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Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
Two-time Olympian had his own unique style
by Randy Pascal

In a time era oft described as the golden era of paddling in Sudbury, few were more golden that Donald Stringer.

First introduced to competitive race canoeing at the age of 14, it was in his later teens that the near perfectly built paddler would really rise to prominence. By the time 1950 rolled around, Stringer had celebrated his 16th birthday by capturing the juvenile single blade crown at the Canadian Championships.

“He was just that perfect body size, enjoyed tremendous natural cardio, and was as strong as a bull,” noted his son, Chris Stringer, one of several family members making the trek north this week to participate in Don's induction into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

Very quickly, Stringer would find himself mentioned in conversations of the Canadian canoeing elite, one of the few tall paddlers who managed to combine a rapid turnover of his stroke with a lengthy stroke, all despite eschewing traditional paddling form.

“He had his own unique technique,” Chris explained. “Most people's top hand forms right around the shaft of the blade. He had his hand kind of sideways on the blade, with his thumb pointed completely down. His coaches apparently spent a great deal of time trying to correct him, getting him to use the proper technique, but he never bought in.”

Although he would capture four consecutive national championships in the 10,000 metre single blade singles event in the early fifties, Stringer was left off the Team Canada roster for the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, after a rare sub-par performance at the Olympic Trials the previous September.

That, however, only seemed to spur the northern lad further.

One of the few Canadians to gain entry into the prestigious President's Cup Regatta in Washington (D.C.), Stringer surprised Olympic champion and American hero Frank Haven, beating him in his own backyard and leaving many to wonder if Canada had left a medal on the table by omitting Stringer from the 1952 roster.

That same summer, Stringer would shave 8/10th of a second off the Canadian record in the 1000 metre event, a mark that had stood for legendary paddler Frank Amyot since 1932. Improving steadily, Stringer took aim at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, finishing first in the 10 km race at the CCA Regatta in a time that was a full minute faster than the gold medal winning time in Helsinki.

As noted in the wonderful account of the history of sports in Sudbury, Home Grown Heroes, by the late Frank Pagnucco, the man responsible for assembling the entry that would don the maple leaf had no reservations about the local product. “Don't ever worry about Stringer making the Olympic team,” said coach Earl “Doc” Whittal. “I think he's our only chance for a gold medal at Melbourne.”

Though the sport of canoeing had been considered, for some time, among those disciplines where Canadians enjoyed the most Olympic success, the reality was that the Eastern Europeans had closed hard in the decade leading up to Melbourne. Stringer would settle for a seventh place finish, garnering little consolation in the fact that his performance topped all those of his countrymen at the 1956 Games.

Giving way to the next wave of Sudbury paddling sensations, with the likes of Joe Derochie, John Beedell and others beginning to make their mark, Stringer moved to Montreal in 1957, finding work in the same city he had attended university. Despite the odds, he would earn a berth on the Canadian Olympic team for a second consecutive time, joining Beedell and Derochie as folks with very strong Sudbury ties, participating in Rome in 1960.

By 1962, Stringer had retired from the sport, and just 16 years later, he would pass away, his three sons (Chris, Kevin, Don) still too young to truly appreciate the scope of their father's talents. “We didn't gain an awareness until we started paddling, later on,” said Chris. “Some of the people that knew my dad would see me and say that it was like looking at a ghost.”

“Apparently, I look exactly like he did at that age. And then they would tell me his story, and I realized, he was a pretty big deal.” If there was a theme that emerged over and over again, it was that of an innovation that Stringer introduced while racing the lengthy and grueling 10,000 metre events. “They used to do the 10 km races back then, which would run for over an hour, probably,” said Chris.

“The old paddles, of course, were these big wooden work paddles. He was a strong guy and these would break, sometimes, so he would have to carry two extra paddles in his boat, sometimes three. It doesn't compare to the equipment they have today. The carbon fibre paddles, no one's breaking that stuff.”

And while none of his offspring would take to the sport on much more than a relatively recreational level – though Dan, in Victoria, has seemingly enjoyed some success on the dragon boat circuit – a skipped generation might hold out some hope. Grandson Lucas Stringer, a member of the Mississauga Canoe Club, is currently on the roster of the provincial development team (men's canoe), under the auspices of Canoe Kayak Ontario.

It will take some work, however, to displace the local paddling legend that is Donald Stringer, member of the Class of 2019 to the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame.

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