Mentors. We all have them.
As we go about now trying to find all the members of our old rowing crews I was reminded about some of the mentors I have had in my life. My father was undoubtedly the most important for me but especially in a sporting sense another father who lived on our street was more important.
My Dad came from Scotland. As such he, like most scots grew up without the finer things in life. He never learned to skate, threw things relatively well but certainly not like a star quarterback or pitcher. Couldn’t hit a baseball to save himself and because of these limitations never played catch with me or helped in teaching me how to play all the important games for a young Canadian boy.
Mr Junke on the other hand was a superb athlete. He was a phys-ed teacher at the Collegiate when I first became aware of his job and went on to become a principal in one of our local high schools. His son Jim was one of my best friends growing up and they had all sorts of sports equipment. Footballs, baseballs, hockey sticks, skis, golf clubs. Even more important he loved the games and spent hours with all the kids on the block. Showing us how to play the games and allowing us the use of his lawns for our games. I realize now how much this must have cost him because he was also a high quality gardener.
I remember growing up into my teens thinking that it was too bad my father was such a poor athlete and how much nicer it would have been to have a dad like Mr Junke who knew all the sports and liked to play them. It never occurred to me that my dad might have been just a bit tired after a day of work as a plumber.
At any rate. my love for sports was aided immeasurably by Mr Junke and in turn my ever completing a university degree was a direct result of my wishing to pursue rowing once I got into it.
Before rowing I had always been a good enough athlete to get on the school teams but seldom as a first string player. My career was primarily a a bench warmer. I did make the cross country team and the long distance track squad as a starter as I always had good endurance. At the other major sports in Canada however I was just barely above average and certainly no star. That I made the teams at all was mostly because of the teaching and the support of Mr Junke as my dad had little interest in athletics himself and used my interest as a way to get me to pay attention in school. The rules were simple and clear. If I wanted to play I had to keep passing grades and anything less than that meant being taken out of the teams till I brought the grades back up. It was frustrating to have a father that lacked any real skill in or appreciation of the ports of our child hood.
On to the early 70’s and having found in rowing a sport that fit my physical talents to a much better level than the ball games of youth I finally became the champion I always dreamed of being. It turned out actually that at the university championships that year Mr Junke was there to cheer on his son who was rowing for Western at the time and who was actually in the varsity boat our lightweights had beaten for their second title of the day. He also took the time to tell me he was disappointed in our drinking on the water after our win. He felt it was poor sportsmanship to show off like that in front of our competition.
Earlier that same year I had won a race at the Canadian Henley regatta which was an unofficial canadian, and even north american championship. The henley was certainly the biggest and most important regatta of the year back then. I was not aware of the fact but in one of their letters back “home”, (Scotland), my parents had mentioned this to my Uncle Bert. I gt a letter from him a few weeks after the event congratulating me and including the comment that it was good to see another champion in the family.
That puzzled me and I asked my dad what he meant by, another champion, as far as I knew I was the first champion in the family. I knew from talk that Bert had been a wrestler and that my aunt Irene had been a swimmer but not much else. I knew that dad too could swim exceptionally well but he never raced at the pool and didn’t swim laps or train for anything like a real athlete would have.
Dad then informed me that what his brother meant by, another was that Bert himself, far from being a fair wrestler had been a multi national champion. He had also mad the British Olympic team for the Los Angeles games but had not gone as in a time when amateur athletics was really about amateurs, he didn’t have enough money to go and his job would not allow him the time off as it would have taken about a month. The team sailed for america rather than flying and so Bert had declined the offer as he had a new wife to support at the time. Further Dad mentioned that his sister Irene had also been a national champion swimmer.
Suitably impressed with this new found family glory I recall mentioning it in one of my own rare letters to uncle Bert. I had the cheek to belatedly congratulate him and Irene on their past achievements and commented about how odd it was that neither of their children had gone on to sports glory while I unlike my dad had managed to bring fame and fortune back to the next generation.
In an even rarer letter back to me personally as opposed to one to the whole family which was the norm for us Bert pointed out that far from being an athletic dud my dad had also been a top contender as a junior athlete in wrestling, swimming and cycling in Scotland. He had unfortunately, like a lot of other kids burnt out and had quit competitive swimming just as he was getting to national level competition. He had gone on to win a gold medal in cycling time trialling in britain, completing a 100 mile course in under 5 hours which was the gold standard at the time.
When I asked dad about all this his response was typical. He never bragged about it because he had done it so long ago he felt it wasn’t particularly important. Turns out grand dad had also been a champion wrestler in his day and it was he who had trained dad and Irene for their swimming competition.
Who knew. Dad wasn’t actually an athletic dud just one who grew up with different sports than we watched on the TV every week and played every day. I had known by then that he was a mentor for me in how to carry myself in life in total, I just didn’t know till then that he had also preceded me in a life of athletic pursuit. He just never gave sports the emphasis so many in north america did, always insisting that education and general character were far more important than mere games.