Getting to Know the Thunder Bay Rowing Club
To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Thunder Bay Rowing Club!
Thunder Bay Rowing Club
Location: Thunder Bay, Ont.
Thunder Bay Rowing Club
Thunder Bay, Ontario is a place where outdoor sports and activities thrive. For winter sports, there is hockey, curling and skiing to name only a few; and for summer sports, rowing has a long and storied tradition. Thunder Bay Rowing Club has been going strong for 116 years, making it one of the oldest sports organizations in northwestern Ontario.
The club was first established in 1904 in what was then known as Fort William, Ontario, under the name Fort William Rowing Club. The first clubhouse was built in 1904 on the banks of the Kaministiquia River near the James Street swing-bridge in Westfort. In the 1930s, the clubhouse was moved to its present location further downstream. For a time, the club also ran a tennis program and maintained tennis courts near the clubhouse. Rowing was an incredibly popular sport in those early days and large civic events would often include a rowing competition as part of the festivities. Hundreds of spectators would watch the regattas and the local press would cover them well, which also helped the popularity of the sport in the region.
“Rowing in Thunder Bay is very scenic, especially when we are able to get out to Lake Superior to watch the sun rise in the morning,” said current Club President Francie Sweitzer about the location of the club. “The mouth of the Kaministiquia splits into three channels, one of which will usually be sheltered from the wind, giving us various course directions and lengths, as well as Lake Superior. In addition, there is an almost limitless rowable distance upstream from the club. Typically, we are on the water in the beginning of May, but sometimes that’s pushing it due to the cold temperatures. And we are typically off the water around Thanksgiving but last year we were able to stay on until early November which was great.”
The novelty of being out on the water in the summer months may have been what attracted the community to the sport in those early years after a long and harsh winter. But club members soon proved that they were not only rowing for recreation, they were serious competitors who could hold their own against the best rowers in Canada. In 1938, Fort William rowers Jim Miller, George Moors, George Nickerson and Murray Teeple became the first crew from Northwestern Ontario to earn a victory at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, winning the junior fours event. and setting a new course record for that event at the Henley regatta. The record would stand for another 14 years. At that same 1938 Henley regatta, another Fort William rower, Jack Chambers also claimed victory in the Junior 140lb Singles, winning by eight boat lengths.
One of the main reasons for the club’s success in this era was the improved training and coaching provided by Harry Tuckwell, who served as head coach of the club from 1931-39 and remained involved with the club until his death in 1965. Tuckwell was a former hockey player who helped instill competitive programs at the club and was a huge contributor to rowing in the area, spending time both as board member and president in addition to being an umpire and regatta organizer.
In 1951, the Fort William club again proved itself at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, when the senior lightweight fours of Emil Charban, Jack McDonald, Leonard Lundberg and Bill Stavert came out on top with a decisive victory of ten lengths.
Throughout their existence, the Fort William Rowing Club had established themselves as a competitive, mid-sized club with a loyal membership and a passion for rowing. However, as the 1960s were coming to a close, there was change brewing in the community that would impact the rowing club in name only: the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur were set to merge. A referendum was held on June 23, 1969 and ‘Thunder Bay’ narrowly defeated ‘Lakehead’ by less than 600 votes to become the new city’s official name. Shortly thereafter, the Fort William Rowing Club was re-named the Thunder Bay Rowing Club (TBRC).
One of the early stars of the newly named club was Bill Scollie. Described as one of the finest rowers to ever come from the region, Scollie recorded over 150 victories in his two decades as a competitive rower. He began with the Fort William club in the 1960s and was immediately successful, before taking a five-year hiatus to pursue other sports. When he returned, he picked up right where he left off, placing second in the 1973 Ontario Championships. By 1975, Scollie was the Canadian singles champion and a national team member. He competed at his first World Championships in 1975 in Nottingham, England, and in 1977 helped the TBRC win two gold medals – in the pairs and the fours – at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Scollie’s crewmates in the four were Terry Hamilton, Rob Karle and Jeff Reitberger, all of whom remained active in rowing for many years in Thunder Bay and other communities in the region. Terry Hamilton in particular has been a big contributor to TBRC over the years as a board member and coach and is still an active rower at the club.
With the emergence of women’s rowing in the 1970s, the TBRC instituted women’s programming and the expanded club continued to thrive. In fact, Tricia Smith from Vancouver and Betty Craig from Brockville, impressed with the coaching and facilities the TBRC had to offer, moved to Thunder Bay specifically to train for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the first Olympics to include women’s rowing (Placing 5th in the pairs, they later went on to win silver at the 1984 Olympics). Around this time, talented female rowers from Thunder Bay began to make their mark at the national level. In 1980, Maureen Grace and partner Karen Wiznuk became the first TBRC women to claim victory at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, winning gold in the 1000m pairs. In the ensuing years, Maureen Grace turned her attention to singles rowing, claiming silver medals at both Henley and the Canadian Championships in 1982. The peak of her career came in 1983 when she won a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela, the first such medal for a rower from Northwestern Ontario.
The pairs team of Helen Livingstone (nee Fleming) and Barbara Kukko were also a highly successful duo in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They both joined TBRC in 1978 and by 1980 they had finished in second place twice at Henley and once at the Canadian Championships in the women’s lightweight doubles. They reached the top of the podium at both events in 1981 and repeated the feat again at Henley in 1982. Suzanne Kwasny-Ritchie was yet another success story from the TBRC in the early 1980s. Kwasny-Ritchie was a swimmer who placed fourth at the 1979 Pan Am Games before turning her attention to rowing. She joined the TBRC in 1980 and in a few short years was an integral crew member for the club, helping them to three silver medals at Henley and two gold medals at the Canadian Championships in doubles and fours events between 1983 and 1986.
While the top TBRC rowers have regularly competed at national events such as the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta and the Canadian Championships, throughout their history the club’s main competitive opportunities have been through their association with the North West International Rowing Association (NWIRA). With even Sudbury, the TBRC’s closest Ontario club to the east, an 11-hour drive away, travelling to regattas in Eastern and Southern Ontario is quite a challenge. By contrast, Duluth and Minneapolis in the USA are 3.5 and six hours, and Kenora, the closest Ontario club, is 5.5 hours away. Even Regina is two hours closer to Thunder Bay than St. Catharines. It’s hardly surprising then, that, since joining the NWIRA in 1906, the TBRC has enjoyed the friendly but fierce rivalry from (relatively closer) clubs in central USA, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The NWIRA currently consists of ten clubs: Thunder Bay, Kenora, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Duluth, Twin Cities Youth, Minneapolis and Long Lake Rowing Clubs and Minnesota Boat Club (St. Paul). NWIRA clubs host a series of regattas throughout the rowing season, culminating in the annual NWIRA Championship Regatta where members clubs vie for the coveted Lipton Cup, donated by Sir Thomas Lipton, the Lipton Tea baron. The TBRC has a proud history as a 20-time Lipton Cup winner.
“The NWIRA Championships moves around between Canada and the U.S. with recent regattas held in Kenora, Ontario. The TBRC usually attends at least three other regattas throughout the Summer,” said Sweitzer, who’s been involved with the TBRC since the 1990s. “In the Fall, Duluth, MN has a great race called Death Row which is a 27km row up the St. Louis River and we usually have a fairly good contingent of rowers who go there to compete. There are also head races in Winnipeg and Minneapolis that we’ve attended. So, despite being a fair distance away from the other Ontario clubs our members have lots of great racing opportunities through the NWIRA.”
The TBRC also hosts its own race each year, the Thunder Bay Sprints, a 1000 m race that is primarily a junior regatta but is also open to masters and senior competitors. It is usually well attended by other NWIRA clubs.
Presently, the TBRC runs competitive programs for both juniors and masters, recreational programs for adults and learn-to-row programs. The learn-to-row program has been a successful way to introduce the sport to rowers of all ages, many of whom continue to a competitive or recreational program.
In recent years, top level athletes have continued to be produced at the TBRC, including former national team athlete Liam Parsons. The height of Parsons’ career came at the 2008 Olympic Games where he won the bronze medal in the men’s lightweight four. The Olympic medal capped off a successful lightweight rowing career for Liam Parsons which included gold medals in singles and pairs at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta; Ontario and Canadian University championships, a gold in the pairs at 2002 World University/Commonwealth Regatta, a silver in the quad at 2004 World Championships, and two fourth-place finishes in the fours at 2006 and 2007 World Championships.
Current national team athlete Andrew Todd is also from Thunder Bay and although most of his rowing career was at other clubs, the TBRC still proudly claims him as one of its own. Todd won a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympics in the PR3 Mix 4+ and has his sights set on another medal at the Tokyo Paralympics next year.
Sweitzer points to the contributions of such long-time club members as Glenn Bailey, Rick Piccinin, Don Manahan, George Paddington, Scott Fleming, Terry Hamilton, Cy Goshgarian, and many more to account for the success the club has had at many different levels of the sport over the last several decades. With 116 years of history as proof, the Thunder Bay Rowing Club has shown that rowing can thrive in Northwestern Ontario.
Thank you to Francie Sweitzer and Alison Parsons for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photos are property of the Thunder Bay Rowing Club.