Row Ontario Retrospective: The History of Coaching in Ontario
History/ Nov 18

Row Ontario Retrospective: The History of Coaching in Ontario


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 V of the retrospective series, ‘The History of Coaching in Ontario’.

Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary.


Ever since rowing clubs started forming in Canada in the late 1800’s, coaches have been a part of the sport. In those early days when clubs were just getting started, had limited members and were rowing purely for recreation, the ‘coach’ may have just been the most experienced rower in the group or the most vocal leader.

As time progressed, clubs grew, and crews gained more experience and became more competitive. In 1880, the Canadian Amateur Association of Oarsmen (CAAO) was formed and began to host a formal national championship each year, then called the ‘Annual Regatta’. The Annual Regatta was almost primarily hosted in Ontario in those days, so Ontario club crews had an event that they could look forward to each year and test themselves against other clubs from around the country as well as the United States. Club rivalries developed from the fierce competition at the Annual Regatta and claiming bragging rights over rival clubs became highly sought after.

As crews aimed to improve their performance, head coaches or club captains became more common at clubs. All the coaches during the early era of the sport, and well into the second half of the 1900’s for that matter, were unpaid volunteers. They were typically former rowers who had experienced success during their athletic prime and were looking to stay involved with the sport and pass on their knowledge to the next generation. They all had day jobs and volunteered before work, after work, and on the weekends to help their club’s crews reach their potential. Many of the Ontario clubs had longtime coaches who became legends in their own right because of the success of their crews. Throughout the first half of 1900’s, Joseph Wright Sr. (Argonaut Rowing Club), Paddy Cline and Robert Hunter (Leander Boat Club), Abbie Buett and Cedric Liddell (Brockville), and Russ Wood (St. Catharines) were just some of the legendary coaches leading Ontario clubs to berths in the Olympics and victories at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.

As the sport progressed through the 1950’s and 1960’s it became more formally organized. The Ontario Rowing Association (ORA) was created in 1970, and around the same time there was a growing movement among some influential members of the Ontario rowing community to better educate coaches throughout the province. Up until that time, coaches had primarily only learned coaching skills, methods and techniques from those in their own clubs. The thought among some of the more forward-thinking coaches of that time was that the ‘club vs. club’ mentality was the product of a bygone era. The sport was changing and greater collaboration among athletes, coaches, clubs and provincial associations was necessary for rowing to continue to grow and prosper. The 1970’s was also a growth period for rowing in Ontario, as new clubs were opening almost every year, joining the stable of nine clubs who were the original members of the ORA. The new clubs needed coaches in their communities who were knowledgeable and capable of teaching the sport to its newest participants. With this in mind, the ORA began to facilitate some of the first coaching seminars for rowing in the early 1970’s.

“We organized one of the first coaching seminars for rowing in the country,” said Wes Kuran, who was the second President of the ORA. “It was geared towards Ontario coaches and helping better educate them on coaching rowing. The ORA was pushing for these types of coaching seminars and there were a number of people who were involved in organizing them like Jack Nicholson of Ridley College, Doug Marshall of Brockville and Forbes Monarch from the Argos. They were kind of like an informal coaches committee and the first coaching instructors who tried to educate others and help grow the coaching program for rowing in Ontario.”

An eye-opening moment for the Canadian rowing community came when the FISA Coaches Conference was hosted in Toronto in the mid-1970’s. Many Canadian coaches attended and were surprised to find out how far behind the rest of world, including the USA, Canada was in terms of the advances in the coaching of rowing. Following the conference, the ORA initiated an idea to bring in guest coaches from the USA, including Ted Nash, Stephen Orova, Woody Fischer, and Allen Rosenberg, who would speak about their experiences and teach their coaching methods. The ORA attempted to run the seminars annually, but the organization of them sometimes sputtered. Bringing in a prominent guest speaker was the main attraction and there was only so much money from the ORA’s small budget that could be bookmarked for guest speakers.

Around the same time the ORA was taking their first steps into coach education, Sport Canada, the CAAO (now Rowing Canada Aviron) and the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) were having discussions on how to better educate rowing coaches throughout the country. There was a growing recognition that a formal coaching education system for rowing needed to be put in place in order for Canada to keep up with what other top rowing countries were doing, and what other national sport organizations in Canada had already implemented. In 1975, with grant monies supplied by the CAC, Peter Klavora was hired to write the first National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) for rowing. Klavora was a kinesiology professor at the University of Toronto who was originally from Bled, Yugoslavia and coached on the Yugoslavian national team before immigrating to Canada. Klavora travelled to Nottingham, UK in 1975 to attend the World Rowing Championships as well as the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where he took pictures and video of the action to aide in his research. In 1976, with the help of some international experts, he completed the Level 1 Rowing Technical program for the NCCP and soon NCCP coaching clinics made their debut in the Canadian rowing community.

“I was able to attend the first NCCP Level 1 Rowing clinic offered in 1977,” said Al Morrow, who was coaching at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Rowing Club at the time. “It took place at Brentwood College on Vancouver Island with Peter Klavora lecturing and Tony Carr hosting the weekend. A few years later Rowing Level 2 and Level 3 clinics became available. These three levels are still somewhat aligned with our current coaching education structure however the names, content and format have changed.”

The NCCP program included a coach certification book, which became essential for all coaches and clubs to have. The techniques and rowing style Klavora included in the first version of the NCCP were modeled after those from East Germany, at the time the most successful rowing nation in the world. The NCCP clinics were rolled out across the country and Ontario coaches were soon attending the clinics in their own communities.

“The first course I took was in 1977 was the Level 1 Technical,” said Mike Purcer, a long-time coach from St. Catharines who started coaching in 1976. “Level 2 came shortly after that. That was the first organized coaching development system, prior to that there had been many different workshops and clinics, but this was the first system that was put in place. There’s of course been updates through the years and content has been added but is wasn’t actually much different than it is today. I was an instructor for Level 1 and Level 2 Technical Clinics in the early 80s and the weekend workshops ran very much the same. It was more of a lecture and watch video format to the clinics then, whereas now they are more shared learning. The Learning Facilitators try to get coaches to be more interactive and work in groups. Topics such as rigging and rowing technique are still very popular.”

In 1980, the ORA devoted $7,000 of its annual $30,000 budget towards coaching clinics. With almost a quarter of its limited budget going towards coaching clinics, the ORA was investing in what was termed as ‘leadership development’ by the Ministry of Culture and Recreation’s ‘Sport Development Program’. The Sport Development Program was a grant program that provincial sport organizations could apply to for support in five organizational areas, one of them being leadership development. The ORA was fully onboard with promoting coach education and ran six coaching clinics in 1980, four Level 1 clinics and two Level 2 clinics.

The 1980’s were definitely a growth period for Canadian coaching. Throughout the 1970’s, government funding for sports high performance programs increased, with most of that money going towards developing athletes. In the 1980’s, more emphasis began to be put on developing coaches as coaching organizations began to have more influence and national and provincial sport organizations began to see the value in investing in grassroots coaching programs. Grant programs for coach development were available and the ORA was keen to take advantage of them. The programs were greatly beneficial for coaches and presented them with valuable professional development opportunities.

“The ORA got a grant for a coaching apprenticeship program in 1982 and me and four other coaches were selected to participate in the program,” said Purcer. “They hired Allen Rosenberg who was a US Olympic coach to be the Master Coach and he was on the phone to us once a week. I was actually sent to Toronto to coach at the Argonaut Rowing Club and U of T in the Fall. In 1985, the ORA was looking for some of the apprentices to step up and lead the Canada Summer Games team. It just happened me and Maureen Grace were both available, so we were selected as the Team Ontario coaches because we were in the apprenticeship program.”

Property of Carol Purcer. 1985 Ontario Women's Eight at the Canada Summer Games  in St. John, New Brunswick.  Mike Purcer - Coach

Women’s coaching programs also began in earnest in the 1980’s. The lack of women involved in high performance coaching was an issue across many sports and funding was being earmarked to try to help solve the issue.

“In 1985, the CAC launched a mentorship program to support women who were interested in coaching in a high performance stream,” said Carol Love, a 1976 Olympian who transitioned to coaching following her competitive career. “I became a part of a small group of coaches from various sports involved in a program with guided learning through a feminist lens. It was an exciting time for me, and it did impact my career choices. I always felt Row Ontario was leading the way in inclusivity and receptive to growing the sport for all.”

As the ORA was growing, they were also investing more in their coaching development programs. Through the first 15 years of the association, the coaching development portfolio had grown significantly and was primarily run by volunteer board members. In an effort to professionalize the coaching portfolio, the ORA hired Love in 1986 in a part-time role as Technical Coordinator to be in charge of running coach development and talent identification clinics. Love’s hiring was a seminal moment for the ORA, as she became the first ever paid employee of the association.

“Originally I got involved with the Board of the ORA as a volunteer and got to work with some really fabulous people like Claude Saunders and Pat Hughes, who was the President at the time,” said Love. “I was volunteering under Pat on the Board and as things evolved there was some government funding that was available, and the Technical Coordinator position was created, so I stepped off the Board and into the Technical Coordinator position. We ran camps and brought coaches together for weekends of education. The position was created in part to make the delivery of those clinics and camps more professional and standardized and to deliver the different NCCP level clinics to club coaches.”

Despite the advancements in coaching development and the tools that were becoming available to rowing coaches, there was some resistance among some club coaches. New ideas about coaching were colliding with old school methods and beliefs which led a divide among some Ontario coaches.

“I think there was some very old school ideas about coaching and some resistance,” said Love. “There were many different ways and styles of coaching, athletes were coached differently from club to club. For some older coaches there was resistance to the new ideas, and it took time to convince them that they should have the mindset of ‘we’re all in this together’. Club rivalries were very strong and for a long time you didn’t share coaching knowledge. There were secrets and you kept them within your club. You didn’t share training regimes with other clubs.”

While there were some older coaches who were resistant to the changes, many Ontario coaches and clubs were benefitting from the enhanced coach development program and the sharing of knowledge. In Purcer’s opinion, it was the implementation of the NCCP program that spurred on collaboration within the coaching community.

“I don’t think the sharing really started until the coaches from different clubs started coming together for workshops and certifications,” said Purcer. “Coaches within the same club who were friends would share what they knew with each other but sharing with other clubs didn’t really happen much. Once the NCCP program for rowing began and the information was readily available in the coaching manuals that was when coaching development happened. The NCCP program kind of spurred on that collaboration.”

As the evolution of rowing continued and the sport became more professionalized, coaching positions at different levels of the sport also evolved. Prior to 1970, national team coaches were appointed based on the results of their crew. If a crew qualified for an Olympic team, the coach of that crew would be named an Olympic team coach. Until the mid-80’s, club crews could still qualify for World Championship events and thus their club coach could be named a World Championship team coach. However, as a greater importance on sending the best athletes from across the country to major international events became the norm, full-time paid national team coach positions were being created. Some university programs were also creating full-time coaching positions, and eventually, so too were clubs. While the vast majority of rowing coaches were still volunteers, which still remains the case in the present day, full-time paid coaching positions were becoming standard at the high performance level. For some, coaching became their profession instead of their hobby.

One of these coaches was Morrow, who upon being hired as head coach by the University of Victoria in 1978 became the second rowing coach in Canada to be hired in a full-time paid role. After a successful tenure with the Vikes, Morrow was hired in a full-time role by the Canadian Amateur Rowing Association (who had changed their name from CAAO) in 1986. Two years later, he relocated to his home province to become head coach of the National Rowing Team Training Centre in London. While living in Victoria, Morrow was a coaching instructor whose territory covered everything west of the Ontario/Manitoba border. He was well-versed in coach education and continued to facilitate clinics once he moved back to Ontario. At the training centre, he adopted an ‘open-door policy’ for coaches who wanted to come in and observe the national team training sessions and see how the coaches operated off the water. This type of mentorship was a valuable development opportunity for any coach looking to advance their career.

“In terms of coaching influence, I think the training centre was huge,” said Morrow. “We ran workshops and I had this philosophy of an open-door policy for the time that I was head coach from 1990 to 2004. I learned so much from other coaches when I was younger that I thought it was extremely valuable to pass on that type of coach education. Almost a day didn’t go by where there wasn’t a guest at the training centre, just watching the women’s national team row and watching the coaches interact. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many people came in, but most were from Ontario just due to geography. Some of the guests would stay at my house and most would stay two or three days or even a week. I think that was one of the reasons the centre was supported by Row Ontario for so many years was that transfer of knowledge that was happening and benefitting the whole community.”

The ORA also began to employ coaches with the goal of strengthening the high performance system in Ontario. In 1993, the ORA announced a joint venture with Brock University that would see Joe Dowd hired as Provincial Coach of the ORA in addition to being head coach of the Brock University rowing team. The creative arrangement allowed the ORA to continue growing its athlete and coach development programs, while Dowd, who would remain head coach of the Badgers until 2004, helped develop Brock into a rowing powerhouse that would win five OUA and three CURC championships in his 11 years at the school.

By the 1990’s an annual ORA Rowing Coaches Conference had been established and a popular coaching seminar series had been widely embraced by the Ontario coaching community. The seminars began to incorporate new coaching topics which began to show the evolution of the coaching profession and the amateur sports world in general. In 1995 alone, the series included seminars on sport psychology, nutrition, race strategies and coaching technique. The annual coaches conference and the coaching seminar series benefitted the growing Ontario coaching group greatly. There were typically topics and guest speakers that were relevant to all levels of coaching, including volunteer coaches at the club level and professional coaches, and were a great addition to the coach development program.

Another important development system for coaches, which has been around for many years and continues today, is coaching in the university rowing system. Coaching with a university program provides coaches with an opportunity to gain experience with a high-level group of athletes in a less pressurized environment compared to the national level. Many successful coaches have coached with university programs over the years, and with many universities affiliated with clubs, club coaches have had opportunities to become involved with university programs.

“The university rowing system is a great system,” said Morrow, who in addition to his national team coaching duties coached at Western University from 1988-2008. “Some coaches come out and coach for two or three months in the Fall. Many have the option to coach for longer time periods also. So, you have this incredible opportunity to coach at a reasonably high level, it’s seasonal and it’s a condensed schedule. The high level of athletes allows coaches to hone their skills and learn a lot as a coach. Coaching at a university is an excellent opportunity from a coach development point of view.”

Love, who has either coached or been involved with the Trent University rowing program and the Peterborough Rowing Club for over 40 years has similar feelings about coaching rowing programs in Ontario University Athletics.

“The university season was intense but fun,” said Love. “Competition drove the programs, and novices were racing within two weeks. There was a great camaraderie amongst the coaches, lots of rivalries but fun for both athletes and coaches.”

Love, Purcer, Morrow, Dowd, Marshall, Nicholson and Monarch are just a few of the many Ontario coaches who have left their mark on the Ontario coaching landscape and served as mentors to other developing coaches. Others like Volker Nolte (Western), John Armitage (Kingston Rowing Club/Queen’s), Tony Biernacki Sr. (Brock University), Jim Roche (Leander Boat Club), Neil Campbell (St. Catharines) and Stan Murdza (St. Catharines) are just a few more names commonly heard as coaches who have furthered coach development or made a big impact on others’ coaching styles since the creation of the ORA in 1970. However, to limit the names of impactful coaches to a short list would be doing a disservice to all the coaches who have contributed to the coach development program in Ontario over the years. The coaching development program is ever evolving and in more recent years, rowing coaches have had to adapt to changes in coaching techniques, methods and education to stay current.

From a high performance coaching perspective, the changes in technology in the last 30 years has significantly impacted the profession. Video and computer analysis are now an essential method of teaching. Communication with athletes has also been impacted by the changes in technology, especially over the last ten years. The changes in sport science may have been the biggest, as sport psychology, sport medicine, nutrition, off-season training, prehab and rehab are now an integral part of any high performance program.

There have also been significant changes to the coach education materials for rowing that Peter Klavora created in 1976. In 2004, all national sport federations began a transition to a new NCCP, which had a competency-based methodology and an emphasis on what participants need in various streams and contexts including community, instruction, and competition. Rowing Canada Aviron developed new courses including the Learn to Row Instructors Course, RCA Coach and RCA Performance Coach certifications, which replaced the previous Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 certifications under a new development system.

Another recent change in terms of coach education that has affected all levels of rowing coaches has been the implementation of safe sport policies and programs. In February 2019, after a series of nationwide safe sport consultation summits, federal, provincial, and territorial sport ministers signed the Red Deer Declaration, which committed to the elimination of abuse, discrimination and harassment in sport. The Declaration was the byproduct of years of work in creating awareness about safe sport issues and with the goal of creating a safe environment that promotes physical, psychological, and social health for all athletes and coaches. The Coaching Association of Canada also created a free safe sport training program which all coaches can access.

“Sport historically turned a blind eye to poor coaching behaviours and they would carry on from one generation to the next,” said Love. “The work being done on safe sport through the coaching education program is impacting positive changes, and sport will be a healthier place for participants in the future.”

Row Ontario’s coaching program has been continuously growing throughout the history of the association and has been committed to ensuring every athlete in the province is working with a coach who is trained in appropriate rowing-specific knowledge, coaching theory, safety precautions and ethics. In 2019, 13 NCCP coach development workshops were run which served more than 160 coaches.

While there has been a lot of change in the Ontario rowing coach community over the years some things have remained the same. Coaches are the first to arrive at practice. Their minds wander in their downtime into thinking about how to help the athletes they coach improve. They balance work, family and other commitments. The majority are still volunteers who coach before work, after work, and on the weekends and they always want to see athletes reach their potential. That will never change.

Thank you to Wes Kuran, Al Morrow, Carol Love, Mike Purcer, and Andrea Miller for their generous contributions to this story. Documents provided by Brian Love from the Peterborough Rowing Club were instrumental in completing this story.

Photo Credits:

Russ Wood and Harvey Hutcheon – St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre

1948 Leander Boat Club – Hamilton Spectator

Doug Marshall and members of Brockville Rowing Club – Brockville Rowing Club

Al Morrow – University of Victoria

1985 Canada Games Team – Carol Purcer

Carol Love – Peterborough Examiner

Western Coach and Double – Western University Rowing