Like many builders, Claude Saunders first got his start in rowing as an athlete at his hometown Leander Boat Club in Hamilton, Ont. He began rowing in 1931 and in a few short years had helped the Leander Men’s Eight capture national titles in 1934 and 1935. The following year he would reach the height of his athletic career as he and his crewmates earned a spot on the 1936 Olympic Team. He was also a member of the 1940 eight who qualified for the Olympics but were unable to compete as the Games were cancelled because of World War II. He would finish up his elite rowing career in 1948 as an alternate on the men’s eight that competed in the 1948 Olympics.
Following his retirement from competitive rowing, Saunders almost immediately began giving back to the sport and became President of the Leander Boat Club in 1949. He helped the club rebuild, expand and grow after a difficult stretch following World War II and would remain President of Leander for 31 years until 1980. No job was too small for Saunders during his time as Leander’s President, as we he would regularly do repairs around the club, fix the plumbing, tend the bar, and look after the books. Early in his tenure as President of Leander, Saunders began to show his versatility and knowledge in all aspects of rowing as he became involved in different aspects of the sport.
Saunders organized many different regattas over the years, at the local, provincial, national and international levels. He became the Chairman of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in 1958, a post he would hold for 40 years, and oversaw the event as it grew from a local event to a multi-day international regatta. During his time as Chair, he advocated for the inclusion of women in sport, and incorporated women’s events into the Henley programme in the early 1970’s. He was also one of the founders of the Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association (CSSRA) and was the Chairman of the CSSRA Championship Regatta for 30 years.
With a strong voice, commanding presence, and an approachable manner, Saunders was a natural for leadership positions within the Canadian rowing community. In 1957 he was elected President of the Canadian Amateur Association of Oarsmen (now known as Rowing Canada Aviron) and was one of founding members and eventual President of the Central Ontario Rowing Association. He remained involved elite rowing throughout his career as well, managing the 1960 Olympic Team as well as the 1978 and 1979 World Championship Teams.
Saunders also became one of the most influential umpires in Canadian rowing. He was the first Canadian to receive a FISA umpires license and became the first Canadian to umpire rowing at the Olympics, which he did in 1964 and 1968. His vast rowing knowledge from his time as an athlete and regatta organizer served him greatly as an umpire and he would be looked at as a mentor to many Canadian umpires over the years.
Saunders received many accolades during his career including being named to the Order of Canada, being inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. At the time of his passing in 2007 at the age of 96, he was Canada’s second-oldest living Olympian.
- Chairman, Royal Canadian Henley Regatta (1958-98)
- Oversaw the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta’s growth from local event to multi-day international regatta and advocated for the inclusion of women into the Henley programme
- One of the founders of the CSSRA and Chairman of CSSRA Championship Regatta for 30 years
- President, Canadian Amateur Oarsmen Association (now RCA)
- Founding Member and President of CORA
- Manager of 1960 Olympic Team and 1978-79 World Championship Teams
- One of the most influential umpires in Canadian rowing. First Canadian to receive FISA umpires license, first Canadian to umpire at Olympics (1964, 1968) and a mentor to many Canadian umpires