Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Ottawa Sport History Highlight: Paddler Frank Amyot made heroic rescue before becoming Canadian Olympic hero in 1936

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Ottawa has a long and proud sport tradition, and in this ongoing series, we will present highlight moments and figures from our local sport history. The Ottawa Sport History Highlight series is presented by the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame, which has welcomed almost 300 inductees dating back to its establishment in 1968. Find out more at OttawaSportHall.ca.

Several local paddlers will be chasing their dreams of earning a trip to the Olympics at this weekend’s Canadian team trials from June 21-23 in Montreal, but they’ll have a tougher time realizing the ultimate dream of an Olympic gold medal, which Ottawa Sport Hall of Famer Frank Amyot experienced back in 1936.

In this edition of the Ottawa Sport History Highlight Series, we look back on Amyot’s career with a text originally published in Canada: Our Century in Sport, published by Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame Chair Dave Best as a millennium project in 2002.

The name “Amyot” was synonymous with canoeing excellence in the 1920s and ’30s. In 1925, the four Amyot brothers placed first in all divisions – senior, intermediate and junior singles – at a meet in Carleton Place, Ontario.

The best-known paddler in the family was Frank, who was the Canadian singles champion six times and captured Canada’s only gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Early in life, his ambition was to be a sculler but the $250 cost of a shell was beyond his means as a teenager. Not to be deterred from pursuing a competitive career, he abandoned his rowing plans and built his own canoe.

He was not built like a typical paddler. He was 6’2”, weighed 200 pounds (91 kg) and therefore needed an oversize canoe in order to accommodate his frame. Given his size, his stroke was also longer but less frequent than most. He used his paddling style as a strategic advantage by taking an early lead, then relying on his long stroke to give his opponents the demoralizing impression that he was paddling easily.

Amyot had more than a dozen years of competitive successes behind him when he was chosen in 1935 to be not just a competitor, but also the coach and manager of the Canadian Olympic team. Unfortunately, whether for a lack of funds or lack of recognition, he and his fellow paddlers were offered no money to get to Berlin. He and his teammates, whom he described later as an “orphan outfit,” even had trouble acquiring team uniforms. In order to make the trip to Germany, they had to rely on help from the Canadian Canoe Association, the Britannia Boat Club (Amyot’s home club) and other donors.

In Berlin, he took an early lead in the 1000m, but Bohuslav Karlik of Czechoslovakia passed him with a scant 250m to go. One length behind but undaunted, Amyot responded with his own spurt of strong paddling and passed his Czech rival with 50m left. He won the race by more than four seconds, winning Canada’s only gold medal at those Games. He received his medal from Adolf Hitler. Canadian flagbearer Jim Worrall noted that the team didn’t think much about the Nazi influence over the Games at the time.

“The greatest thrill of my life came when I was called to stand on the pedestal while the Canadian ensign was run to the Olympic masthead, and Canada’s national anthem was played,” Amyot told the Ottawa Journal years later.

Amyot’s triumphant return home was accompanied by a $1,000 purse from the City of Ottawa and admirers. In those days, such a gift could be enough to jeopardize his status as an amateur, but the Canadian Canoe Association refused to recognize any sanctions against him.

Before his Olympic triumph, Amyot was known as a hero for a different reason.

In 1933, he had helped rescue three men in danger of being carried to their deaths in the Deschenes Rapids of the Ottawa River. Their canoe had capsized, and Amyot was the first to race to the rescue. With the three hanging onto his canoe, he battled the current single-handedly until more help arrived.

Learn more about our local sport history on the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame’s website at OttawaSportHall.ca.

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