BC and Olympic Athletes

Vancouver and the rest of BC have sent a lot of athletes to the Olympics, both summer and winter versions. Freelance writer Tom Hawthorn, who does a weekly column for The Globe and Mail and appears regularly in other newspapers and magazines, keeps his eye on our Olympians. “Two years from now,” Hawthorn says, “we will witness the best winter athletes in the world competing on our stage.” On September 25 he favored the regular monthly meeting of the Vancouver Historical Society with a lively and colorful talk—complemented with plenty of photographs—on the outstanding BC people of the past who have represented Canada at the Games.

The first British Columbians to win an Olympic medal? Alex Turnbull and George Rennie of the New Westminster Salmonbellies. It was 1908, and these two gentlemen took part in a 14-10 victory over Britain in a lacrosse match that had an unusual outcome. One of the Canadian players broke his stick, and a British player—displaying true sportsmanship—offered to come off the field until a replacement was found. “The score was tied 9-9, until Canada scored five unanswered goals on way to a 14-10 victory and the gold medal.” Britain won silver; they and Canada were the only two teams competing.

We learned about Andreas Hestler, who had qualified in 1996 for the debut of mountain biking in the Olympics. On the day of his competition, it was blistering hot. “At the starting line,” Tom told us, “Hestler fidgeted. He jumped up and down on his bike. He thought it was nerves. Midway through the race he realized it was something else. He needed to pee. Finding a tree was no problem, considering he was surrounded by piney woods. The trouble was that 30 television cameras and 35,000 fans lined the course. He found a bush for his business. When he returned to his bike, some spectators applauded. Others laughed. Some newspapers called it the Pause that Refreshes. A Dutch florist won the race.” Later, Hestler said, "I guess I overhydrated."

Duncan Gillis, who at 21 was a Vancouver police officer, didn’t win the 1912 Olympics hammer throw, but he later became a wrestler and was Canada’s amateur heavyweight champion in 1913. He turned pro, but lost the world title and a $25,000 purse to an American in a bout in Vancouver in 1920.

This was when wrestling was real.

  Percy Williams
  Percy Williams wins Olympic glory

One of the most famous of British Columbia’s Olympic athletes was Percy Williams. At 16 he was stricken with rheumatic fever. “He had barely recovered,” Hawthorn said, “when, two years later, he met coach Bob Granger, a 30-year-old sports fanatic. In Granger's eyes, the youth was a ‘child of nature’ whose galloping stride was ‘as void and without form as the cosmos was at the beginning.’ Granger spotted something in the lad that he thought was worthy of his attention. Percy, the son of a streetcar conductor who had left the family when Percy was but a boy, found a surrogate father. He did not have enough money to travel to Hamilton for the Canadian Olympic trials. Bob Brown financed his way. He won.

“At Amsterdam, the Canadians roomed at the Hotel Holland, a third-rate establishment set in the midst of the red-light district. Williams practiced his start by running into a mattress set up against a wall. Pre-race favourite Frank Wykoff, like the rest of the USA team, luxuriated aboard the SS Roosevelt, which was docked in the harbour. Wykoff had coaches and trainers, as well as a chef to cater to his special diet. Percy Williams had Granger, who had paid his way to Europe by working on a freighter on his way across.

“On the day of the 100-metre race, Peerless Percy rested on the floor of the locker room at the stadium. He was covered by a pile of coats, his puny body slathered in cocoa butter. Granger wanted to keep his muscles warm . . .

“Williams drew Lane 4. Beside him stood Jack London of Britain, who stood 6-foot-2. At 5-foot-6, Percy looked like an attendant who would hold London's pants as he ran. At the starter's gun, Williams took off. 10.8 seconds later he was Olympic champion.

“A cameraman captured him breasting the tape, the maple leaf of his singlet thrust across the finish line. That picture captured the imagination of a New Brunswick boy named George Stanley, who had it in mind when asked to design a new flag for Canada 36 years later. Williams arrived at his flea-bag hotel to discover a large, happy and boisterous mob outside. He asked someone what was going on. The fellow told him they were calling for the champion Percy Williams to come join them. Not one recognized him in their midst.

“That night he wrote in his diary: ‘Well, well, well. So I'm supposed to be the world's 100m champion. (Crushed apples.) No more fun in running now.’ Two days later, he coolly won the 200-metre race.

“Percy’s arrival in Vancouver sparked the largest street celebration since the Armistice. He rode in a touring car with the premier as torn scraps of paper rained from offices. He made a speech in Stanley Park. It consisted of a 51-word thank you. And with that he returned to his mother's home.

“He was shy, reserved. A man who never seemed more alive than when hearing the report of a starter's pistol used a gun to take his own life, 12 years to the day after his coach died.”

The first female Olympians from BC were Mary Frizzell Thomasson and Lillian Palmer. In 1932 Thomasson competed in the 100-metre dash, lost to Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz) of Poland. Here’s a bizarre note: during a robbery attempt in Cleveland, Ohio in 1980 Walsh, a bystander, was shot and killed. The coroner’s office autopsy report revealed that she had male sex organs . . . sort of. The word “ambiguous” was used. Some thought was given to erasing her records, but no action was taken.

Thomasson and Palmer were part of Canada’s team in the 4x100 metre relay race. The Americans took the gold at 46.9 seconds, the Canadians the silver in 47 seconds flat. One tenth of a second.

The 1956 coxless four brought us glory. They were just spares for the eights team, and only one had ever rowed. They were so nervous they flubbed their first stroke, and quickly trailed the American and Italian teams. They caught up at midway with a stroke described as "beautifully feathery," and finished five lengths ahead of the Americans for gold.

Our 1964 hockey team, coached by Father David Bauer, moved into a house on the UBC campus when they trained. Their coats hung from nails in the walls in what had been a PNE prize home. They finished tied for second with three other teams. They thought they had won silver; they were told they had won bronze They showed up in their blazers for the award ceremony only to discover they had been ruled to have finished in fourth place. One of the team, Roger Bourbonnais, now a lawyer in Vancouver, stuck with the program and shared in the bronze medal at Grenoble in 1968.

Nancy Greene  
Nancy Greene  

Probably Canada’s most famous Olympian, Nancy Greene of Rossland—named Canada’s Female Athlete of the 20th Century—thrilled us in 1968 with a decisive win in the Giant Slalom. She wasn’t unknown: Her total of 13 World Cup victories is still a Canadian record.

We learned from Tom that Nancy and her coaches got to the giant slalom slope 45 minutes early and went to the cafeteria. Over tea and rolls they got into a lively discussion over ski politics. Then the group realized the race had started! They rushed over to the hut and got there just as the fifth skier went. Nancy was number nine. It turns out the coaches had deliberately distracted her to calm any nerves she might have had.

Her run was flawless, but at the end the event clock malfunctioned. ‘I’ve just skied the race of my life,’ Nancy thought, ‘and they missed my time.’ But it was fixed and she discovered she had won the gold by more than 2.5 seconds, a massive lead in that event. Some 100,000 people greeted her in Vancouver on her return. Today, of course, she’s Nancy Greene Raine.

  Silken Laumann
  Silken Laumann

Other famous names dotted Tom’s talk: world champion skater Karen Magnussen, Kerrin Lee-Gartner and the astonishingly gutsy Silken Laumann. Ten weeks before the Barcelona Olympics, in which she was favored, Laumann suffered a severe training accident: a German boat sliced into her leg, severing her calf muscle to the bone; after administering first aid, both German rowers fainted. Laumann won bronze in single sculls, an incredible comeback, after which she needed a year's recuperation.

Carol Huynh  
Carol Huynh  

Then there was Kathleen Heddle, Chuck Chapman, Alison Sydor, boxer Len Walters and his boxing son Dale, both Olympians, Simon Whitfield and Carol Huynh, the wrestler who won Canada’s first medal at the recent Beijing Olympics.

George Hungerford, Harry Jerome . . . the list goes on.

Tom ended on an encouraging note: it seems the staff at the Legislative library heard about his upcoming talk, and they wondered who from this province had won Olympic medals. Who won medals at the Winter Games? “I'm happy to report,” he said, “that they are now at work on compiling a definitive list of medal-winning Olympians from British Columbia . . . thanks to the interest of the Vancouver Historical Society.”

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