancouver waterfront, a working harbour where driftwood and tugboats presented an obstacle course around which the rowing shells manoeuvred.

They were directed by coach Frank Read, a successful hotelier with a reputation as a tough, tongue-lashing disciplinarian. He promised the student athletes “a summer you’ll hate to remember.” On the water, the coach only directed comments to the eights, so the four crew constantly raced to keep within earshot.

When not in training, the rowers worked as labourers – wielding axes in the woods, operating jackhammers on highway crews, and helping to build a pipeline across British Columbia’s rugged terrain.

When the unknown Vancouver crew arrived at the 1956 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta at Port Dalhousie, Ont., an Ontario coach told their bow, Mr. McKinnon, to make sure the newcomers didn’t interfere with a favoured hometown crew from the Brockville Rowing Club. The western upstarts then won by an astounding 10 lengths. Afterwards, Mr. McKinnon sought out the Ontario coach to ask, “Did we give them enough space?”

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University of British Columbia Rowing Fours Crew in 1956. The rowers, left to right are: Archie McKinnon, Walter d’Hondt, Lorne Loomer, and Don Arnold.Courtesy of BC Sports Hall of Fame

In the Olympic regatta on Lake Wendouree, a windswept, man-made lake about 120 kilometres west of the host city of Melbourne, the Canadian crew easily advanced to the finals. Disaster nearly struck when the crew washed out on their first stroke, a beginner’s mistake in which the oars pop out of the water before completing a stroke. At once, the Canadians were in last place.

To make up for lost time, Mr. Arnold called a series of “hard 10s,” the crew relying on their superior conditioning to hunt down the other boats. They caught up to the Italians at the halfway point of the two-kilometre course before passing a French crew.

Spectators along the course heard an Australian announcer (as later rendered by a Canadian reporter) describe the end of the race: “What a superb sight. The form of this crew from Canader is absolutely am-eye-zing,” the commentator declared. “The U.S. is putting on a spurt, but these Can-eye-dians are simply pulling aw-eye.”

Mr. Arnold and crew defeated a quartet from the Detroit Boat Club by 9.6 seconds to claim Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in rowing.

At the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, Mr. Arnold won a gold medal with the eight and a silver in the coxed four on the same day. Two years later, he was part of the eight crew to win a silver medal on Lake Albano, outside Rome – Canada’s only medal of the 1960 Olympics.

Mr. Arnold graduated in 1962, the same year in which he was awarded the university’s Bobby Gaul Memorial Trophy as athlete of the year. He later earned a master’s degree from the University of California San Francisco and a doctorate in outdoor recreation from Indiana University Bloomington.

He was hired as a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where he co-founded the recreation department. In 1976, he returned to his alma mater in Vancouver as a professor.

After managing the Canadian rowing team at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, Mr. Arnold co-founded Rowing BC, serving as the governing body’s executive director for 13 years as he encouraged the development of the sport throughout the province.

He was inducted into several sports halls of fame as a member of the 1956 four crew, including Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1957), the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame (1958), B.C. Sports Hall of Fame (1966) and the UBC Sports Hall of Fame (1993). The 1960 eight crew was also inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1977 and the UBC Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

Mr. Arnold, a resident of West Vancouver, died of heart failure on June 27 at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. He leaves his wife, Linda (née Palin), whom he married in 1978. He also leaves three sons and six grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, the former Gwendolyn (Wendy) Mary Amor, who died of breast cancer in 1977, whom he had married in 1959. He was also predeceased by an older brother, Gilbert Nelson Arnold, who died in 2000. Mr. Loomer, his teammate on the 1956 gold medal-winning crew, died in 2017.

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