BEFORE Bradman, before Phar Lap, there were the Murray Cods.
In 1924, a crew of working-class rowers from small-town Murray Bridge overcame injury, age and prejudice to represent Australia at the Paris Olympics.
Documentary filmmaker Wayne Groom described it as “the great untold story of Australia’s sporting history” – one he hoped to reveal to the nation.
He began working on the project three years ago, when a feature film script by Breaker Morant scribe Ken Ross inspired him to research the historical Cods’ story – which turned out to be even more fantastic than the fiction.
His face shone as he recounted their tale, as though from his own memory.
“They were working-class men at a time the sport was for the elite upper class,” he said.
Most of them worked on the railways, but several moonlighted as musicians.
“Ted Thomas ran a big band and used to listen, on his crystal radio set in the 1920s, to all the big songs from America, learn them by ear and play them with his band,” he said.
“There is in rowing a sense of rhythm, and I think the fact they were musicians perhaps helped them with that sensibility.”
They became eight-oar national champions in 1913, one of the nation’s more prestigious sporting titles at the time, breaking 35 years of eastern-states dominance.
“They were young, healthy, swept all before them to because champions of Australia – then the war started,” he said.
“Five enlisted: one was killed after serving at Gallipoli, and two or three others were wounded badly – Frank Cummings had shrapnel in his back he couldn’t get out.
“They lost five or six years of their lives at the prime of their careers, which makes their comeback even more sensational.”
Another of their number, Wally Pfeiffer, was a conscientious objector to conscription – a position that caused a national outcry when the Cods were named Australia’s rowing representatives at the 1924 Olympics.
South Australians rallied around the team, raising £2500 to fund their trip after the then-Australian Olympic Federation refused to help and disregarding the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League’s vows to appeal to King George V.
“They were called ‘frayed collars’ by Adelaide clubs and laughed at,” Mr Groom said.
Yet in time the Cods made it to Paris and famously rowed 26 miles just to reach the starting line of their first Olympic race.
Trawling the archives
Mr Groom and researcher Carolyn Bilsborow have since compiled 120 pages of historical material and, to their amazement, found previously unknown film footage of the Cods rowing in Ireland in 1924.
They have also interviewed many of the Cods’ descendents, Pfeiffers and Graetzes and Thomases, in Murray Bridge and elsewhere.
All they need now is the remaining $200,000 of their $500,000 budget, an amount they will seek to raise through donations and sponsorships.
They hoped the documentary would be released in cinemas next April with a premiere at Murray Bridge Town Hall, where the Cods held their send-off celebrations 90 years ago.
If it were successful, they hoped to follow it up with a feature film – an endeavour that would cost $20-30 million – and perhaps even establish a permanent museum about the Cods as a tourist attraction.
“We don’t often forget our sporting heroes, but for some reason these guys fall through the net,” Dr Bilsborow said.
“It’s time we celebrated their story.”
Donate to the filmmakers
To donate to the film project, visit www.facebook.com/codsrowing or drop off your contribution at the Murray Bridge council’s office, 2 Seventh Street.
Donors will receive regular updates, an invitation to the premiere and a DVD of the finished film.