Olympians celebrate with rowers

Veterans of international game spend some time at Shumway Lake

He was Kamloops' first Olympian and its first Olympic medallist, but Robert Wilson was quite content to be a spectator this week.

Wilson, now 75, was in town to watch the Western Canada Summer Games rowing competition, which wrapped up Sunday at Shumway Lake. He and Olympic gold-medallists Don Arnold and Ben Rutledge helped hand out medals after Sunday's events.

A lot has changed since Wilson helped the Canadian men's eights rowing team to a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, that's for sure.

"The only thing that's the same," says Wilson, who now lives in Calgary, "is the crew whose bow goes over first wins."

Wilson was born and raised in Kamloops, but hasn't lived in town since 1953, when he graduated from high school. He went off to UBC to study engineering, and moved to Alberta after graduating in 1959.

Those six years in between were Wilson's rowing years, although he never could have known it when he left Kamloops.

"There was a frosh smoker put on by the big block club (at UBC)," Wilson says. "When I arrived, one of them grabbed me and said they'd like me to turn out for rowing."

That person was undoubtedly impressed by Wilson's lean 6-foot-3 frame - "and probably my good looks, too," he jokes - and wasn't worried about his lack of experience.

"I said, 'I don't know anything about rowing,' " Wilson says. "They said, 'You don't have to, we'll teach you all you need to know. Just show up.' "

He showed up, and it set in motion six years of hard work and great reward for Wilson.

He and the UBC men's eight team went on to win the 1954 Canadian championship to qualify for the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, where it won gold in the Vedder Canal near Abbotsford.

"It was great, we were ecstatic," Wilson says. "We got our medals presented to us by the Duke of Edinburgh."

Along with the gold medal came an invitation - from the Duke himself - to attend the 1955 Henry Royal Regatta on the River Thames in England. The Canadian men would defeat the favoured Russian squad in a heat before finishing second to a university squad from Pennsylvania in the final.

In 1956, Wilson's eights went to St. Catharines, Ont., for the Olympic trials, and cleaned up, punching a ticket to Australia.

In Melbourne, the eights posted a time of six minutes 37.10 seconds in the 2,000-metre final, finishing about 3/4 of a length behind an American crew.

"We had a good race, and we ended up getting a silver medal," says Wilson, who was 21 during those Olympics. "We were disappointed, of course, because we went over there for a different colour."

Arnold, a Winfield native, also was in Melbourne, and was on hand to cheer on Wilson's boat. Arnold had helped the coxless fours to a gold medal earlier that day, and also went on to win silver in the eights at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Rutledge, originally from Cranbrook, was a member of the men's eights boat that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He also helped coached B.C. at the WCSG.

All three men were new to the sport of rowing before they ended up at UBC, but it certainly took them places.

Wilson and a teammate, Richard McClure, spent the nine months following the 1956 Olympics in Australia, before getting ready for the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Wales, which their eights crew won.

It won't be soon forgotten - Wilson and crew have been inducted in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, and the UBC Hall of Fame (strangely, Wilson has yet to be inducted into the Kamloops Sports Hall of Fame).

The 1958 Commonwealth Games was the last major event in which Wilson would compete, as he graduated from UBC in 1959 and went on to work in the oil patch in Alberta.

His work took him nearly as many places as his rowing.

"When I joined the oil business, I moved around a lot," Wilson says. "Saskatchewan, Alberta, then I transferred to the U.S. and went overseas, to Britain."

Now settled in Calgary, he enjoys getting back to town, where his brother, Dave, resides.

"I haven't lived here since I left, but I still have family here, I still have my roots here," says Bob, whose major medals are displayed in shadow boxes at his home.

mhunter@kamloopsnews.ca

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