Our proud Summer Olympic and Paralympic history

June 2021

Around this same time last year, I was penning an article about the impact of world events on sport. The opening paragraph noted that the difficult decision had been made to postpone the 2020 Olympic Summer and Paralympic Games due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. I could never have imagined that one year later the discussion to postpone, or outright cancel, these iconic sporting events would still be in the headlines as the host country Japan, and many other countries around the world, are still in the grips of this deadly disease. If things do go ahead as planned, a scaled down and heavily regulated 2020 Summer Olympic Games will officially begin on July 23rd, 2021 with the Paralympics set to get underway on August 24th.

The last time Team Canada marched into an Olympic Stadium for the Summer Games was in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and leading the pack was Thunder Bay’s very own Curt Harnett, a four-time Olympian and Canada’s chef de mission that year. He was carrying on a tradition of our region’s representation that goes back to 1960 in Rome when weightlifter Bill Shwaluk served as our very first Summer Olympic Games participant.

That involvement continued with Don Domansky who took to the running track in 1968 in Mexico and in 1976 in Montreal. Our first Olympic wrestler was George Saunders who made the 1972 Olympic team that competed in Munich. In addition to Domansky, the 1976 Olympics in Montreal featured a number of other Thunder Bay athletes including wrestlers Steve Daniar and Brian Renken and wresting official Dan Saunders. Our young swimmers benefited from the fact that a number of top-tier swimmers and coaches traveled to Thunder Bay to train for the 1976 Games with local swimmers Tom Alexander, Joann Baker, Debbie Clarke, Bill Sawchuk, Darryl Skilling and Andy Ritchie earning a spot on the 1976 Canadian Olympic team.

The boycotted 1980 Olympics dashed the dreams of a number of our athletes but in 1984 we were back in action. In Los Angeles a young Curt Harnett claimed a silver medal in the 1000m time trial, the first individual medal from a Summer Olympic Games ever won by an athlete from northwestern Ontario. Harnett went on to compete at three more Olympic Games, claiming bronze medals in 1992 and 1996. Joining Harnett in Los Angeles was Harry Curtis who served as a Manager with the Canadian cycling team.

In 1988 in Seoul, Scott Timmerman was a member of our cycling team, and Kenora’s Michael Smith made his first of what would be three Olympic appearances, competing in the highly demanding decathlon, where he was coached by Dryden born Andy Higgins. Also at the 1988 Games was Sandra Greaves, our first Olympian in the sport of Judo, who was joined in 1992 by our first Olympic diver, Mary DePiero of Thunder Bay, and boxer Domenic ‘Hollywood’ Filane of Schreiber, who made a return trip to the Olympic ring in Atlanta in 1996. Taking to the ring at the 2004 Game in Athens was Thunder Bay born boxer Trevor Stewardson with Todd Hinds leading our Canadian women’s wrestling team as an assistant coach. In 2008 our Olympic pride was kept alive when Liam Parsons, rowed his way to a bronze medal as a member of Canada’s Lightweight Men’s 4 crew in Beijing.

Throughout the history of the Paralympic Games, northwestern Ontario has also been very well represented, starting with Magella Belanger who competed at the 1976 and 1980 Games in athletics in the 100m C winning a silver medal in Toronto and gold in Holland.

Atikokan’s Tom Hainey made his debut in the pool at the 1984 Games where he swam his way to an incredible 4 gold and a silver medal, setting world records in the process. In Seoul in 1988 he earned four more silver medals and went on to make his third Paralympic appearance in 1992 in Barcelona.

Joining Hainey in the pool in Seoul in 1988 were two Thunder Bay athletes, including Ken Bjorn who competed in six freestyle and breaststroke events, and a young Tami Saj who competed in three events, narrowly missing a medal with a 4th place finish in the 100m Backstroke. Saj returned to the pool in 1992 in Barcelona where she was joined by fellow Thunder Bay swimmer Kathryn Rutherford.

Dryden’s Terry Robinson competed in five events at the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the Wheelchair Slalom C1 division and contributing to Canada’s 4th place finish in the medal standings. His talents earned him a trip to Barcelona in
1992 and in 1996 he made his way to Atlanta serving on the coaching squad for Canada’s Boccia team. Also in Atlanta was Benny Galati who continued our strong Paralympic swimming tradition.

Thunder Bay’s Andrea Cole started the new century off right, claiming gold and silver medals in swimming at the 2000 Sydney Summer Paralympic Games and kept it going when she added bronze and silver medals in 2004 in Athens. She marked her third Paralympic appearance in Beijing in 2008 competing in multiple events and advancing to the finals in the 400m freestyle.

Multi-sport athlete Robbi Weldon competed in para-nordic skiing in 2010 and 2014 and cycled her way to a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London, making a return trip in 2016 to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also participating in London and Rio, as a member of the Canadian Women’s Goalball team was Whitney Bogart who was born in Thunder Bay and grew up in Marathon.
If the 2020 Summer Olympics do get underway in Tokyo this summer, it looks like we will have more pages to add to our Olympic sports history story. Thunder Bay athlete Adam Hopkins, who currently trains in Vancouver, has been named to the skateboarding team that will represent Canada when that sport makes its Olympic debut. Not all of Canada’s Olympic teams have been named yet, so who knows, there may be some more hometown heroes for us to cheer on this upcoming July and August.

If things go according to plan, which as the past year has shown us is not always the case, hopefully around the same time Adam takes to the skate park in Japan the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame will once again be welcoming people back through our front doors. Until that time, stay safe everyone.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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