Row Ontario Retrospective: The Elite Ontario Rowers
In honour of our 50th anniversary we are putting together a seven-part retrospective series on the history of Row Ontario and the Ontario rowing community. This series is a celebration of all the volunteers, coaches, umpires, athletes, parents, regatta organizers and many more who have worked so hard over the years to build the sport of rowing in our province.
This is Part IV of the retrospective series, ‘The Elite Ontario Rowers’.
Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary.
The sport of rowing has been on the programme at every Olympic Games since the first in 1896. However, rowing had a false start at those Athens Games, as the events were unable to be contested due to bad weather. The first rowing events to ever be contested at the Olympics took place four years later at the Paris Olympics in 1900. A total of eight nations and 108 rowers competed in five events in Paris, with France coming out on top of medal standings with six. Canadian rowers didn’t make their debut at the Olympics until 1904 in St. Louis. Only two nations competed in rowing at those Games (Canada and the USA) with a total of 35 American athletes, and nine Canadian athletes comprising the lone Canadian boat. The nine Canadian athletes in that boat came from the Argonaut Rowing Club and the crew finished in second place by three boat lengths to the Americans. They brought home the silver medal to Toronto, Canada’s first medal in rowing at an Olympic Games.
A lot has changed in Olympic rowing competition since those humble beginnings. The number of events grew to seven in 1924 and remained stagnant until 1976 when they doubled to 14 with the addition of women’s rowing to the Olympic programme. The number of athletes and nations competing in rowing at the Olympics grew steadily over the years, with the number of athletes reaching its peak with 627 at the Atlanta Olympics in 1992. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, a record 69 nations competed in rowing, almost double the amount of nations (38) that competed in rowing less than 30 years earlier at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Since the first Canadians dipped their oars in the water at an Olympic Games in 1904, Ontario rowers have had starring roles in the success of the Canadian rowing team and have shown that the province produces some of the best rowers in the world. Six of the first seven rowing medals won by Canadians at an Olympic Games came from Ontario boats, with rowers from Toronto figuring prominently in early Olympic success. Everard Butler of the Argonaut Rowing Club won a bronze medal in the single sculls at the 1912 Olympics and the University of Toronto eight’s crew brought home a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics. In 1928, two Argonaut boats won medals, as the eights crew won a bronze and the pair of Jack Guest and Joseph Wright Jr. claimed a silver, becoming the first Canadians to medal in a double. Four years later, the Leander eight’s crew picked up a bronze medal at the 1932 Olympics, the third Olympics in a row an Ontario boat won a medal. However, the Leander bronze medal would be the last an Ontario athlete would win until 1964.
Rowing programs in BC were becoming stronger as the 1900’s progressed, and BC rowers began to regularly outperform Ontario rowers by the mid-1950’s. Following two cancelled Olympics in 1940 and 1944 due to the Second World War, almost the entirety of the Canadian rowing team featured Ontario rowers at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. However, the athletes failed to medal at either Games, marking the third straight Olympics where Canadian rowers failed to medal. BC athletes broke that streak in 1956 and would claim four medals at the next three Olympiads between 1956 and 1964.
However, Toronto’s Roger Jackson and his partner George Hungerford of Vancouver who became Canadian heroes in 1964 when they won the gold medal in the double at the Tokyo Olympics. The gold medal was only the second for Canada in rowing, and Jackson was the first Ontario athlete to win gold. The duo was named the Lou Marsh Award Winners as Canada’s top male athletes in 1964 and captured the attention of the nation in the process. Yet the fact the Jackson relocated to the University of British Columbia for his Olympic preparation and teamed with a BC athlete during a time when athletes predominantly stuck to rowing in their home club, wasn’t a great sign for the state of Ontario’s high-performance rowing system. Canada sent 14 athletes to 1968 Olympics, including Jackson in the single and the St. Catharines crew in the eight, but despite a valiant effort from the athletes, they were unable to come home from Mexico City with any medals.
By the time the Ontario Rowing Association was created in 1970, Canadian athletes had won 12 medals (2 gold, 6 silver, 4 bronze) at 15 Olympic Games. Seven of those medals came from boats with Ontario athletes. Around the same time, the Canadian high performance rowing system was starting to evolve and the days of sending a club crew to the Olympics were coming to a close. More collaboration between the provincial rowing associations and the Canadian Amateur Association of Oarsmen meant that athletes from across the country were being sent to train together with the hopes of putting the best athletes in a boat to represent Canada, not the best club crew.
In 1972, the last Olympics without women’s rowing, Canada sent a team of five boats and 16 athletes, including seven from Ontario. Jackson made his final appearance at an Olympic Games placing 12th in the coxed fours along with Hamilton’s James Walker. The coxed double, featuring Toronto’s Mike Neary, and the coxless four with Donald Curphey (Toronto) and Greg Rokosh (Russell, Ont.), were the highest placing boats for Canada in 1972, both coming in ninth place. The results were disappointing for Canada, which had hoped for a better showing just four years before the Olympics would take place on home soil in Montreal in 1976.
A lot changed in the Canadian high performance rowing system between 1972 and 1976. For starters, women’s rowing was confirmed as an event on the Olympic programme for the first time. A full slate of seven women’s events were added to the Games, which effectively doubled the number of potential Olympic spots in rowing. Funding from federal and provincial governments also increased across the board for all sports, in the hopes of a good showing on home soil. The additional funding allowed for more adequate training camps, coaching, and better equipment in preparation for the Games. It also helped broker collaboration between the CAAO and provincial rowing associations as they began to work together towards a common goal.
While the Canadian crews didn’t medal in Montreal, they showed major signs of improvement. A record 46 Canadian rowers competed in Montreal, which included 24 women and 22 men. The crews earned six top-8 finishes after not achieving any in 1972, with the women’s eight leading the way with a fourth-place finish. That boat featured Ontario rowers Susan Antoft, Gail Cort, Carol Eastmore (Love), and Nancy Higgins, who helped propel the crew to within one second of the bronze medal USA crew. Brockville’s Betty Craig partnered with Tricia Smith of BC in the women’s double and delivered with a strong fifth-place finish, as did the men’s coxless four which featured Ontario rowers Brian Dick, Phil Monckton and Andrew Van Ruyven. The 1976 women’s team became known as trailblazers within the rowing community and their legendary status was cemented in 2019 when the entire team was inducted into the Canadian Rowing Hall of Fame.
The back half of the 1970’s saw great strides made in the Canadian high performance rowing system. Building off their improved performance in 1976, the new generation of Canadian rowers were impressive on the international stage, winning medals at three consecutive World Championships from 1977-79. The women’s team claimed two bronze medals in 1977 and a silver and a bronze in 1978, and in 1979, just one year out from the Olympics, Brian Thorne captured a silver medal in the men’s lightweight single. The team was positioned well heading into the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, but politics got in the way as Canada joined many democratic nations from around the world in a boycott of the Soviet-hosted Olympics. The hard work and gains Canadian rowers had made in the preceding four years were unfortunately not able to be showcased on the grandest stage in sports.
The early 1980’s was a tumultuous time in the international political landscape as the Cold War raged on. The turmoil trickled down to amateur sports as competitions between communist and democratic nations became more politically driven. The return Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles robbed amateur sports fans of seeing a best-against-best competition for the second straight Olympic cycle. In the Canadian rowing world, the progress of the high performance rowing system was hard to measure without results from an Olympics where every country was eligible to compete. Between the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Canada continued to medal at World Championship events, claiming four medals between 1981-83. Craig and Smith reunited in 1981 after four years rowing apart and the duo became the top-performing crew of the era, winning three consecutive World Championship medals (2 silver, 1 bronze) on their way to becoming medal-favourites at the 1984 Olympics.
The Soviet boycott in 1984 opened up additional Olympic spots and Canada sent 52 rowers (30 men, 22 women) to the Games, setting a new record that still stands today. Over 30 of the athletes who attended the Games were from Ontario, and Ontario rowers were a part of five of the six medal-winning boats, a new Olympic record for Canada in rowing. The men’s eight won only the third gold medal in Canadian history with Toronto’s Mark Evans, Michael Evans, Brian McMahon, Patrick Turner and St. Catharine’s Kevin Neufeld in the boat. Betty Craig earned her long-awaited Olympic medal by claiming the silver medal in the women’s pair with her long-time partner Tricia Smith, and Michael Hughes, Doug Hamilton and Phil Monckton, who was making his Olympic return eight years after competing in Montreal, picked up the bronze in the men’s quadruple sculls. The 1984 Games also marked the debuts of two Canadian Olympic legends as London’s Lesley Thompson-Willie and Mississauga’s Silken Laumann both made their first appearance at an Olympics. Thompson-Willie, along with Ontario’s Barbara Armbrust, Angela Schneider and Jane Tregunno, coxed the women’s four to a silver medal. Laumann teamed with her sister Daniele to claim the bronze in the double sculls.
The six-medal count in 1984 was the third highest among countries behind Romania and the USA who both won eight. It was by far the most successful Games for Canada, whose previous high medal total was two, which they won at the 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1956 Olympics. However, the six medals were won in the absence of traditional rowing powers such as East Germany and the Soviet Union, making it difficult to measure just how much the Canadian rowing program had grown.
However, the year following the 1984 Olympics proved to be a historic year for the Canadian national team program as they earned their first gold medal at a World Rowing Championship. The men’s quad, featuring Hamilton’s Mel Laforme, who was member of the men’s eight in the 1976 Olympics and a spare for the eight in 1984, St. Catharines’ Paul Douma, a future Olympian in 1988, Toronto’s Doug Hamilton, who was fresh off an Olympic bronze medal, and Nova Scotia’s Robert Mills edged out East Germany for the win in Hazewinkel, Belgium in 1985. The same crew would also go on to win the bronze medal at the 1986 and 1987 World Championships.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics was the first time in 12 years that the world would see best-against-best competition at the Olympic Games. International tensions were beginning to thaw, and all countries attended the 1988 Olympics, which resulted in fewer Olympic spots available than four years prior. The Canadian team still sent a large contingent of rowers, with 31 men and ten women, and was coming to the Games with medal hopes. However, athletes such as Craig and Monckton, who had been key members of the national team for over a decade, had retired from elite competition in the years following the 1984 Olympics. They gave way to a new generation of rowers who were making their Olympic debuts in 1988, such as Mississauga’s Rob Marland, Burlington’s John Wallace, Hamilton’s Andy Crosby, Oakville’s Terry Paul, Toronto’s Kay Worthington, and Peterborough’s Jennifer Walinga. The new generation of rowers were talented and filled with potential but showed in 1988 that their best years were still ahead of them. The highest placing boat was the men’s eight featuring Wallace and Crosby, which came in sixth place.
In hindsight, 1988 could be looked at as a rebuilding Olympics for the Canadian rowing team. Young rowers gained valuable experience that would serve them well over the next two quads and in the lead up to the 1992 Olympics, new talents would emerge from the Ontario rowing scene. An important development in the years following the 1988 Olympics was the creation of the Ontario National Rowing Team Training Centre. Located in London, Ont., the training centre was the first of its kind in Ontario and offered an ideal daily training environment for athletes. It became the home of the women’s national team and the training and preparations at the centre proved to be a key factor in the success the team would have at the Barcelona Olympics.
The 1992 Olympics could easily be described as the Canadian rowing team’s ‘Golden’ Olympics. Prior to 1992, Canada had won three gold medals at an Olympic Games dating back to their first appearance in 1904. Barcelona proved to be Canada’s coming out party in rowing, as they won five total medals, including four golds, more than doubling their previous total in the span of a week. Leading the way for Canada was the women’s team, featuring double gold medalists Worthington and Toronto’s Marnie McBean. Worthington was the lone Ontario athlete in the coxless fours that claimed the gold and joined McBean, Thompson-Willie and Guelph’s Shannon Crawford in the women’s eight that beat Romania by almost four seconds to reach the top step of the podium. McBean and partner Kathleen Heddle continued a successful partnership that saw them burst onto the scene with a gold at the 1991 World Championships, by winning their first of two Olympic gold medals in the women’s double. Silken Laumann would also win her first of two Olympic medals in the single in one of the gutsiest performances ever at an Olympic Games. Laumann suffered a broken leg just ten weeks before the Olympics and thanks to a grueling rehab schedule was able to line up at the start line and capture a thrilling bronze medal.
On the men’s side, the eights crew won the gold medal with a razor close victory in the final over Romania. The crew featured Marland, Paul, Crosby and Wallace, who were all making their second appearance at an Olympics. The four gold medals and one bronze that Canada won in 1992 was unquestionably the high point of Canadian high performance rowing up to that point in time. The success achieved by the rowing team inspired a nation and made the members of the team heroes across the country. The four gold medals tied for the most with Germany and the five total medals ranked third overall behind Germany and Romania. If 1992 was the Canadian rowing team’s coming out party, the next four years would serve as their coronation among the world’s rowing elite.
The Canadian rowing team would win 13 medals at the World Championships between 1993-95, including four gold medals in 1993 that tied for the most with Great Britain. They were well prepared heading into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and were considered medal favourites in a number of races. McBean and Heddle again won gold in the women’s double, and the duo also won a bronze medal in the women’s four along with North Bay’s Diane O’Grady and Walkerton’s Laryssa Biesenthal. Laumann proved she was still at the top of her game 12 years after her Olympic debut in 1984, by claiming the silver medal in the women’s single. The final women’s medal came by way of a silver in the women’s eight, which was coxed by Thompson-Willie. Alison Korn of Ottawa was also a key member of the boat, which in a true testament of the growth in the Canadian high performance rowing system, featured athletes from Ontario, BC, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Alberta, and Newfoundland.
Lightweight rowing made its debut as an Olympic sport in 1996, with two men’s events (double sculls, coxless four) and one women’s event (double sculls). The men’s coxless four, with Ontario athletes Dave Boyes, Jeff Lay, and Brian Peaker along with New Brunswick’s Gavin Hassett captured the silver in the inaugural event. BC’s Derek Porter also won a silver in the men’s single, bringing the total of the Canadian team to six medals, tying their previous record set at the 1984 Olympics. The six medals tied with Australia for the most in rowing at the 1996 Games, the first time Canada had ever been atop the total medal standings.
After years of struggling for consistent performances at the highest levels of the sport, Canada had just completed its two most successful Olympic cycles in history. Elite Ontario rowers were coming onto the international scene in greater numbers than ever before, and improvements in rowing programs across the country had created a depth of athletes that had never previously been seen. However, as Canada prepared for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, they ran into some of the same issues they had in 1988. A number of top-performing athletes such as Laumann, Heddle and O’Grady, had retired from the sport. Veterans such as Porter, Thompson-Willie and McBean were returning but the 2000 Olympic squad was decidedly less experienced than the team that competed at the previous two Olympics. To compound matters, McBean, who had transitioned to the single following Heddle’s retirement and had won the gold medal in the single at the Pan Am Games in 1999, suffered a back injury after travelling to Australia and was forced to pull out of the event.
While they didn’t reach the heights of the previous two Olympics, the Canadian team still garnered some solid results. Porter narrowly missed a medal by coming in fourth in the single, while the men’s lightweight coxless four with Ontario’s Jonathan Beare and Chris Davidson, and the men’s eight with Ontario’s Morgan Crooks and Chris Taylor both placed seventh in what was a learning experience for both crews. The highlight of the Games came from the women’s eight which captured the bronze medal. First time Olympians Dorota Urbaniak (Toronto) and Buffy-Lynne Williams-Alexander (St. Catharines) helped the eights to the medal, as did Biesenthal who claimed her second straight Olympic medal and Thompson-Willie who again coxed the crew to the podium.
The 2004 Olympic Games in Athens garnered similar results as 2000 for the Canadian team, as they picked up one medal, a silver, in the men’s coxless four. Williams-Alexander transitioned to the women’s pair and narrowly missed a medal with a fourth-place finish with partner Darcy Marquardt. The men’s lightweight coxless four with Beare still in one of the seats, also improved their placing from 2000 by coming in fifth. One of the disappointments for the team in 2004 was the men’s eight, who were one of the favourites coming into the event. The crew, which featured Belleville’s Brian Price in the coxie seat, as well as London’s Adam Kreek and Hamilton’s Joe Stankevicius, had won the previous two World Championships, but finished a disappointing fifth at the Olympics. Despite the result, the crew still had a bright future and would use their unsatisfying result as fuel for the next four years.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics would turn out to be one of Canada’s most successful in rowing to date, as the rowing squad captured four medals (1 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze). The men’s lightweight coxless four broke through with a bronze medal in Beare’s third and final Olympics. He was joined by Thunder Bay’s Liam Parsons who medaled in his first Olympics, as well as BC’s Mike Lewis and Iain Brambell. Beare and Brambell had each been a part of the two previous Olympic cycles and capped off their rowing careers with a hard fought and well-deserved Olympic medal. St. Catharines’ Melanie Kok and partner Tracy Cameron won the first lightweight Olympic medal in Canadian women’s history, a bronze in the double sculls, while BC’s Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen captured a silver in the men’s coxless pair.
The highlight of the 2008 Games for the Canadian rowing team came in the form of a true redemption story for the men’s eight. Like the previous Olympics, the crew had won gold at the previous year’s World Championships and were one of the favoured boats heading into the Games. They delivered in a big way this time around, winning the gold medal with a convincing victory over the UK and USA who finished second and third respectively. Price and Kreek were joined by Toronto’s Andrew Byrnes as the Ontario athletes in the winning boat.
Four years later at the 2012 Olympics in London, the men’s eight were again one of the top stories for the Canadian rowing team, winning their second straight medal by coming in second place behind Germany. The crew also had many more Ontario rowers in the boat in 2012, as seven of the nine members were developed through the Ontario rowing system. Price and Byrnes were joined by Jeremiah Brown (Cobourg), Douglas Csima (Mississauga), Will Crothers (Kingston), Rob Gibson (Kingston), Conlin McCabe (Brockville), as well as fellow returnees Malcolm Howard (Mill Bay, BC) and Gabriel Bergen (Dawson Creek, BC). The women’s eight equaled the men’s eight performance with a silver medal of their own, finishing just behind the USA. Ontario athletes on the women’s boat included Ashley Brzozowicz (Toronto) and Natalie Mastracci (Thorold) as well as Thompson-Willie who earned her record-setting fifth Olympic medal in the coxie seat.
In 2016, the Canadian rowing team claimed one medal at the Olympics, a silver, in the women’s lightweight double sculls with BC athletes Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee. Current national team athletes Carling Zeeman (Sudbury), Christine Roper (Ottawa), and Susanne Grainger (London) all made their Olympic debuts in Rio and gained the type of valuable experience that has proven to help Canadian rowers in past Olympic cycles. With the Tokyo Olympics pushed back until 2021, the Canadian national team has an extra year to prepare for the Olympics and hope to create lasting memories like their fellow Olympic predecessors.
In addition to the success of Ontario athletes at the Olympics, elite para-rowers from Ontario have also been making a name for themselves on the international stage. In 2008, para-rowing made its long overdue debut on the Paralympic programme. It had been 38 years since the Paralympics debuted in 1960 in Rome, but it wasn’t until 2008 in Beijing that rowing events were contested at a Paralympic Games.
Four medal events were contested in 2008 – one men’s, one women’s and two mixed events – with 108 rowers from 23 nations taking part. Canada sent a total of three boats and eight athletes to those Games, with five coming from Ontario. The PR3 Mix4+ boat with Ontario para-rowers Laura Comeau (coxswain) and Victoria Nolan was the top finisher for Canada with a sixth-place finish. With the national para-rowing team still in its relative infancy, the squad sent two boats and six athletes to the 2012 Paralympics and returned with similar results. The PR3 Mix4+ boat with Nolan returning and with the addition of David Blair (Ottawa) and new coxswain Kristen Kit (St. Catharines) came in seventh place by winning the ‘B’ Final.
In 2016, the Canadian team only sent one boat to the Paralympics, but it was much improved version of the mixed fours that had competed at the previous two Games. Andrew Todd (Thunder Bay) and Curtis Halladay (Chelmsford) had both joined the boat. Nolan and Winnipeg’s Meghan Montgomery were the senior members of the crew, each returning for their third Paralympics, and Kit was back in the coxie seat for her second straight Games. The crew placed second in their first heat to the USA and had the fastest time in the repechage round to advance to the finals. The final became a close three-team race between the UK, USA and Canada, as the Canadian crew featuring four Ontario athletes finished just behind the USA to claim the bronze medal, the first rowing medal for Canada at the Paralympics.
Rowing has been on the programme for all Olympic Summer Games and been contested in all but one. The 41 Olympic medals won by Canadian rowers are the third-most for the country in Summer sports, behind only athletics and swimming. The last 50 years has seen both the Ontario high performance rowing community and the Canadian high performance rowing community grow by leaps and bounds. Advances in coaching, sport science, nutrition and training methods have all come at the same time as increased collaboration between national and provincial governing bodies and increased funding from government levels. These positive changes have led to a deeper and more competitive Canadian rowing team year-in, year-out. Since 1970, Canada has won 29 medals (7 gold, 11 silver, 11 bronze) at 11 Olympic Games and one medal at three Paralympic Games. Ontario rowers have been at the forefront of many of those medals and look set to continue their success over the next 50 years.
Thank you to Liz Montroy and Colleen Coderre at RCA for their generous contributions to this story.
Silken Laumann and Kay Worthington 1988, Bev Cameron and Cheryl Howard 1976, 1992 Men’s 8 – Library and Archives Canada
Leander Men’s 8 – George Gage
Roger Jackson and George Hungerford 1968 – Canadian Sports Hall of Fame
Betty Craig and Tricia Smith 1984 – Canadian Olympic Committee
Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle 1992 – Impact Magazine
Women’s 8 2000 – Canadian Olympic Committee
Women’s 4 2017 – FISA World Rowing
Para Team 2016 – University of Manitoba