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Mourning a World Champion

For the week of Monday January 1, 2001

On January 4, 1908, the world bid farewell to one of Canada's greatest athletes. Edward Hanlan, world rowing champion from 1880 to 1884, died of pneumonia at the age of 52.

Ned Hanlan on the cover of Canadian Illustrated News, 1878

Ned Hanlan on the cover of
Canadian Illustrated News, 1878

© LAC / C-68307

Raised on Toronto Island, Hanlan demonstrated his rowing ability from an early age. At five, he made the papers when he propelled a skiff across a bay crowded with vessels awaiting the arrival of the Prince of Wales. Young Hanlan took every opportunity to go out on the water, whether it was to visit friends, run errands or attend school on the mainland.

In 1871 he entered his first race. Though he lost, Hanlan's will to win was strong. He set out to prove he was the best rower in Ontario. In 1875, Hanlan was declared the provincial champion. Two years later, before a crowd of 25 000 spectators, he defeated the defending Canadian champion, New Brunswick native Wallace Ross. He won the American championship in 1878, and the following year, beat England's master rower, William Elliot, by an astounding 11 lengths!

With the Triple Crown under his belt, Hanlan had only one goal left: to become the world champion! On November 15, 1880, before 100 000 spectators, he raced Australian Edward Trickett on the Thames River and easily won. This victory made him the first Canadian world sporting champion in a singles event!

Edward Hanlan

Edward Hanlan
© LAC / C-25324

Hanlan's genius was his efficient stroke. He took full advantage of the newly developed sliding seats in skiffs, using the advantage of greater reach and the power of his entire body to row himself to victory. And he was a crowd favourite. Cocky and self-confident, Hanlan often toyed with his opponent during the race — stopping and waiting for him to catch up, faking collapses, rowing in zigzags, and blowing kisses to the masses! He was celebrated wherever he went, and defended the world crown six times before losing it in 1884.

Hanlan continued competing into the 1890s, winning more than 300 races. After retiring in 1897, he worked to improve the waterfront and increase public recreation. At his death, tributes flowed in from across the world. To commemorate his achievements, the City of Toronto dedicated a bronze statue to Hanlan which stands on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. In 1938, Edward Hanlan was designated a person of national historic significance with a plaque located in his hometown — Toronto, Ontario.

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