A few years back, I was approached by a friend with the City, asked to provide input into an initiative to formulate some sort of Olympian recognition program on a municipal level.
It certainly seemed like an easy enough task.
Sure, there would be a need to find a fair way of perhaps differentiating between those who had medalled versus perhaps a more middle of the pack result, all while acknowledging that the accomplishment of making it to the Olympics, in and itself, was incredibly noteworthy.
And there would be other areas of tough discussion, to be sure. But it wasn’t long at all before I realized that this whole undertaking required a huge step backwards, one designed to answer the very basic question that sets the wheels in motion for everything that is to follow:
What, exactly, constitutes a Sudbury Olympian?
Yes, there were the no-brainers, those who were born in Sudbury, trained through much of their formative years on a local level, who often continued to either be based out of this area during those rare off-season breaks, or are back home with family (in Sudbury) on a very regular basis at holiday times.
Alex Baumann: check. Aldo Roy: check. Rebecca Johnston and Tessa Bonhomme: double check. Roy Pella: check – to the best of my knowledge. There is clearly a very healthy list of those whose long-time affiliation with their hometown is absolutely unquestioned.
And even those whose elite level training perhaps requires them to leave the city prior to completing high-school are not subject to a great deal of debate in this matter. Meagan Duhamel is a proud Sudburian (ok – Waldenite (?) – resident of Walden, to be more precise), despite leaving for Barrie at just 14 years of age and spending most of her adult life in Montreal.
Still, Duhamel represented the Walden Skating Club throughout her career and returned to northern Ontario pretty much every single winter, hosting clinics, making guest appearances, continuing to foster her ties to the local skating community.
A Sudbury Olympian? Without a doubt.
Though the sport might differ, Devon Kershaw, Brian Savage, Eric Wohlberg and others all fit that template.
Likewise, Sudbury has long proudly proclaimed figure skating great Jeffrey Buttle as one of their own, though the 2008 world champion was actually born in Smooth Rock Falls. He has, however, always noted with pride that his formative years in the sport would occur in the nickel city, training with the Sudbury Skating Club and coached by Wendy Philion (who would accompany his family to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turino).
And much like Duhamel, Buttle can still be found, pretty much on an annual basis, stepping out on to the ice at either Countryside or Cambrian Arena, giving back to those who are quite literally following in the strides that he so gracefully glided across back in the nineties.
It seems we all tend to agree that the mere fact that someone is not necessarily born in Sudbury would not automatically disqualify them from joining our prestigious grouping, especially if these athletes actually grew up in neighbourhoods ranging from New Sudbury to Lo-Ellen, from the Gatchell to the Flour Mill.
(ironically, I was about to lump David Turcotte – basketball / 1988 / Seoul - in with the Kershaw/Savage/Wohlberg trio only to be surprised by Wikipedia, informed that the graduate of Lockerby Composite was actually born in Ottawa)
It’s about time to muddy the waters.
In the case of many of those who starred in their respective fields of excellence though most of the first half of the twentieth century, the truth is that the heavy influx of European immigrants would bring many a youngster ranging from newborn through to early to mid-teens, with their families, to our little corner of heaven.
Throw in the fact that their rise to glory also came two to three generations before the advent of the internet, making the simple task of gathering accurate biographical information on these athletes an exercise in futility, at times, and one can see that qualifying for entry as a Sudbury Olympian is not even close to being a black or white issue.
Matti Jutila: 1964 Olympics (Tokyo) – wrestling – born in Finland in 1932, Jutila moved to Canada in 1956, but as was more the norm of the time, continued to wrestle through his adult life with the Sampo Athletic Club. After waiting a full five years after his arrival to this side of the Atlantic to represent Canada, Jutila would continue to call Sudbury home when we last crossed paths in 2009.
Robert Esmie: 1996 Olympics (Atlanta) – sprint relay – born in Jamaica and still a proud supporter of the culture (everyone should have the chance to try some of his recipes from back home, at some point in their life), Esmie and family moved to Sudbury prior to the start of his grade five year.
Spending more than a decade on the west coast following his retirement as an athlete, the gold medal winner would be welcomed back to these parts in 2018 and has quickly become a visible and active part of the local sports community. I could go on and on and on (and have often been known to).
While factors ranging from where the athletes developed and excelled, to the contact that they maintain to Sudbury, post playing days, all are likely to enter the equation, I suspect a vote would be near unanimous that both Jutila and Esmie fit the criteria.
Yet the truth is that there are far more folks that are open to some level of debate than those who are clearly a slam dunk.
Born in Toronto, Jim Logan (1956 in Italy – men’s hockey) donned the Canadian jersey in Cortina d’Ampezza well before venturing north to pursue a career in accounting. Yet since his arrival in Sudbury, Logan has remained a familiar face in the sports community up here, still coaching curling with Special Olympics and attending most every Sudbury Wolves game.
Though a native of New Liskeard, long-time teacher Ed Millard actually moved south while still quite young and had only recently enjoyed national success while wrestling at Guelph University when he was selected as part of the 1968 Olympic team for Mexico.
By the early seventies, however, Millard had accepted a teaching position at Confederation Secondary, eventually making quite a name for himself as a volleyball coach while working at with both the Chargers and the Lo-Ellen Park Knights.
On Monday evening, I spent more than an hour filling in the question marks as I chatted with Jamie Kallio (1988 – Calgary – biathlon). Turns out that not only is there more to his Sudbury connection than simply spending the first two to three years of his life here – but there is also a great story to be told (something of a teaser for my Saturday Nickel City Nostalgia column).
There is still so much to be known about Fred Blaney (1984 – Los Angeles – judo), Warren Anderson (1980/1984 – Lake Placid/Sarajevo) and countless others.
And therein lies the role I look to fill these days.
Gather as much information as humanly possible on all of these fascinating local sports personalities, then step back and let the conversations begin.
They are sure to be entertaining, because I definitely don’t have all of the answers to the question that I first posed.