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The Role I Played

The Role I Played

Canada's Greatest Olympic Hockey Team
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It’s still February and a call comes into our rented house in Redwood City from Danièle Sauvageau, now Team Canada’s head coach. I think I like her. She’s a former RCMP officer and Montreal cop with a tough exterior, but also seems to engage her players.

“How’s hockey in California?” she asks in her thick French accent.

“We’re in the middle of the pack, probably outside a berth to the Nationals, but for our final weekend we’ll play against the University of California at Berkeley for what’s known as the Big Skate.”

“The big skate? You win a skate?” she asks as if perhaps what I had said was lost in translation.

“Well, kind of. Berkeley is our biggest rival, and in football they play ‘The Big Game,’ so in hockey we play ‘The Big Skate.’” I opt not to explain further. Neither Berkeley nor Stanford are very strong this year; however, my brother, Luke, after being accepted into their optometry school, decided to play for our cross-bay rivals. The Big Skate is for bragging rights, but I don’t explain all this to Danièle — it’s a family thing she’s bound not to understand.

“Well, I guess, good luck in . . . ‘The Big Skate,’” she says with a confused tone.

There’s a pause.

“I am calling to congratulate you on making the World Championship team.”

I realize that this call is not just a catch-up session, but in fact the call I’ve been waiting for since I first watched Susie Yuen and the entire Team Canada in pink jerseys play on television at the 1990 World Championships.

“Welcome to Team Canada.”

Goosebumps run up my spine as a smile floods my face.

“Thank you . . . thank you so much.”

I hang up the phone and scream for Diana, who is in the other room. Corey and Susan come running too.

“Guys, I made it! I made Team Canada.” They rush in for a giant hug, making me squirm while they laugh and congratulate me. None of my roommates have any sort of hockey background, but they’ve watched me play and have been my biggest fans. Diana makes us all a celebratory dinner of empanadas and other Mexican treats, and my Stanford friends help me celebrate a Canadian childhood dream come true.


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The Greatest Athlete (You've Never Heard Of)

The Greatest Athlete (You've Never Heard Of)

Canada's First Olympic Gold Medallist
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Chapter 1: The Biggest Race of His Life

“It is not the size nor build nor physique nor qualities of inherited ancestry that determines a track and field champion. The boy of slender build and of apparent constitutional weakness may turn out to be another George Orton, invincible in the distance runs.” — Donald W. Hendrickson, 1909

Imagine you are three years old. You love to run and jump and play with your friends. But the doctor has just told your parents that you may never be able to walk or use your right arm again because of a terrible accident. You lie in bed, paralyzed, while your friends play outside. You dream of someday running again. Fast. Faster than all your friends. Faster than everyone in the world.

On a brutally hot July afternoon in Paris, a slender, curly-haired man with a shrunken arm is running in the Olympic 2,500-metre steeplechase. He had predicted in the newspaper that he would win the gold medal in this event, but he is in fourth place, and victory seems unlikely. The year is 1900. George Washington Orton is the most decorated distance runner in the world, having won over 120 championships in the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. At age 20, he had earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto. When he was 23, he became one of the youngest to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He looks more like a scholar than a world-class athlete. He is five feet six inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. He squints a lot, like he needs eyeglasses.

A week earlier, the English track and field championships had been held at Stamford Bridge, home of the London Athletic Club. In 1898, Orton won the two-mile steeplechase there, demolishing the field by 80 yards and becoming the first North American to win the coveted title. It took 24 years before an athlete from outside Great Britain won the steeplechase again.

By 1900, Orton was already a racing legend in Great Britain, and large crowds had come to see him and the other North American track and field stars in advance of the Paris Olympics.

But in the windy and damp conditions of Stamford Bridge, it was English champion Sidney Robinson who won the steeplechase that year, with Orton finishing a distant fourth. It was a painful defeat for Orton, who was in rough shape after a gut-wrenching 10-day ocean voyage from America.

He vowed to get better and defeat Robinson and the others at the upcoming Olympics.

Orton had been hired as a special correspondent by the Philadelphia Inquirer under the byline “George Orton — the famous Pennsylvania athlete.” One of his assignments was to provide an insider’s look at the Olympic track and field events and predict the winners of each discipline. He mostly chose North American athletes to win, believing them to be superior to the Europeans. And when it came time to preview the 2,500-metre steeplechase, Orton didn’t beat around the bush. “Orton has more speed than the others,” he wrote, “and, as he is a good jumper, he should win, if in condition.” It was simple and succinct. He predicted victory, but in the third person, as if he were talking about someone else.

But Orton is not in condition on this day. Not even close. He hasn’t been right since leaving America nearly four weeks earlier. Forty-five minutes earlier, he had finished a close third in the 400-metre hurdles, becoming the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal, although he may not have been aware of the significance of that feat at that moment. While his opponents in the steeplechase were resting up for their big event, Orton was hurdling against the world’s best.

The Olympic track and field events that year were contested on the grounds of the Racing Club of France, in the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park located in western Paris that is two and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park. It may have been perfect for picnics, but it was a terrible choice as the venue for the Olympic Games.

As Orton pointed out, “The grounds are very picturesque, but not as well adapted for athletes as they might be.” He was being very kind. The biggest problem was the track itself. There wasn’t one. The French had refused to install a cinder track in their municipal park. There was no way they were going to tear up their beautiful grass for foot racing. Instead, they laid out an irregular-sized 500-metre oval (standard size is 400 metres) on uneven grass. Orton pointed out that the track “leads around beneath the trees” and its condition was so poor that “no less than four sprinters broke down.” The steeplechase course was especially brutal. Jumps consisted of authentic stone walls that couldn’t be moved, thick hedges that were difficult to vault, and imposing water hazards. Even if one could successfully negotiate the water jump, a soaker would await you on the other side. The hurdles for the steeplechase were one metre high and fashioned from 30-foot-long telephone poles that had been stripped. None of the obstacles could be knocked down, unlike those in the hurdles events, which would fall fairly easily upon contact.

Conditions for the field events were hardly better. The last few yards of the running broad jump approach featured a six-inch incline. There were reports of some jumpers having to dig their own pits. As well, the venue was not spectator friendly. The Bois de Boulogne was at least a mile from any tramway and far from the nearest railroad station. “This inaccessibility affected the attendance greatly, which was disappointing considering the caliber of the runners and the importance of the events,” wrote Orton.

Gaining a good view of the track was another issue. Most spectators had their sightlines obstructed by a large grove of trees that made up the far end of the race course. Those who were fortunate enough to have the latest invention — binoculars — had the best view of the action. Orton may have predicted victory in the newspaper, but he confessed two weeks later that he was anything but confident the day of the Olympic 2,500-metre steeplechase.

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Against All Odds

Against All Odds

The Untold Story of Canada's Unlikely Hockey Heroes
also available: Paperback eBook
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Tessa and Scott

Tessa and Scott

Our Journey from Childhood Dream to Gold
also available: Hardcover eBook Paperback
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The 4 Year Olympian

The 4 Year Olympian

From First Stroke to Olympic Medallist
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Growing up.

My little sister, Julia, cried whenever I swore. My older sister, Jenny, dug her nails into my forearms when I bothered her one too many times. I’d look at the purple indents under the smooth skin where the top layer had been raked away and enjoy the burning sensation. The marks and the pain were like a badge of honour.

Sibling skirmishes made up our childhood most days, and perhaps three times in my life led to an ear slap from our German mother, who just couldn’t take any more. She’d yell “Ohrfeige!” as she jerked her shoulders up and whipped that straightened arm around to connect her palm with the side of my head. It was the same motion as a tennis forehand blasted down the line, and each one landed with brilliant accuracy. Unless severely provoked, my mom, a French immersion teacher, was and always has been a loving mother of three: sweet, kind, and patient. But there was a switch inside her that my troublesome nature always had weight on, like a finger applying slow pressure until I finally flipped off the lights inside my mom’s brain.

I inherited the same volatility as my mom, but with a much shorter fuse. Playing board games with me was like walking through a minefield. If I won, everyone would survive. If I was losing, I might explode before the game even ended.

The game Memory was a family favourite. My mom would sit across from me, glancing over wearily while Julia gleefully stacked pair upon pair as if she’d lived every scene on the cards. The German shepherd in the tall grass may as well have been her first pet; the card with a straight country road lined with poplar trees — as knowable as our own cedar-lined driveway; one of the three pairs of slightly different bouquets of flowers — like she’d just cut and arranged them herself.

Mom knew I was churning inside. Julia’s eyes shone brightly above her round cheeks, effortlessly mapping out pairs in anticipation of her next turn. Her memory was too good for me, and it killed me.

Jenny’s self-control was equally infuriating. She’d hold her head high and exhibit patience and excessive good sportsmanship until I could not stop myself from flicking her in the ear. Then her upper lip would recede, bearing vampire-like eye teeth, and she’d crush her eyebrows down and together so hard I thought they’d fuse. The sequence was as predictable as a cobra flaring its hood. When she finally struck back, I was ready.

My mom would intervene, sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stress made her revert to the German accent that revealed her upbringing by post–World War II parents in East Germany. As the melee grew, my dad would put down his Globe and Mail newspaper or whatever book on philosophy he was reading at the time — Being and Time by Heidegger, perhaps — and, jarringly pulled back into the reality of a wife and three kids, bark, “What’s going on in there?”

Usually a threat of grounding followed, or, if I was being completely unreasonable, the sound of my dad taking off his leather belt, securing it in a loop, and yanking it in and out to make a threatening crack that my sisters and I could hear no matter which nook or cranny of our old house we may have been hiding in. This demonstration was intended to foreshadow the sound of the belt whipping my bare ass in the spanking that came next. When he finally caught me in his vice grip, I’d buck so hard that my dad could barely keep me belly-down over his knees to deliver a clean strike.

My dad romanticized the great thinkers of the past, letting his lips drop open into a small o as he looked through you to a space just behind your head and searched for the perfect quote from antiquity to enlighten you. At dinner, he would sit back in his throne, a wooden chair with decoratively lathed legs and back supports, and ponder aloud to three kids who couldn’t understand and a wife who had come to know not to engage in an argument that would become accusatory and end unresolved anyway. I tried to wrap my young mind around my dad’s philosophical dinnertime questions: What is truth? What is a good life? What is the soul?

As much as I tried to understand his inner life, my dad was largely a mystery to me growing up. He didn’t talk about his past. He had finished a master’s degree in political science at the University of Toronto and had ambitions to pursue a PhD, but then three kids and the necessity to provide for his family stymied his academic pursuits. The PhD was a goal that would have stretched him even if he’d had all the time and resources in the world. It was his life challenge, the pursuit that got away. Regret.

When my dad was in grade four, he struggled with reading and writing. On the last day of school that year, he’d walked home and announced to my grandparents that he would be repeating grade four of his own accord. It was one of the few stories from his youth he proudly shared with us. Another came cackling out of my uncle Tim, one of my dad’s five brothers, while we were sitting on the screened veranda of the Brown family cottage in Muskoka. I was twelve. He said that when my dad was in his late teens he had been watching his older brother David trying to windsurf with shiny new gear: new wetsuit, new board, and new sail. After several attempts, David gave up, saying the conditions weren’t right; there was too much wind (though any windsurfer knows there’s no such thing). My dad had been watching David while plastering the boathouse cedar siding with black stain, and my uncle Tim had been re-roofing the red shingles above. When David neared the dock, my dad set down the stain and wiped his hands on his dirty overalls. Then he jumped into the water, mounted the windsurfer, and went cutting across the lake with his rear end skimming the water like a pro. My uncle Tim broke up in laughter recalling the sight of my dad upstaging my uncle David in tar-stained overalls.

This story has been etched into my brain ever since. For better or worse, I think it put it into my head that there is no prerequisite for attempting something in earnest and being successful.

My dad would never be caught telling a flattering story about himself. Self-accolades were vulgar. I had to piece together an understanding of his youth from my mom, uncles and grandparents.

Over the years, I learned that he’d ridden a bull, hitchhiked across Canada, ridden his bike from Ancaster to Muskoka more than once, and worked in a railyard where he saw a fellow brakeman get crushed between two cars. I concluded that my dad was an interesting man with many talents who’d mostly packed them away and retreated into his own head to consider the Big Questions. This created an urge in me to compete for his attention with all those philosophical concepts taking up room in his head. He’d respond tepidly to my constant attention-seeking antics. Most good news and achievement was greeted with a gently toned “Mmm hmm” or a light “Is that right?” Perhaps because of his own disappointments in life, perhaps because of a recent reading of Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity, he seemed to mute genuine enthusiasm as naturally as wetting his lips.

There is so much I respect about my dad — unfailing honesty and integrity being foremost — but during my teenage years, often catching myself morphing into him, I became determined to avoid the same sense of dissatisfaction. He’d had kids too soon, and three of them were too many.

“Dad, why did you have us?” I once asked, to which he blankly stared back at me, blinking, unable to come up with an answer. He should have finished his PhD and become a university professor. Then he would be happy, I thought. Instead, he met my beautiful mom, fell in love, and couldn’t recover in time to resume focus on his academic ambitions. My sisters and I came shortly after — three deep spikes in the coffin holding his ambition — and he settled for teaching history to adults who hadn’t completed high school.

Marriage is a black hole. I’ll never get married, I told myself. Kids are baggage. I would do something different, whatever that meant, with my life.

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