As the country recovers from its 150th celebration hangover, it is only natural for someone like me, to think about some of the best Canadian athletes during that 150 year period. Picking which athlete is better than another across different sports is usually a difficult, if not a daunting task. Trying to do so over generations of athletes is quite impossible and therefore truly a fool’s errand. Thankfully, a fool is what you have here so let’s take the challenge head on in the Fringe Friday – O’ Canada edition.
There really are so many great Canadian athletes to choose from. You have legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash who need no introduction; others like Percy Williams (won gold in the 100m and 200m races in the 1928 Olympics) require a reminder as a great deal of time has passed. There are pioneers like Hayley Wickenheiser, Christine Sinclair or those whose stories have not yet been fully written such as Andre de Grasse and Penny Oleksiak. All in all though, one thing stands out about Canadians when we evaluate our athletes. Yes, the results they get are certainly important, but just as valued, just as important, is their personality. Our greatest athletes, are people we can be proud of. We love confident athletes, but detest arrogance. We are inspired by greatness but we fall in love with their humility.
There was many different criteria to choose from whether it was athletically based as a best time or a best score or a characteristic such as courage, will and the ability to never quit. The one thing that they all had in common though, was the ability to overcome enormous obstacles in the environment in which they performed. One could say that’s an unfair assessment as athletes are not in control of their environment and therefore, one shouldn’t be penalized for it. That is a fair argument, but nonetheless, it is overcoming those obstacles that helps create the story and it is the story that generates the greatest emotion. Here are my top three Canadian athletes & their stories.
Donovan Bailey – the Redeemer
Winning the Olympic gold medal in the 100m race back in Atlanta in 1996 was one of the most memorable Canadian moments in history even though a couple of days later, anchoring the 4x100m team to gold was an even greater feat. No one doubts that Bailey was at the time one of, if not the greatest athlete as that just comes with the territory of being the fastest man on the planet. But his place in the top echelon of Canadian greatness is for having erased the single greatest setback in Canadian sports history, Ben Johnson.
It was only 8 years earlier that Ben Johnson won and then lost the 100m race after having been caught using steroids. A country was devastated. Sure we found out decades later that everyone in that race (but one) was doping and it may seem unfair that only Johnson and Canada were the ones made to suffer for it. But we didn’t know any of that then. We just thought the world looked at Canada as cheaters and at times it became difficult to cheer. Donovan Bailey’s victory that night turned the page for all of us. Well, maybe not that night, but the next night when no failed tests showed up and we all finally were allowed to exhale. That win was not for Canadian athletes, but for Canadian fans. It was for us to feel great again about cheering for our country. Thank you Donovan Bailey for helping Canada get our swag back.
Joannie Rochette – The Courageous
To be honest, I don’t really follow figure skating. It has nothing to do with the sport itself as I believe these are some of the most incredible, fearless athletes out there. I don’t follow figure skating because I find it absolutely gutting to watch someone fall in their routine. Call me a wimp, but it is just too agonizing for me to watch while every second I am praying they don’t fall. These athletes have put 100x more work into that routine than most people put into any project and to have it all taken away on one mistaken skate edge, is heartbreaking. That is why Joannie Rochette is on my list.
It wasn’t that she won a bronze medal that ranks this as one of the highlights of Canadian sports, it was because of what she overcame off the ice. In a single unsuspecting moment, her life turned upside down and changed forever. While practicing for the short program at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Rochette found out that her mom died of a heart attack shortly after arriving at the games. Her mom, who was her greatest fan and her best friend was now no longer there. We all watched her skate that night, even little ol’ me. You see, I wasn’t afraid anymore. It didn’t matter if she fell, it didn’t matter if she failed. We all knew who she was skating for that night and we all inspired by her tremendous courage to even try an Olympic routine less than 48 hours after that sudden tragedy. The superhuman strength and will she displayed to keep her emotions in check that entire routine was incredible. We know it took everything she had because the second she finished she broke down in exhaustion and tears and the rest of the country followed suit. Thank you Joannie Rochette for your strength in sharing your grieving with us.
George Chuvalo – The Survivor
Take any Shakespearian tragedy, mix it with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and there you have the story of George Chuvalo. In 93 (some say 97) professional fights he had a record of 72 wins, 19 losses and 2 draws. Going by stats, that may make you a “good” boxer at best, but we look beyond the numbers here and there is a good reason that he is my favourite Canadian athlete of all time.
He didn’t represent Canada, he represented Canadians. He didn’t have the salaries that the best athletes had in those days, he was a rugged, down-to-earth, simple athlete that the majority of people could relate too. Only Canadians would skip over his record and be prouder of the fact that in those 93 professional fights, Chuvalo was never knocked out. Not once did the Canadian Champion ever “kiss the canvass” and to truly appreciate that feat, you have to understand that it was done in the greatest era of boxing history. He fought George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and of course, the greatest athlete in the entire 20th century, Chuvalo fought Muhammad Ali… twice. It was his “I don’t care what you throw at me, I’m never going to stop attitude” that endeared many fans to him. Who knew, he would need even more of that attitude outside of the ring, just to survive.
As I have said before, the athletes I chose have more to do with the environment around them then their specific performance. Never is that more apparent than with George Chuvalo. No one, no matter how much you hate them, should ever have to go through what he did. Losing 2 sons to overdoses, another to suicide, and his wife, their mother also committing suicide as it was too much for her to handle.
It has been difficult, but Chuvalo has carried on. He never let anybody knock him down in the ring and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let life knock him down either. He might be an ordinary man, but he is a great inspiration to all of us who have difficult battles to fight. It is that never give in attitude that I see in the people that meet him like my cousin who has been in the hospital recently (keep fighting champ!) He and his family have been battling day in and day out and despite a couple of setbacks, things are beginning to look a little better. What Chuvalo represents to me is not about winning a championship, it is about being strong enough to have hope. Many will not consider him to be the greatest Canadian athlete and that’s fine, so let me simplify it by just saying… he is the greatest Canadian.
Did I miss a special Canadian athlete or moment or story that you thought of while celebrating 150 years of this great country? Post it in the comment section, I always love a good story.
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