Like Father, Like Son
A former Olympic medalist and coach inspires his only son to pick up the oar and continue a fitness tradition.
- Written byStefan Slater
Jack Nunn’s life revolves around fitness. The 35-year-old Manhattan Beach resident owns Roworx in Long Beach, a unique fitness facility that specializes in teaching indoor rowing classes. “We teach the importance of rowing and how it’s low-impact,” Jack says. “It’s something that almost anyone can do.”
Aside from his rowing business, Jack also is extremely active within competitive rowing circuits—in the past he rowed with the Long Beach Juniors as well as the U.S. Under 23 National Team. Recently he competed in the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles Regatta rowing event in Boston (he describes it as the Super Bowl of rowing here in the U.S.), and he was also invited to row in the Harvard alumni boat. Since he rowed competitively at Cal Berkley, this was quite an honor for the diehard rower.
And when he isn’t rowing, Jack competes in Iron Man events. So far he’s completed four full Iron Man competitions and one half Iron Man, with his fasted full Iron Man time standing at 11 hours, 6 minutes. “My motto is to fight to the finish and do the best you can,” says Jack about his mental state during competition.
When it comes to fitness and competition, Jack is deeply influenced by his father, John Nunn. The 72-year-old won an Olympic bronze medal for the double sculls rowing event at the 1968 Olympics, and Jack still often comes to his father for advice on competitive rowing.
“He would never add on the pressure,” says Jack. “He’s one of the humblest guys you’ll ever meet—he wouldn’t tell you he’s an Olympian unless you asked.”
The two Nunns have even competed together, winning the father-and-son double sculls event at the USRowing Masters National Championships a number of times. “In any sport there aren’t too many fathers and sons who’ve done that,” says John, who enjoys coaching rowing just as much as doing it.
“It’s brought us together,” says Jack. The two men share a close bond over rowing, as the sport has formed a vital part of both of their athletic careers and views on personal fitness—and it all goes back to the year that John Nunn became an Olympian.
John, who was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, mentions that his rowing career truly began when he attended Cornell University. “It was kind of a fluke,” says the Rolling Hills resident. “My dad played football at Cornell, and I had every intention of playing football.”
However when John tried to sign up for the football team, the coach said the team was already all picked, adding rather snidely that the team “hadn’t had much luck with Canadians.” (John’s father managed the Canadian operations of an American company, and John had spent some time living near Toronto, Canada.)
At 6’6” and 197 pounds, John was the perfect height and build for the rowing team. He mentioned that during freshman registration, members of the rowing team were looking for “big kids who didn’t look like they knew where they were going.” He was told to talk to the rowing coach, and John fell in love with the sport quickly.
“It sort of immediately clicked; it was a sport that I was naturally adapted to,” says John, noting that their team did well, and they won national championships and had hopes of competing in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But John’s coach decided they weren’t good enough.
John continued to row while pursuing an MBA at the University of Michigan, and he eventually came to California for work in 1966. “This is better than the other frozen tundra places I’ve been,” he says.
With a single shell rowing boat on the top of his car, John drove from Michigan to Southern California. He was immediately attracted to the Long Beach Rowing Association’s Marine Stadium, which was built for the 1932 Olympics.
“I was always training on my own,” says John. He didn’t try for the 1966 Olympic team, but he trained for most of 1967 and even competed in that year’s Pan American Games. But by the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, John was ready.
He remembers that the rowing events were extremely challenging, due to Mexico City’s high elevation (7,000+ feet) and relatively thinner air as compared to Long Beach.
“At that altitude, there was 30% less oxygen. The distance events really suffered. There were about 30 guys who passed out, and they had medical boats pulling guys out of the water,” says John.
He and his rowing partner, Bill Maher, were able to overcome the environmental challenges, and they won the bronze for the double sculls event. “We didn’t really know what the hell to do,” says John after they finished, noting that his partner, who was suffering from bronchitis, passed out cold on the deck after the race.
Following the ’68 Olympics, John took time off to focus on work and family. By the time the ‘70s rolled along, work and familial responsibilities made training a bit more challenging. But John transitioned into coaching, and he traveled to the 1976 Olympic games at Montreal as a rowing coach.
John also did some coaching closer to home. Since he has five children, he was often involved in their athletic programs—one year he coached three teams at once. “Whatever they were in, I coached,” says John. “Basically the model we used was, ‘What are you doing this fall?’”
John pushed his children to stay active, and his son, Jack, was no exception. He played on a variety of sports teams, but after trying his hand at soccer and baseball during high school, he decided that the more traditional sports weren’t for him. He wanted to try his hand at rowing.
“It was one of the most exciting moments for my dad,” says Jack, who started with the Long Beach Junior Crew at 16. The younger Nunn distinctly remembers that once he picked up rowing, both he and his father became even closer.
“He’s an Olympic coach,” says Jack. “It was awkward and funny when he came to practices, because my coach would often ask him to tell us advice.” Being that he’s still actively competitive, Jack still turns to advice from his father, and both he and many other members of the Long Beach Rowing Association look up to the Olympian for his accomplishments.
That need for competition—coupled with a drive to remain fit and succeed as an athlete—was passed down from father to son, and Jack often thinks of his father’s past successes and words of advice when he’s competing in rowing events or Iron Man competitions. For instance, Jack notes that since his father would often train and row alone, the elder Nunn would imagine that he was racing against his top competition.
“He’d be training on his own, and he would imagine that the Germans or the Russians were ahead of him. He’d race against ghosts,” says Jack. The South Bay resident often visualizes imaginary foes when he’s competing, and he also thinks of his father’s personal motto whenever his triathlons or rowing events become too taxing.
“His motto,” says Jack, “is what’s possible is what you think is possible.”