Jack Kelly Sr. was a fantastic athlete. As a youngster, the Philadelphia native excelled in football and basketball and proved himself to be best rower in the country. Then he was called up into the U.S. Army during World War I and entered the armed forces boxing tournament as a heavyweight, going undefeated before being stopped by a broken ankle.
Discharged from the Army after three years of service, Kelly got back in the water, eventually winning 126 consecutive races in the single scull. He also proved to be a successful businessman, starting his own bricklaying company.
In the midst of his winning streak and business success, it turned out the one thing he could not do propelled Kelly to an unprecedented Olympic feat.
Kelly applied to compete in the elite Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta, the biggest race in rowing. But Kelly’s application was denied; various accounts attribute the denial to a loss of amateur status because he had done manual labor, that his rowing club 15 years prior had lost its amateur status or that the British simply didn’t want the American star winning this race.
Whatever the case, Kelly said that this decision led him to change plans and participate in the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, where he wanted the opportunity to beat whoever would win the Diamond Sculls. Kelly did just that, edging Jack Beresford of Great Britain by one second. Less than an hour later, Kelly hopped back in the water with his cousin Paul Costello and won a gold medal in the double scull; the only time in Olympic history that a man won gold in the single and double scull races.
After winning the gold medals, Kelly reportedly mailed his kelly-green racing cap to English King George V with a note, “Greetings from a bricklayer.”
Kelly and Costello returned to The Olympics at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games, again taking gold in the double scull.
Kelly later became involved in local politics. He also served as the National Physical Fitness Director for several years. His son, John B. Kelly Jr. rowed in four Olympic Games (winning one bronze medal), twice won the Diamond Sculls and served as president of the Amateur Athletic Union and later the U.S. Olympic Committee. One of Kelly’s daughters, Grace, was an award-winning actress who married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Kelly died of cancer in 1960. He was 70 years old.