The year is 1920. John B. Kelly Sr. (Vesper Rowing Club) wins the first Olympic Gold Medal in rowing for the United States at the VII Olympiad in Brussels, Belgium. Inspired by America’s achievement and growing interest in a sport dominated by European, Canadian and Australian athletes, Philadelphia’s own Schuylkill Navy raises $2,500 and commissions Bailey, Banks & Biddle jewelers to design a trophy befitting Kelly’s tremendous achievement. An eighteen-inch, 14 karat solid-gold cup, engraved with Kelly’s name, is presented to Kelly in recognition of his victory as undisputed world champion in the sport of single scull rowing. It was called the Philadelphia Challenge Cup.
Now fast forward forty years. It’s the early 1960s. The United States is at the height of the Cold War. In 1962, Vyacheslav Ivanov (Soviet Union) wins the Gold Cup by defeating challenger Seymour Cromwell (Riverside – United States) on the Schuylkill River. Ivanov goes on to win his third Olympic gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games. The 1965 NAAO (National Association of Amateur Oarsmen) makes no mention of the Philadelphia Challenge Cup in describing Ivanov’s victory. In 1966, Don Spero (NYAC – United States) becomes the U.S. Champion in Single Sculls and wins the World Rowing Single Sculls Championship in Bled, Yugoslavia defeating Ivanov. His name is the last inscribed on the Gold Cup. Then mysteriously, the trophy disappears.
The year is 1996, and Joan Scholl a U.S. Rowing Judge-Referee from California and former Vesper Boat Club member is back in Philadelphia to visit her husband’s family. Downtown on an errand, she sees an antique store at Eighth and Sansom Streets – I. Switt Antiques. Joan goes in and tells the clerk she collects rowing medals and asks if they have any. The clerk responds that they don’t have any medals but do have an old rowing trophy she might be interested in – it was the Philadelphia Challenge Cup, missing for 30 years. The antique shop had acquired the Gold Cup in an estate sale more than 20 years earlier.
The Schuylkill Navy attempted to get the Philadelphia Challenge Cup back through the courts, but was unsuccessful and the Gold Cup remained in the possession of I. Switt Antiques until a private group of rowing enthusiasts purchased the cup and brought the exciting competition back to its rightful place – the Schuylkill River. The Gold Challenge Cup Foundation was created by the late Herb Lotman, prominent businessman and philanthropist. Board members include Jim Barker, legendary sculling coach, competitor, and inductee of the U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame; F. William McNabb III, Vanguard Chairman/CEO and former Dartmouth College oarsman; Scot A. Fisher, physician, and former Princeton University oarsman, Charles Murray, former member of the U.S. national rowing team and technology executive; and Rebecca Katz, executive at Vanguard, and masters rower with Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken.
In spring of 2011, the Gold Cup event returned, with the expansion of the competition to women. Iztok Čop (Slovenia) and Mirka Knapkova (Czech Republic) claimed victory, and both went on to earn medals in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The contest was held again in 2014 and 2015, with Kim Brennan (AUS) and Kjetil Borch (NOR) victorious.
On October 29, 2016, in partnership with the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, the Gold Cup event will return. Importantly, most of the scholastic, collegiate and masters races in the Head of the Schuylkill regatta are 2.5 miles long, but The Gold Cup event will be a “sprint” race, approximately 750 meters in length. The shorter length of the Gold Cup races will make for close competition and exciting finishes. The race will take place in the middle four lanes of the Schuylkill River, near iconic Boathouse Row. Prize money of $10,000 will be awarded to the Champion; $5,000 for second place, $2,500 for third place and $1,000 for fourth place. A Gold Cup medal will be given to each winner.