Thursday, August 11, 2016

Is there an Olympian in your Family Tree?

[This is an edited version of a post published at this blog on August 2, 2012 during the last Olympics in London]

Our Wilkinson family tree is not full of athletes.  In fact, we are all much better at sitting in our armchairs and cheering on the Red Sox or Patriots than getting out and tossing around a ball.  A few Wilkinsons were athletes in high school or college.  Some still jog or do yoga, and a few cousins have expanded this to 10K races and marathons.  But one, and only one Wilkinson, a descendant of Thomas Wilkinson (about 1690 - before 1739) of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has made it to the Olympics.

Brett Wilkinson
In 2004 my fourth cousin, Brett Wilkinson, competed in the Athens, Greece Olympic games. Brett and I share a common 3x great grandfather, Aaron Wilkinson, who was born in South Berwick Maine in 1802 and died in Peabody, Massachusetts in 1879.

Brett is a rower, and competed in the men’s fours (quadruple sculls).   His boat came in eleventh, and a Russian boat took the gold medal during the 2004 Olympics.  If you are unfamiliar with rowing, a scull is a boat with the rowers pulling two oars each (one in each hand).  When the rowers have one long oar (both hands on one oar), it is known as a sweep.

I’ve never met Brett, and I only know about his athletic history because another cousin has filled me in on the details of this side of the family.  I was surprised to hear we had an Olympian in the family. And even more surprised to hear he was a rower.  If you hear you have an Olympian in your family tree, Google can lead you to lots of Olympic history, with lists of athletes, statistics, medal winners, biographies, interviews, and maybe even a video!  Every sport has it's own website, and for rowing I checked the archives at and . High school and college athletic departments often have great websites, with lots of statistics and photos.  Since Brett Wilkinson won a gold medal, I found his biography at Wikipedia, which led me to many other sources of information on this cousin. 

How do I know so much about rowing?  My own daughter rowed in high school and then for the Simmons College crew.  She also rowed in the 2006 Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston.  She rowed in a collegiate 8+ race (eight women and a coxswain).  Brett Wilkinson was also at the 2006 HOCR, rowing out of the same boathouse (Simmons college uses the Riverside Boat House), in the Championship Men’s Doubles,  and he came in 3rd  place. This same year my daughter’s rowing coach, Nikolay Kurmakov, a former Soviet Union National Champion, won the gold medal in the HOCR Senior Master Men’s Eight race, rowing out of Riverside.  He won gold at the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 Head of the Charles Regattas, and set a course record in 2007.  

Former Ukranian and Soviet National Champion, Simmons Coach Nikolay Kurmakov,
gives a pep talk to the 2006 Simmons College 8+ boat before the HOCR

The 2006 8+ boat shoves off for the HOCR from Riverside Boat House.
My daughter is in the number 4 seat.
Considering that we spent all day during the Head of the Charles Regatta 2006 at the Riverside Boat House, we must have bumped into Brett at some point.   We also spent all weekend of the 2005 and 2007 HOCRs at Riverside Boat House, too. I know that Brett Wilkinson participated in all the HOCRs between 1997 and 2008, and placed in the top 5 spots several times.  Nikolay and Brett, as team mates, must have known each other.   Perhaps he is in some of our family photos, warming up or cheering on his team mates?  Perhaps we made some passing remark to him about the weather, or the regatta, as we stood on the docks? But we’ll never know, will we?

The first modern Olympics took place in Athens, Greece in 1896.  This means that if you found an Olympic athlete in your family tree, he or she is probably not many generations removed from you.  Ask the living members of your family closest in relationship for more information, and you will have a good start in researching your relative.  Use the resources of the US Olympic Committee online, and through correspondence, to find out more on the athletic career of your relative.  College archives, team archives, newspapers and YouTube may turn up more information.  Small town newspapers are especially rich with information on local heroes.  If you are lucky, your athlete may still be living, and you can correspond with him or her directly!

Simmons College parents cheering from the peanut gallery
at the Riverside Boathouse during the 2007 Head of the Charles Regatta
For more information:

Brett Wilkinson (rower) at Wikipedia

Team USA website -   

Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Is there an Olympian in your Family Tree?", Nutfield Genealogy, posted August 11, 2016,  ( accessed [access date]). 


  1. In fact, yes! I blogged about my father's cousin and his sailing gold medal in 1948 last Saturday. See From Maine to Kentucky.

  2. Great story, as always Heather! I LOVE The photographs!

  3. Interesting story. I'll be keeping my eyes out for one.