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Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
1948 Olympian a product of Finnish athletic involvement
by Randy Pascal

The year was 1948. It had been twelve years since the last set of Summer Olympic Games. Time to reconvene, as the best athletes in the world gathered in London (England), at the Games of the XIV Olympiad.

Thanks to a very talented thrower, Sudbury would be represented.

A top athlete at the Sudbury Mining and Technical School at that time and proud product of the Finnish-based Alerts Athletic Club, Leo Roininen would compete in the javelin, the same event in which he would capture gold two years later at the British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) in New Zealand.

Earlier this week, Roininen was confirmed, albeit post-humously, as one of the inductees to the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2019.

Though he would pass in 2002, at the age of 73, his wife of many years (Irma) was on hand Wednesday at a media gathering, joined by their son John, both of whom still reside in Sudbury.

"The first time I saw him was at a track and field meet, where I was giving out medals," noted the former Irma Maki, now 89 years young. "We formally met just after the Olympics in 1948. We met at the Finnish Hall, at a dance."

She recalled the athletic environment of Leo's youth, the very setting which set the stage for the young man who would go on to claim countless medals at national championships in the javelin, shot put and discus, displaying the type of talent that would lead to a track and field scholarship at Washington State University.

"He lived on Indian Road, right near Ethel Park, which belonged to the Finlanders," recalled Mrs Roininen. "And he was right across the street from the track, which belonged to Alerts. There was no TV, so everybody was going to that track, you didn't have to be a Finlander."

"He would always be out there, running, throwing the javelin, shot putting, whatever. He credited the people with Alerts in initially providing the facility, since they had the equipment (javelin, shot put, discus). He convinced them to let him have a key to the clubhouse."

From there, practice and genetics combined forces to create an Olympian. "My father said his competition weight was about 187 pounds, and I'm about 185, but pound for pound, he was very, very strong."

His travels would also leave Roininen with a few interesting stories to tell. "He was out practicing in London, throwing the javelin, and this man comes out with a long coat, asking him about sports in Canada," said Irma. "They talked for quite a while."

"That" man was none other than Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as of 1947.

Among those joining Roininen in the Hall of Fame is Robert "Sonny" Gawalko, a Physical Educator who began his teaching career at the Sudbury Mining and Technical School and coached for more than 30 years, throughout the changes to Sheridan Tech and ultimately Sudbury Secondary School.

Gawalko actually credits chance encounters, as well, for the fact that he remains actively involved in a number of local sports initiatives, even at the tender age of 82. "I meet so many people, run into so many old friends, former students, it's all good," said the man who was most associated with hockey at the home of the North Stars, but also guided teenagers in football, badminton, track and field and even gymnastics, on rare occasions.

"I don't have anyone visit me at the house, but I get out to meet all of these people." Never one to proclaim himself as an elite athlete, Gawalko nonetheless enjoyed participating in sports, teaming up with Hall of Famer Gary Costello as members of the CYA (Catholic Young Adults) on the Northern Ontario Badminton Association circuit.

"We played against a couple of fellows who were 14 years old and they turned out to be North American badminton champions," said Gawalko. Needless to say, the CYA pairing did not manage to upset Lucio Fabris and his Creighton Club partner.

Still, to this day, Gawalko appreciates the ride. "It's obviously been an enjoyable trip," he said. "Every time I help out, it seems I take a trip down memory lane." And come June 12th, at the Caruso Club, there will be many sharing that same pathway as the Class of 2019 are celebrated.

Joining Roininen and Gawalko in their induction this year are Brian Ashton (professional soccer), Don Prescott (fastball coach/administrator), Jennifer Campbell-Michel (swimmer), Jim Richardson (tennis), Dan Lee (administration), Kay Whitmore (NHL goaltender) and the 2007-2008 Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves (Telus Cup champions).

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