Pat Garret, Ed Makkreel, John Glennie, David Hendry, John Orth, Lou Pokol, Ed Cooling, Rick Polatynski, John Gray. Coach Bob Mackie.
What did we have in common? Not very much. The important thing was none of us had ever rowed competitively before that year. It was September 1970 and we were trying out for and eventually became the Brock University Freshman Eight. We had arrived on campus from all over Ontario. Most however were local boys. St Catharines, Welland and Brantford natives made up 5 of the nine spots in the crew and the coach was another St Catharines son. At the time the university was more like a large High school than a powerhouse in Academic Sports. In Fact there were several schools in the province larger than the approximately 1500 students that attended Brock.
This relative smallness however had an unforeseen consequence. In a school this size almost all the “jocks” knew each other no matter what team you played on. The fact was however that in most sports associated with university Brock was at a serious disadvantage. With such a small body of students to call on it was extremely difficult to field competitive teams against huge schools like Western and U. of T. It was common for the hockey team to be defeated by scores that soared into the teens and even on occasion into the twenties. There were no gyms on campus so the basketball team had to go to Merritton High school for their games but even more difficult for all their practice time as well.
Ah but rowing. In St Catharines rowing is in the blood and bones of the city. The local club was a powerhouse unchallenged in excellence and size throughout Canadian rowing. My own High school like most in the city had a strong rowing programme but when I found out the races were always on Saturdays I had never joined up with the crew since I was earning my fortune at the time working in a local shoe store. Thurs and Friday evenings from 5 till 9 and all day Saturday for the princely sum of $.75 an hour.
On that first day of tryouts, a chilly September morning at 6 am. The time we trained for my entire rowing career at Brock, the coach organized us into groups of six and then assigned two experienced oarsmen to go in each boat so someone could maneuver the boat away from obstacles and eventually back to the dock. The senior crew member hated this job because you cannot row well in a boat full of novices since the tyros are rocking the boat around and out of time. The seniors tried as much as they could to make themselves scarce but still ended up getting called on to help with the first couple of workouts to introduce the newbies to the bare essentials of the sport.
One thing that became apparent over the first week was that a great many of the men down there for rowing were easily inside the lightweight limit of a maximum 150 pounds. I however was 180. I asked the coach on about the fourth day who I would be able to row with and was informed that in Freshman rowing there was no weight limit so I didn’t have to worry about being one of the only true Heavyweights in the crew. The best 8 men plus a coxie formed the team and raced against novice oarsmen form all the other universities during the season.
One other thing also became apparent to even the dimmest brains amongst us. There were women out here rowing. At that time this was almost sacrilege in the sporting world. University rowing as it existed then in the early seventies was one of the few places where women were allowed to compete on a practically even footing with men. Indeed the St Catharines rowing club which had had women rowing just after WW2 had dropped them and many of the senior crew members were aghast at having to share equipment and space with the girls. Like a lot of jocks of the time they felt that women couldn’t or wouldn’t be serious athletes but just come out for some giggles and to land a boyfriend. Looking back on it I wonder at the size of the egos involved that thought the girls more interested in us than in sports and exercise.
Back to the task at hand however we had a season that ran only from September to the end of October. Workouts were held once a day from 6am till 8am. It was your own problem to get your ass down to the shell house and then back up to the school at the other side of the city in time for your first class. Our Coach had a lot of guys relatively speaking to choose from and we actually boated two complete novice crews that year. This more than anything else may be what helped us turn a major corner in the competitive racing to follow. We had only two weeks of training before our first race. The racing then continued every Saturday till the finals on the last Saturday of October.
With 16 men trying to get into the 8 seats in the first boat there was never any way to let up and coast in practice. If the coach thought someone from the B boat was showing more talent or conditioning than someone in the A boat he switched men to get the fastest crew possible. The results were for Brock rather remarkable. We won.
We won the first race I ever entered at Toronto Argonaut Rowing club and sponsored by the huge University of Toronto. Racing inside the break wall along side Lakeshore rd. we beat out the others. MacMaster, Western, York, Trent, The next week we placed second at our own invitational back in St Catharines. From then on we went on to win every race in the year and in fact got good enough to beat our own Junior varsity crew both in practice and in the final two regattas of the season. At the time in Brock this made us legendary. We were just the 4th Brock team to win an Ontario championship. None of the teams had ever won Canadian at that point.
Something else happened with that crew though. Brock had won rowing championships before but that year we really integrated the crew with male and female participation. It’s difficult to believe but at the end of the second week of rowing a couple of the women on the crew made a point to come over to us novice men at the end of practice and invite us to a party they were holding in an apartment 3 of them shared. That itself wasn’t so strange, what was strange was that just a few moments after they had invited us some of the senior men came over and asked if that was what had happened. They then went on t explain that they didn’t party with the “girls” cause they didn’t want to encourage them to row and hang around messing up the perfectly good sport they loved. We were informed that the “girls” had been trying to get the “men to go to a party like that every year for the last several years but that they had rented a couple of rooms out at Prudhomme’s Landing and that we were welcome to come join them and serious oarsmen from the other Universities for a real “man’s party of drinking and smoking cigars and other fun stuff. As someone who was just recently starting to delve into the logic needed to study philosophy. I reasoned that with the guys I, we would be welcomed into the fraternity of solid male bonded misogynistic athletics. Or on the other hand I could go to a party full of women who were being shunned by the guys they trained with every day. Our modest little crew. The one that actually averaged light enough to be in the lightweight division even though we were beating much larger crews from the other schools talked it over and showed up at the women’s party. The next week after the regatta the senior guys showed up to a women’s party as well.
At the end of the season knowing we weren’t getting up to go rowing at 6am the next day we had a blowout party that over the next few years became legendary around the campus.
The camaraderie started that year and the reputation established of a group that both played and partied hard took Brock to more rowing success so much so, that in 1972 we won the overall points title for the university. The friends I met down at the rowing course have remained the best friends I have had through my entire adult life. Last week 3 of them traveled to Hamilton to visit me in the hospital there and after my nurse asked who they were?
Just guys I rowed with at university I told her. She asked when? Just forty year ago I said, just yesterday.