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The eyesore that was home to greatness
2020-07-11

Pretty much every current member of the Northern Water Sports Centre will recall, with ease, the facility that was left behind. Truth is, it's been but a few years since the move over to the shiny new digs.

And while the former home of Sudbury Boat and Canoe, the facility at the foot of Elizabeth Street which welcomed Sudbury Canoe Club (SCC) paddlers for many years, was distinguished with some memorable moments, it was the old "white shack with the blue tin roof", located directly behind the former Sudbury General Hospital, where the SCC would truly rise to international prominence.

"It was an eyesore," laughed Brian Polowich, who teamed with his siblings (Leo, Ralph, Janet) in representing the last wave of Sudbury paddling success, prior to a revival of the sport some 20 to 25 years ago.

That eyesore proved to be the summer gathering spot of choice for many a local youth as Mayor Bill Beaton and others attempted to return a sense of normalcy to the city in the years that followed the end of World War II.

With the rise to prominence of the likes of Donald Stringer, Lou Lukanovich, John Beedell, Joe Derochie and many others through the 1950's and into the 1960's, Sudbury was producing not only athletes who would compete with the very best in the country, but would rise to the top of their sport, standing proudly as Olympians in both 1956 and 1960.

But that quartet and others had moved along by the time that Ralph Polowich would kick off a stream of family involvement, and success, in around 1965 or so. "He was 14, maybe 15, and he would come down to the lake and hang out at the diving board, so he could see the members of the private canoe club nearby," recalled Brian, the youngest of the clan.

"He scrounged up the money for a membership - we're not even sure if mom and dad were even aware that he was a member to start."

Growing up on Prete Street, roughly a ten-minute walk from the fabled Canoe Club, the Polowich boys and Janet benefitted from the advantages of location, location, location. Leo, the eldest, followed quickly in the footsteps of Ralph, who then purchased a membership for his sister in 1967.

"I probably started in 1968," said Brian. "I was about ten years old at that time."

"It was almost like a day-camp for the four of us, in those days. I remember getting up in the morning and heading down to the lake, heading home for lunch, and then back to the lake in the afternoon, and quite often in the evenings."

Still relatively young, the Polowich kids had not necessarily established themselves in any other team sport settings of the time, with Ralph involved more than the others, playing football and track. Thankfully, in those days, simply remaining active was a must.

"We all played road hockey and baseball and football in the neighbourhood, and Janet played right alongside with us, with the guys, for quite a few years," recalled Brian. "Parents kept kicking you out of the house, so you found ways to keep yourself occupied."

Before long, racing the canoes and kayaks was a given.

"I think my first race came in 1969, I was 11 years old and we got the crap kicked out of us - but it was a beginning," said Brian. That same year would see no less than five members of the SCC medal at the Canada Summer Games in Halifax/Dartmouth: Dave Derochie, Rob and Rich Quinlan, as well as Leo and Ralph Polowich.

"I still remember the party when they returned, the people that went to the train station to welcome back the Canada Summer Games paddlers," said Brian. "There's nothing like success to fuel the desire to do a little bit more."

He would team with his cousin and neighbour Mike Walker, and by the time 1971 rolled around, the canoe doubles tandem would lay claim to the Western Ontario Championships. Polowich, however, was starting to shift his focus to the kayak singles event.

"You tended to do kayak or canoe," he suggested. "You kind of picked one or the other, but not necessarily both - though there are people who did."

The year of the Bicentennial in the United States proved to be the pinnacle for the now 62 year-old life-long Sudbury resident, capturing gold at the North American Flat Water Canoeing/Kayak Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. While freighter activity on the mile-wide Ohio River created some challenges, Polowich, for one, was well prepared.

"You are subject to wind conditions on Lake Ramsey," he said. "When you go to more elite events, they tended to be hosted in a more controlled environment. We did a lot of racing, for instance, at Centre Island in Toronto, and it's a pretty well protected race course."

Ironically, his step back from the SCC, one that Polowich would take following his most memorable campaign, coincided almost exactly with the start of what would become almost a two decade long dormancy for the organization that was founded in 1902, with new life breathed back in largely through the efforts of Jim Dickson and Gergely Lanci (circa 2000).

"I did race for a few years after 1976, but then I gradually faded away from the canoe club, for sure," said Polowich, who still takes a great deal of pride from the fact that the bulk of the training that he and so many others would undertake came without the benefit of a day-in, day-out coaching presence.

"I would go down to the club, every once in a while, just to take out a boat and relive the memories. It seemed like I would do that once a year, or every other year."

Forty years later, he has not yet set down his paddle.

"I do a bit of recreational kayaking at a family camp," he noted. "I'll go out early in the morning and paddle - I still use one of the paddles that I used to race with in the seventies. It's my little piece of heaven out there."

"I miss the old canoeing days."

Yes - even the eyesore the Polowich clan would call home for the better part of two decades.

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