Tuesday 29 January 2013

John Wood (1950 – 2013)

The other day I got the sad news that a great inspiration and role model John Wood, had passed away suddenly. Shocked, stunned, shattered…any of those words could describe the way I felt upon hearing the news. When you have a childhood hero he’s larger than life, and you just assume he’ll be there forever. The last few days I can’t stop thinking of the gaping hole his family must be facing, and the loss that so many others are feeling – from the entire Canadian paddling and Olympic communities to his many business associates and many, many friends. John was a guy who I always found was easy to talk to and quick to have a laugh. Obviously his accomplishments in canoeing made a huge impression on me, but the depth of his knowledge on a wide variety of things and the opinions he’d form from that knowledge always made an impression as well. I’m sure he made a similar impression on everyone in his life. To say he’ll be missed seems like such a pathetic understatement.

John Wood
1976 Olympic Silver Medallist in C1
John put Canadian canoe/kayak on his back in the 1970’s and pulled it out of a 24-year medal shutout at the Olympics when he reached the podium in the C1 500m at the 1976 Games in Montreal. I can clearly remember being a young paddler and watching that race on TV with my parents, then turning to them and saying,“that’s what I want to do.” The cool thing was that after he retired with a silver medal in the C2 500m at the 1977 World Championships with Gregg Smith, he settled in Oakville and paddled at our club. He was around regularly and always willing to offer his wisdom and experience to an eager young paddler totally consumed with the idea of following in his footsteps. I had great coaching from first Bill Collins and then Jim Reardon, and great role models and training partners like Brian Bliss who all played their part and, thankfully, were there as steadying influences after my dad died when I was 16. But it was John that was the inspiration. He’d shown what was possible. He’d reached the pinnacle and done what Canadian paddlers hadn’t been able to do for an entire generation. And he was a regular guy who just enjoyed paddling on the river for the sake of paddling itself. That was so cool.

I had to race against a lot of other great paddlers from all parts of the country to make it to the Junior Worlds and later the World Championships and Olympics. How fortunate was I to have John in my corner? With no exaggeration I can say that if I hadn’t had the relationship I developed with guys like Bill, Jim and John I wouldn’t have realized my own Olympic dreams and, if you want to take it a step further, wouldn’t have found dragon boat, outrigger and stand up paddling and all the unbelievable experiences and friendships paddling has given, and continues to give me.

2012 Olympic Send-Off
John, me, Steve Giles
I’m thankful for the catalogue of memories I have of John, the most recent of which was the Olympic send-off this past summer when he spoke with such humor, humility and passion to our 2012 Olympians. I was as thrilled to hear him speak at age 49 as I was at 14, and I was so incredibly excited that an entirely new generation of Canadian paddlers were getting to meet my hero.

John blazed the trail for generations of us to follow, and he did it the right way. No one was more intense when he needed to be, no one more ready to share a laugh when there wasn’t a need to be focused; as successful in business as in sport, a guy who loved paddling for the sake of paddling, a true sport-for-life fitness advocate and, most importantly, a great family man.

Check John out in his prime in this great video, Paddles Up!(click here), filmed in 1976 shortly after he won his Olympic silver medal.  I’ve seen it hundreds of times. It pretty accurately portrays the paddling world I grew up in and John’s huge influence on it.