The man who landed a memorable double in 1948 by winning Olympic gold for Britain and dating Grace Kelly still looks as if he is up for something similar 56 years later. Bert Bushnell is 83, but there is merely a touch of grey in his full head of hair and the scales show he is only 6lb over his rowing weight of 11st 6lb.
A hearing aid seems the only acknow-ledgement of advancing years from our oldest surviving holder of gold until he reveals quietly that a lung was removed following a bout of pneumonia 14 years ago. It has been a long time since Bert Bushnell had a spin on the Thames, but now even golf is out because, he says: "I get a bit short of breath."
There was no shortage of breath when Bushnell and his partner, the late Dickie Burnell, won the double sculls at the London Olympics of 1948, one of only three British golds. Nor when he asked the stunning 16-year-old sister of the American oarsman Jack Kelly to dinner after a walk along the towpath at Henley.
Bushnell and Burnell, a pair of single- scullers of international standard, were thrown together as a scratch pairing six weeks before the Olympics got under way and proceeded meticulously to plot the route to gold. They were an unlikely combination. The 31-year-old Burnell was a towering 6ft 4in, educated at Eton and Oxford, where he won a rowing Blue, and had been decorated for wartime bravery as an army captain. Bushnell, 26 and 5ft 9in, came from Henley Grammar School and had a reserved wartime occupation as an assembler and tester of motor torpedo boats.
"We were complete opposites," said Bushnell. "After our third or fourth outing we had had three or four arguments. I told Dickie I was going to rerig the boat, and he ordered me not to touch it. I just waited until he walked off and rerigged it anyway, because I was three stone lighter than the previous fellow who had sculled with him. I was proved right about that, and he was proved right about the extra mileage he insisted on doing in training."
Bert now reveals that he and Burnell deliberately lost to the French pair in the first round of the heats in order to avoid meeting their chief rivals, Denmark, until the final. The British comfortably won their repêchage, came through the semi-finals in the other side of the draw from the Danes and were allotted centre station for the final on the expanded Regatta course at Henley.
Bushnell was bow and Burnell stroke, or as Bert puts it: "I was on the bridge and Dickie was in the engine room." When Bert noticed the Danish bow man eyeing him anxiously, he yelled "Now!" and the British pair spurted, winning by two lengths. "It was tactics which landed us the gold, because the Danes beat us the next year at Henley," said Bushnell.
Though their victory was rightly acclaimed by a crowd standing 30 deep alongside the Thames, there was no triumphalism. "We just sculled into the boat raft, some wife of an Olympic committee member handed us our gold medals, we got back into the boat, sculled to the Leander Club where we kept the boat, had a shower and left. My father had taken possession of my medal so I never saw it properly afterwards anyway."
That evening a celebration dinner for all the Olympic rowers in a tent by the Thames descended into a brawl which went unreported but which nowadays would have been the media sensation of those Games. "It was bloody awful food," Bushnell recalled, "and after a while the Americans started throwing the bread rolls around, saying they weren't fit to eat. So we all started pelting each other with the food.
"In the end somebody shoved a custard tart down some bloke's neck and he turned round and sloshed him, so I left before it got any nastier, which it did."
With rationing still very much in force in Britain, food was a major issue at the '48 Olympics. Bushnell's intake was augmented when his parents and brother gave him part of their meat rations, while many foreign competitors imported their own. Among these was Jack Kelly, who struck up a friendship with Bushnell and one night came to dinner bearing a huge steak.
All the Kelly family had come over from Philadelphia to watch Jack, who was a surprise loser in the singles semi-finals, but most eyes were on Grace. "She was called Little Gracie and we were all vying to take her out," said Bert, who landed the date. "She told me she wanted to be a dancer but her mother wouldn't permit it.
"About 18 months later I got a postcard from Grace saying she had walked out and enrolled in a dance school. From there she soon went on to Hollywood."
Bushnell retired from rowing in 1951 to join his father's boat-building business, a move which earlier would have cost him his amateur status. The tightness of those amateur regulations still irks him. "When I needed a masseur I had to go out and pay for one. I had to pay for all my own equipment. What bugged me was that the people who came from overseas, like the Australian Mervyn Wood, who won the singles gold, were paid for by their governments, but we didn't dare take a penny for anything."
After building up a successful river- cruise hire company in Maidenhead, Bushnell sold it and retired to Portugal. "I used to have the medal on display in my villa in the Algarve and it got pinched," he said. "So I went down to the local boozer and told everybody my medal had been stolen by people who didn't realise it was only lead sprayed with gold. Nobody in the bar said a bloody word. Two days later the medal came back in the post."
Now the medal is in safe keeping at Henley's rowing museum, donated when Bushnell returned to live in Britain. He claims he doesn't miss seeing it around. "I've got enough medals without this one," he said after it had been handed reverently into his temporary possession for picture-taking purposes by a museum attendant wearing white gloves. "When I was at school I was a 100 yards runner and won plenty of medals. Now my grandchildren have them."
Bert Bushnell is an enthusiastic supporter of Britain's bid to bring the 2012 Olympics back to London. "There has to be something wrong with any Brit if he doesn't wish for that. I'm not sure I'll still be around if it happens," he smiled. "But I'll try."Reuse content