What is Excellence in Sport?

And the very first thing I need to say is that athletes who demonstrate Excellence don’t  have to be “Number One” in their sport.  Most of the people named here do fit that label but some don’t. All of them just happen to be athletes who have made an impression on me for various reasons; some I have actually seen in person, others through television.

And during the war, the BBC broadcast ice hockey games so I knew about the Toronto Maple Leafs and announcer Foster Hewitt’s trademark: “He shoots. He scores” long before I came here in 1954. In fact, on winter Sunday afternoons in the Scout HQ using walking sticks with curved handles and a tennis ball we would emulate them, while Clive Swinney, who seemed to know all about these things, called the game standing on one of the lockers that ran along the walls. Incidentally, I play all two handed sports as a “left-hander.”

But there is really only one reason this piece is here at all: I wanted to have a place somewhere on this web-site to honour two young Canadian women whose pictures have hung in my home for many years. Originally I had included the two of them in my Adult Influences and then realized I needed to change that. And then I thought I would add some others athletes to show the kind of outstanding company they belong in.

However, some sports,  Basketball for example, I know very little about, so I haven’t mentioned any of its gifted players. Consequently, my list, which is quite small, mostly reflects my English and Canadian heritage. I begin with the former and end with the latter. And Wikipedia has been an invaluable source for most of the information that follows.

Sir Stanley Mathews, whose picture is on my Biography page, was still playing soccer at the age of fifty when he received his Knighthood. That is unheard of today. David Beckham, for example, has just retired at thirty-eight. One of the former’s nicknames was “The Magician” because of his amazing ball control.

LenHuttonAnd, after the war, at Lord’s cricket ground in London I watched Sir Leonard “Len” Hutton, a Yorkshire player, do what he did best: Open a Test Match innings for England with another partner. (Cricket needs two batsmen on the field to score the runs as they move between the wickets).

The original Test matches lasted five days and each team batted twice if necessary. And so it was that in 1938, over a period of two and a half days, he batted for a total of thirteen hours and twenty minutes during which he eclipsed Australian Sir Donald Bradman’s record of 334 runs in a single inning. Hutton scored 364 runs.

Can you imagine the concentration required to do that against a variety of bowlers who each had their own special way of delivering the ball? And the pitch, the grass, changed with time and the weather which was another factor, hence the phrase a “sticky wicket”.

English cricket was very snobbish in those days as reflected in the Annual Gentlemen v.  Players match. The latter being the only cricketers who got paid to play. And, for years there was unwritten rule that no “professional” could Captain an English team. Just wouldn’t do. But, in 1952, Hutton did just that.

 

FrankWhen I came to live in Canada in 1954, I became a Maple Leafs supporter. Three years later a young man named Frank Mahovlich, fondly known as “The Big “M”, shirt number 27, will join that team as a left-winger. In his first year he will win The Calder Memorial Trophy as the National Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year. Three years later he will score 48 goals ~ fifty was the magic number in those days which was long before Wayne Gretzky came along. That club record stood for twenty years. For the next three years he will be part of Toronto’s Stanley Cup winning teams.

And then ~ there seems to have been a problem with the coach ~ he was suddenly traded to Detroit, at which time I ceased to be a Toronto supporter! Two years later ~ the new General Manager felt threatened by his presence ~ he was again traded. This time to Toronto’s arch rivals, the Montréal Canadiens where he will be named an Assistant Captain and win two more Stanley Cups.

He retired in 1979, was inducted into Hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1981 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame nine years later. Coincidentally, or was it a real coincidence? The Hockey News listed him as number twenty-seven on their list of the 100 greatest ice-hockey players.  In 1994 Mahovlich was awarded The Order of Canada and, in 1998, appointed to the Senate of Canada from which he has just retired at the compulsory age of seventy-five.

 

MartinaNavratilovaMartina Navratilova was born in Czechoslovakia, and started hitting a tennis ball against a wall at age four. By age seven she was playing regularly with her step father Miraslov ~ whose surname she adapted by adding “ova” to the end ~ and at just fifteen won the Czech National Championship.

But when I chose her I didn’t know that she is a “leftie” too; or that she is also a “gay girl,” which has nothing to do with anything, except to say that she has apparently always felt very comfortable about letting that be known. And that is a blessing.

The next year she went to the USA to compete and turned pro in 1978. In that year she also asked the US government for political asylum which caused the communist Czech government to strip her of her citizenship which was not restored to her until 2008. So, in 1981, she became an American citizen which she still is.

In 1978, at the age of twenty-one she beat Chris Evert to win her first Wimbledon title. She will play in ten more finals, losing only three. From 1982-87 she will win there every year, making her the only player, male or female, to ever do that. In all, she won 18 Grand Slam singles matches which she stopped playing in 1994 at the age of thirty-eight.

In Doubles she was even more formidable, winning thirty-one major women’s titles, another all time record. And with Pam Shriver as her partner, the two of them won 109 consecutive matches.

In Mixed Doubles she won another ten major titles leading Billie-Jean King, a former number 1 world ranked player, to say, in 2006, that “Martina Navratilova is the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who ever lived.”

Martina is also the only tennis player of either sex to have won eight different tournaments seven times.

 

JackNicklausTurning next to golf, and I have a real soft spot for Phil Mickleson who has been the most prominent “leftie” on the tour for many years, but it is “The Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, who is the person who immediately comes to mind.

He started young too, playing his first games when he was ten. But two years later, and for the next five years in a row he will win the Ohio State Junior title.

While studying at Ohio State University, where our oldest daughter earned a Master’s degree, he will win the US Amateur title twice, in 1959 and 1961.

A year later, at the age of twenty-two he won the US Open Championship. (Note: In 1923, the legendary Bobby Jones won when he was twenty-one).

And like “The Big M” in ice-hockey Nicklaus was named The PGA Rookie of the Year in his first year as a pro. Later he will be named The PGA Player of the Year five times.

Another year later he became the then youngest player to win The Master’s Tournament at Augusta, Georgia. Twenty-three years later, at the age of forty-six he will become the oldest player to ever put on the coveted Green Jacket.  In between those years he will win the tournament four more times and remains one of only three players to successfully defend their title: Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the other two.  He is also the only player to win at Augusta six times.

Over the course of a twenty-five year career before joining the Senior Tour at age fifty, where he will continue his winning ways, Jack Nicklaus will win 18 major tournaments, come second nineteen times and third another nine. For twenty-four straight seasons from 1960 -1983 inclusive, he will make at least one top ten finish in a major tournament in each of those years, and that is another record.

In 1974 he is among the inaugural group of eleven men to be inducted into The World Golf Hall of Fame. And what is fascinating about that list is not so much that Gary Player from South Africa is there, but that only other non American is an Englishman named Harry Vardon, who, in 1896, won the first of his six British Open Championships, a record that that still stands to this day. And those of you reading this who are golfers may be interested to know that Vardon is the man who invented the overlapping grip that most of us use today.

Lastly, Jack Nicklaus is the first professional golfer to reach the $4 million mark for earnings and, with his sons and son in law now operates a very successful golf business that includes designing golf courses: For years the Canadian Open was played on The Glen Abbey Golf Course that he designed in Oakville, Ontario, which is maybe why he has also been inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame which is located there.

 

NancyGreenNancy Greene was a member of Canada’s National Ski team from 1959-1968. During that time she was six times the Canadian National Champion and three times US National Champion ~ not sure how that works. But what I had no idea of at all when I chose to include her on my list, was that in 1999 the Canadian Press named her as Canada’s outstanding Female athlete of the Twentieth Century.

That came as surprise. Because what that tells me is that if you partner with just one other person to achieve excellence you don’t even get considered. Moreover, while these single competitors like Nancy will be rewarded with the Order of Canada, it doesn’t seem like a pair will. I shall look into that later because it does not seem fair to me.

Back to Nancy because her first claim to fame is that in 1967 she broke the stranglehold that the Europeans had on downhill skiing when she won seven of sixteen events and captured the inaugural World Cup Women’s Championship, which she will successfully defend the following year.

In that same year, 1998, in the Winter Olympics she will win the Gold Medal in Giant Slalom and Silver in Slalom, and be named an Officer of the Order of Canada, followed by a number of other awards including three Honorary Doctorates from BC universities.

With her husband, Al Raine, she will subsequently turn her attention to developing the Sun Peaks ski resort near Kamloops where she becomes the Director of Skiing.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named her as one of the BC appointees to The Senate of Canada.

 

SirRogerBannisterSir Roger Bannister was, as a twenty-five year-old medical student the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes. And my memory had it all wrong because I thought that had happened during what became known as the “Miracle Mile “ race between him and Australian John Landy at The British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver on August 7th 1954. But by that date both men had already run under four minutes and Landy lost the race because at the moment he looked over his left shoulder to see where Bannister was the latter passed him on the right side.

So the four minute barrier was actually broken a couple of months earlier on the 6th of May in a meet between the British Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University. The venue was Oxford’s Iffley Road track; but first a word about logistics/tactics. It has long been the practice when attempts at records are being made to have another runner act as the pace-maker, often called The Rabbit.  His job as the name implies is to set the pace from the outset with a full awareness that he may not then have any energy left to complete the race.

English tracks are 440 yards, or a quarter of a mile long, so the mile is four laps which means it was basically a minute a lap. Each side entered three runners in the Mile event. Bannister was supported by two future Gold Medalists, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, both of whom had been his earlier pace-makers. Brasher set the opening pace with Bannister tucked in behind. They ran the first quarter in 57 seconds, the half mile in 1:58 when Chataway took over the lead. But going into the bell lap the time was 3:01. However, about two hundred and seventy-five yards from the tape Bannister went into his “finishing kick” and crossed the line in 3:59.4.

And I am quite amazed to discover that in Rome, in 1999, a Moroccan runner named Hicham El Guerra set a new World record of 3:43.13 which is almost a full minute away from the 1865 time of 4:36.5 by Richard Webster.

And running is clearly one place where gender equity does not exist. The first woman to run the mile in under five minutes was Diane Leather of England, in 1954. The current record time of 4:12.56 was set in 1996 by Svetlana Masterkova from Russia.

 

NadiaComaneciNadia Comaneci, from Romania, took the Olympic world by storm at the Montreal Summer Games in 1976 when she not only won three Gold Medals but also became the first female gymnast to get a perfect score of 10.0. But the scoreboard had not been designed to record a perfect score ~ “no on ever gets one” the makers had been told, so it showed up as 1.00! And she was only fourteen years of age. Now you have to be sixteen to enter the Olympics as a gymnast, so none of her records can be legally broken.  Four years later, in Moscow, she will win another two Gold medals.

She had previously won the Romanian Nationals at age nine and won all-around gold at the international Junior Friendship Tournament when she was eleven.

As of 2013, she is the only person in the world to receive The Olympic Order twice and is still the youngest person to have ever received it.

In 1989, after having spent a number of years in Romania under what she will call “bleak conditions” she defected to the US and then came to Canada. While living in Montreal an American gymnast, Bart Conner, whom she had met earlier invited her to come and live in Oklahoma. They will become engaged in 1994 and get married in Bucharest on April 27th 1996. The reception was held in the former Presidential Palace and broadcast live in Romania.

In 2001 she became a naturalized US Citizen. And on July 4th 2012 she achieved another first when she became the first athlete to be the featured speaker at the Annual Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony. That Fiftieth Anniversary Ceremony was held at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home in Virginia.

 

TorvilleDeanJane Torvill and Christopher Dean gave new meaning to the art of ice-dancing with their 1984 long programme at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo which they danced to Ravel’s Bolero. All nine judges gave them perfect 6.0 scores for artistic merit. And three gave them the same score for technical merit, the rest were 5.9’s which was enough to earn them the gold medal.

Just four years earlier they had placed fifth in the Lake Placid Olympics. But the next year they became the European and World Champions, and continued as World Champions for the next two years.

They turned professional after the Olympics and then started appearing in a series of ice shows. And that’s a bit of a understatement because it seems that for the last nine years they have been part of England’s ITV Dance on Ice programme. And next year, on their 30th Anniversary, they will dance Bolero again in one last series of performances. Both are now in their fifties but apparently intend to continue dancing after that.

 

Next, anyone going to New Zealand will soon become aware that it is literally impossible to separate the All Blacks Rugby Union Team from the psyche of the nation itself. The team is literally everywhere you go and what a success they have been since they played their first match in 1884. Then, they traveled to New South Wales to play an Australian team. Now they also travel to Argentina, France, South Africa, and the United Kingdom to play in Test Matches against these seven national teams which they have won over seventy-five percent of the time.

In 2012 they regained the Rugby World Cup by defeating France in the final. But it is fair to say that a defeat at this level ~ as happened in 2011 when France defeated them in the quarter-finals, because it is just not expected ~ literally put the whole country into mourning. After all, they have been named the number one rugby team in the world for most of the last ten years. And their name goes back to 1905 when they changed the white shorts to black ones to match the jerseys on which is a small silver fern. But 2015 was another stellar year for them defeating Australia, under the eleven year Captaincy of Richie McCaw, which is a world record, and who is also considered the world’s best open-side flanker, to win the Web Ellis World Rugby Cup again. Afterwards McCaw, who played in 148 Test matches, the most by any player in rugby history, and winning 131 times, another record, announced his retirement after a fourteen year career.

The other significant thing about the team is that before these high level matches begin the team perform a traditional Maori Haka, a challenge or posture dance named Kata Mata that was created early in the nineteenth century by a chief named Te Rauparaha to celebrate his escape from death in a battle. Richie McCaw is the man in the middle.

It is quite intimidating to watch. And fun, as I discovered in the cultural centre where the Treaty of Waitanga was signed, when the men in the audience were called onto to the stage and taught how to do a little of it. You really have to stick your tongue out which is not shown in this photo.

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HeddleMcBeanAnd here, finally, are my two heroines: Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean, two young  rowers who became the first Canadians to ever win three Olympic Gold Medals.

Just two years after she had started rowing at  the University of  British Columbia, having failed to make the Volleyball team which was her first love, Kathleen paired with Kirsten Branes, won a Gold Medal at the 1987 Pan-American games. (A year earlier Marnie, paired with Sue Walker, had won a Bronze medal at the World Junior Championships).

Subsequently, and for a number of years, the two of them would row together, first as a Single Pair and then in the Double Sculls besides being part of the Women’s Eight.

And so it happened that at the World Rowing Championships in 1991 they would win Gold in both the Eights and Pairs. This was their breakthrough at the international level:

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona they will earn another two gold medals in the same boats at which point Kathleen took a year off and Marnie won a Silver medal in the ’93 Worlds. They got together again for the 1994 Worlds and again won two gold medals. The next year rowing Double Sculls, they again won Gold and repeated that achievement at the 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta. And there they will add Bronze medals in the Quadruple sculls losing out to the second place crew by the tiny margin of 0.2 of a second.

Marnie will row for another four years, with her best year being 1998 when she won Silver in the Quad and Bronze in the Eight. And for her subsequent services to services to sport she will, in 2013, be named an Officer of the Order of Canada

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