Niagara’s Olympians: Past and Present

Written by: Jill Tham
Photographed by: AJ Harlond

Niagara is not only filled with talented artists, musicians, great places to eat and the most breathtaking views, but now we can also add athletic talent to the list. Although it may appear that there are more lows than highs, more defeats than victories, overcoming adversity is what makes this group of Olympians the most humble, generous and down-to-earth people you will ever meet. Niagara is proud to call them their own.

Rick Morrocco, Hockey
Albertville, 1992

Rick Morrocco grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario shouting “car” while playing hockey in front of his house and hanging out at the Former Niagara Falls Memorial Arena where his father worked. When he saw Nadia Comaneci score a perfect ten and win Olympic gold, it sparked a fire in him. “I had multiple goals along the way, but my overall goal was the Olympics,” he says. Whether in the OHL, at York University or while playing professionally in Italy, Morrocco achieved a successful hockey career averaging two points per game. It was a two-year process for him to make it onto the Italian Olympic team. “I was used to scoring on my club teams. I knew the coaches wouldn’t need four forwards, so I presented myself as a checker,” Morocco says.

For a long time to come, Morrocco will remember the breathtaking backdrop of the mountains as he walked into the Olympic stadium in Albertville, France, for the opening ceremonies. “They lined us up, we had to wait for hours. Everyone was there with their cameras. It was a moment where I could put the sport out of my mind for a minute and enjoy,” he recalls.

Although Morrocco had played hundreds of games in front of cameras and large crowds, the magnitude of the Olympics had overwhelmed him. “I remember calling home before my first game. I told my mom I was nervous. She said it was a game like any other and to go out there and be myself,” he said. “My mother, father, and family have been my biggest supporters.”

The hard work and dedication he demonstrated in hockey has carried over into a successful career in sport administration, including the Canadian Hockey Association. Currently, he is the Managing Director for the Niagara Falls International Marathon. His level-headed approach to life and sport are something to be modeled after. Some of his best memories after retirement from professional hockey have been coaching our youth and teaching them the lighter side of sport. “Skill and fun is what it should be about,” he says.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“I’ve always thought professional golf would be a good gig.”

What is your favourite place in Niagara?
“My favourite place where I like to go is along the Niagara Parkway from the whirlpool up to the Queenston. I also like to hike at the Niagara Glenn. I still think the most breath taking view is the falls coming down off of Murray St.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“I will be at home beside the fireplace watching everything from figure skating to hockey.”

Mike Strange, Boxing
Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000

Mike Strange started boxing at the age of 10 because he knew whether he won or lost, he would get a trophy. When Strange saw his role models, Shawn O’Sullivan and William “Willie” de Wit, compete at the 1984 Olympic Games he never dreamed he would be an Olympian too. Strange had the privilege of competing in three consecutive Olympic Games, each with different experiences and each time he fought in a different weight class.

Strange experienced some of life’s hardest lessons throughout his boxing career. Heading into Barcelona he was confident in his abilities, “I told everyone I was going to bring back the gold. I lost in my first match. I came home, looked at all of my trophies in the closet and realized I needed a plan for my future after boxing.” There have been many times when Strange felt like throwing in the towel. He remained resilient and determined to reach his goals while creating a solid reputation in the community through Masterson Realty, personal training and his own bar, The Highland Tap.

In boxing, there are no second chances. For Mike it was a challenge to keep motivated while he watched his teammates get eliminated after losing one bout. “In Atlanta, my roommate, Casey Patten, was favoured to win and he lost his first fight. I was trying to lose weight for the upcoming weigh in, Casey would drink a six pack of beer while he watched me run the track,” he laughs. 1996 was the toughest defeat for Mike as he won his first two matches and lost in the quarter finals to a Bulgarian boxer after a controversial judge’s decision. “It was very hard, you train four years of your life for the biggest sporting event and just like that it can be taken away from you,” Strange says.

Strange competed once again, this time in Sydney. It was his most positive Olympic experience and he left there with a sense of gratification. “I was ranked sixth in the world, but drew to fight the number two seated boxer. I felt I lost fair and square,” he says. “The Olympic spirit in Australia was unbelievable, I will never forget how they took everyone in and treated us like their own,” he says.

His boxing career has moulded his compassion towards individuals suffering from cancer, especially children. Strange is actively involved in various charity events to raise money for cancer patients and research. Most notably, he has organized Heaters Heroes and the Box Run. This May, Strange will once again push his body to the limit with a second Box Run. He will run from St. Johns, New Brunswick to Niagara Falls, Ontario in memory of Matteo Mancini who lost his battle with cancer almost one year ago.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“People keep telling me I should have been a politician.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“Highland Tap, some of Niagara’s most interesting people can be found there.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“I hope with the time change we will be able to watch some great events at the Tap.”

Gordon Singleton, Sprint Cycling
Montreal, 1976

Gordon Singleton started his cycling career at the ripe age of 17. “I entered a local bike race without cycling gear. I showed up wearing my white gym shorts from school. I did quite well and I had the bug,” says Singleton. The following year he moved to England and began training.

Singleton attributes his “Cool as Ice” demeanour to his coach, Eddie Soens from Liverpool. Eddie taught him how to stay focused and remain in the moment until after his races were complete. “My coach also taught me to take the failures and turn them into positives,” he states. “And he told us ‘you could chase bloody girls after it’s over,’” he laughs.

Singleton competed in the 1000 m sprint at the 1976 Olympic Games. He finished in ninth place, making him the first Canadian in history to advance to the quarter-finals. “It was an honour to do it in Montreal,” he says.

Heading into the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia, Singleton was the number two seed. That year, the American government boycotted the Olympics because Russia had invaded Afghanistan and Canada followed suit. “I didn’t have my chance. It is the one medal that eluded me,” he states.

Whether it is business or personal, not a day goes by that Singleton doesn’t rely on the skills he developed through his involvement in sport to get through life’s bumpy roads. He is always happy to help others and offer cycling advice to fellow athletes. Singleton and his business partner are proud of the successful business they have built, Niagara Battery and Tire. “If you take two steps forward and one step back every day you will be ahead in your business. Our customers don’t have to go away unhappy. We ask how we can fix it,” he states.

Although Singleton holds numerous titles and world records, he is most pleased with his double gold medals at the World Masters Cycling Championships. “My boys were eight and ten at the time and they got to see their dad win. My family are my biggest fans.”

In 2010, Singleton was given the pleasure of carrying the Olympic torch and lighting the celebration caldron at the brink of the falls for the Vancouver Olympics. Only this time “Mr. Ice” was unable to put his mind into race mode and the magnitude of the honour overwhelmed him. “When we lit the torch I got emotional, it was an incredible feeling,” he says.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“I absolutely have no idea. I owe everything to my experiences as an athlete.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“I can be seen on a regular basis bike riding up and down the Niagara Parkway. I am a member at Lookout Point Golf Club. Hitting the little ball around a few times a year is very relaxing.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
At Niagara Battery and Tire we have TV’s in our showrooms that usually run in house promotions, but during important sporting events we broadcast these for our customers. I will follow the Sochi results intently in the evening. And as a true Canadian, never miss the hockey.”

Evan MacDonald, Wrestling
Athens 2004

Like many children in Canada, Evan MacDonald grew up playing hockey. “We used to pretend we were in the NHL,” he recalls. Living in an athletic household with a brother who played professional football, MacDonald dreamed of reaching the top level in a sport. “I started wrestling in grade ten. With the different weight classes, my size didn’t matter,” he states.

Almost every country in the world participates in Olympic wrestling and only the number one ranked individual in the country is eligible. MacDonald proudly represented Canada at the 2004 Olympic Games. “The funniest moment would have to be the cafeteria. It was the size of a football field. I was sampling all different types of food from all around the world, which wasn’t a great idea because I was trying to make weight,” he laughs.

MacDonald was ranked eighth going into his first match against the reigning world champion. “I didn’t have a good draw. Unless you win, I think you say ‘it’s back to the drawing board.’ I was immediately motivated to train for the next one.” Unfortunately, an injury kept him from competing in the 2008 Olympics and neck surgery benched him from London, 2012. “The frustrating aspect of my sport is not just the injuries, but the amount of time it takes to heal, leaving you unable to train,” he states. “It’s like everything in life, you spend so much time preparing for it and in a second it is over.”

Along with running his own company, Complete Plumbing and Contracting, MacDonald coaches wrestling at Brock University. MacDonald is coaching his wife Jessie. “She is one of only 3 women in Canada to win a freestyle world wrestling title and it was amazing to be a part of it,” he says. “Being in her corner has been much more fulfilling than my own career.” Together, they are working towards Rio 2016.

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“Jessie and I love Joe Fetas restaurant and in the summer we go wake boarding on the Niagara River”.

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“I will be trying to catch as many hockey games as possible.”

William Irwin, Boxing
Barcelona, 1992

One of the most exhilarating experiences for “Billy the Kid” in his 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain was being the underdog. “My first fight was against the World Junior Champion. No one thought I would win,” he says. Perhaps it was due to his previous experience competing at a world level that kept him focused. “The Dream Team was there for the first time. I had Charles Barkley on one side of me and Steffi Graf on the other, but when it came down to it. I knew what I had to do.”

After the Olympics, Irwin went on to have a successful career as a professional boxer. Irwin often struggled with the pressure and criticism that came along with professional boxing. He eventually learned to use the negativity as motivation to help him attain his goals and it certainly didn’t hurt to have significant people in his corner. “Don Cherry was behind me for 12 years. He presented me my medals and wore my Corner Man’s jackets. He was always my biggest fan,” he says.

For the last two years Irwin has held a new title, Coach of the Year, from Boxing Ontario. He owns his own boxing club, Irwins Boxing, located in Niagara Falls. In the near future, Irwin will make another appearance at the Olympics, only this time it will be as a coach.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“Something in sports for sure.”
Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
I like to take my boxers for runs in the summer. I also enjoy watching my daughters compete in gymnastics.

Greg Newton, Basketball
Sydney, 2000

As a highly skilled center from Niagara Falls, Greg Newton stands tall at 6 feet, 10 inches. The unstoppable powerhouse graduated from the renowned, Duke University. Newton averaged 10 points per game in his last two years. Followed by a successful basketball career in Europe.

Newton represented Canada in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, finishing in 7th place. “Competing for Canada was an honour, it was difficult being away from home, but every day of the games was memorable for me,” he states. Newton recalls the incredible support from fellow patriots. “That feeling of support gave our team the extra boost of adrenaline during a gruelling schedule,” he says. “That and watching Steve Nash impersonating and singing the song Firestarter by The Prodigy,” he adds.
As a captain for Duke University, Newton displayed leadership and teamwork on the court. He admits it was difficult at times to block out negativity from players or coaches. “In basketball, we are only as good as our last game. In life, we are only as good as our last day,” he states.

For the past six years, Newton has been coaching basketball for the Burlington Rep Organization. “Giving back is why coaching is important to me. I am grateful for the life I have been given. Sharing learned knowledge is what makes being an Olympian worthwhile,” he says.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“A Radio D.J.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“When I was younger I liked to be out in nature either at Fireman’s park or hiking the gorge. Now when I am in the area, I like to be with my family.”

Kevin Rempel, ParaOlympic Sledge Hockey
Sochi, 2014

It was no surprise to family and friends when Kevin Rempel started dirt biking and receiving pay for performing in local shows. In July of 2006, while warming up, he was 30 feet in the air when he fell off his bike, landing 80 feet away. “I knew I had suffered a serious injury. I remember the entire part until I got into the helicopter,” he says. Doctors told Rempel he was a paraplegic and would never walk again: he proved them wrong.

Two years after his injury, Rempel discovered sledge hockey and was instantly hooked. “In my first year playing, I was sent a YouTube video of the Canadian sledge hockey team winning gold in Torino 2006 and right then I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics,” he says.

Kevin has been playing right wing for team Canada for the last four years and would like nothing more than to bring home the gold in Sochi. He is looking forward to playing some great hockey in Russia. “The hardest part about sledge hockey is practising and staying motivated without playing a game for a long time. We only play around 15 to 20 games a season,” he says. “My biggest fans, my mom and grandma, will be with me. I have never played in front of a crowd of more than 1000 spectators: to have a packed stadium will be pretty cool,” he adds.

Rempel has lived through many hardships in his young life. He witnessed his father’s accident which left him a paraplegic and subsequently took his own life. Rempel miraculously overcame his own injury and re-evaluated his goal in life. He is now a motivational speaker and his message is clear. “Whether you are a child or adult, do not give up regardless of your circumstances.” he says.

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
I like to pop in at my aunt’s store, The Artful Cookie on Scott Street in St. Catharines. She makes the best treats.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“In Sochi we will be focusing on our games and that will be it.”

Mohammed Ahmed, Field and Track
London 2012

The year Mohammed Ahmed was going into grade eight at Queen Mary School in St. Catharines, Ontario, he fell in love with the rush of track and field while watching the 2004 Olympic Games. “It was the first time I saw track and field at a higher level. Everyone was talking about it. In my grade eight yearbook I wrote that I wanted to go to the Olympics,” he recalls.

After a successful high school cross-country experience, including many O.F.S.S.A, Canadian junior and world junior titles, Mohammed began studying Political Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. Representing the Badgers in Cross-Country, he has obtained several All-American, All-Region and All-Big Ten titles.

At the age of 21, Ahmed represented Canada in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. “They were expecting me to be in the 2016 Olympics. I knew I wanted to make it to the 2012 Olympics, if I didn’t I was going to have to reconsider my track and field career,” he says. He recalls his Olympic experience, “Track and field often has a limited amount of spectators, so obviously when I walked into the stadium with 80,000 fans screaming it was overwhelming.”

Mohammed admits he was disappointed in finishing 18th in his Olympic race. “It took me a while to recover from ‘Olympic high’ and refocus my goals,” he says. Mohammed is back and had a breakthrough performance recording the highest finish in Canadian History in the 10,000 m event with his 9th place finish at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. “I call track and field ‘the great metaphor for life’ when you are up you have to ride it and when you are down, well, failure is when you learn the most,” he says. Mohammed certainly has a good head on his shoulders. We haven’t seen the last of him. The 2016 Olympics is in his sights and Niagara will be rooting him on.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“Probably some kind of civil service where I am helping others.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“My favourite spots in St.Catharines are the trail system I train in, such as Short Hills Provincial Park. I like nature and I get to see plenty of that through my training runs, which is really nice.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“I will be at school in Madison, I will most likely watch the hockey portion of the games more keenly, as I am a big hockey fan and watching it in the States will be a hostile territory of sort. Hopefully the boys don’t let me down because it will be a long semester if they don’t bring back the gold, as my teammates will constantly remind of that fact.”

Steve Bauer, road cycling
Los Angeles, 1984, Atlanta, 1996

Yellow is the easiest colour to see. For most it signifies happiness and joy. For Steve Bauer, the colour yellow has a different meaning: the leader. In cycling, the yellow jersey indicates the overall front-runner and lowest time accumulated in the race. Wearing the jersey is an honour that Bauer has achieved.

To stay focused on his race in the 1984 Olympics, Bauer stayed in a small hotel close to the race which was situated 100 km away from the Olympic Village. Avoiding a long commute in L.A. traffic allowed Bauer more time to train at the race site. The last lap of his race will always remain a memorable moment in his mind. “I was very good, strongest of the race, yet I came to the agony of defeat and finished second. That is the pinnacle of sport: Winning a silver medal and accepting defeat,” he says. This was Canada’s first Olympic medal in road cycling.

Over a ten year span, Bauer competed in 11 Tours de France. Making him the second Canadian to wear the yellow jersey. In 1988 he placed fourth, wearing the honour for five days and in 1990 he spent nine days in yellow, finishing 27th. When professionals were permitted to compete in the Olympics, Bauer made a second appearance at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta finishing 41st.

Bauer has earned many titles along the way, yet one title in particular has escaped him. “On two occasions I was the best in the world. 1988 and 1989. Fate and unfortunate luck would not allow me to wear the Rainbow Jersey as World professional cycling Champion.”

Bauer retired from professional cycling after the 1996 Olympics and started Steve Bauer Bike Tours. His company offers bike tours in Niagara, France and Italy. Road cycling is a sport that requires both endurance and Steve Bauer bike tours offers individuals a chance to experience Bauer’s passion for the sport.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“Probably a coach.”

Monika Seymour, Rowing
Montreal, 1976

Rowing is sport that requires power, rhythm, and concentration. Monika Seymour competed in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. For Seymour it was a pleasure to represent Canada on Canadian soil the first year women’s rowing was in the Olympics. “We were proud and excited. Walking into the stadium still brings shivers every time I watch Opening Ceremonies,” she says.

Seymour’s Olympic experience instilled in her a quiet confidence and willingness to take on challenges. “We were never getting money or endorsements. The reward was strictly intrinsic. You have to do it for yourself because it is what you want to do more than anything else,” she states. “I also learned that the ‘stars’ are really the same as all the rest of us,” she adds.

Seymour felt her crew worked hard, but did not reach their potential. “Measure of luck is always good, being in the right place at the right time and everything aligning on the big day,” she says.

Although her crew’s luck didn’t align on the water, it did back in the Olympic Village. Her most memorable moment of the games was meeting the Queen and Prince Philip while on their official tour. “We were all in hands reach of them and we spoke with them,” says Seymour.

Currently, Seymour works at the Victoria branch of the Niagara Falls Public Library. This year she has the privilege of travelling to Sochi as a Canadian Volunteer. “I am attached to Canada Olympic House, where we will be welcoming athletes and their families. We are located right in the Olympic site, so close to all the action.”

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“I have always been involved in sports.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“I love to the natural beauty of the Niagara River and the Welland Canal where I run or cycle. I also like to eat at Koutouki Greek in Niagara Falls.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“I have tickets for the February 12th Canada vs United States women’s hockey!”

Tonya Verbeek, Wrestling
Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012

Tonya Verbeek is the product of excellent coaching and intense training. She has pushed herself to physical limits one would think otherwise impossible and come out on top. This three time Olympian from Grimsby has brought home two silver and one bronze medal for Canada.

2004 was the first year that women’s wrestling was an official sport in the Olympics. Verbeek was overjoyed at the opportunity. “It is a very amazing feeling representing your country in a sport you love. I wear my singlet with pride,” she states. That year Verbeek lost in the gold medal match. She describes it as a bittersweet victory, “I was disappointed in my match, but I felt happy to bring a medal home to Canada.” Verbeek’s highlight of the 2008 Olympics was sharing the podium with her good friend, Carol Huynh. “I was happy to win bronze, Carol got the gold. It was nice to celebrate together,” she states.

During Verbeek’s first match at the London Olympics in 2012, she stated she didn’t wrestle to her fullest potential. “I froze out there,” she recalls. While being whisked out of the stadium, her coach, Marty Calder, was giving her some much needed instruction and the cameras were rolling. “I wanted to make contact with my family,” she states. While keeping a composed face, Verbeek gave her family a wave. “I loved the fact that I had my friendly support in the stands and my honest support in my ear. I needed those things to keep me going in the tournament,” she states. Verbeek reflects on her experience in London and her second silver medal, “I knew it was my last Olympics and I had done everything I could to win that match. It was a good way to end my career.”

Currently Verbeek is a talent ID coach for Wrestling Canada and is stationed out of Brock University. “I look at wrestlers and focus in on the ones that will be striving for the 2020 Olympic and beyond. My job is to make sure they are leading themselves to high performance and to the Olympic Podium,” she states. Verbeek certainly has a lot of sound advice to offer Canada’s future Olympic wrestlers.

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“Teaching. I am also a certified teacher.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“I like the local market and restaurants; particularly Thai food.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“Home most likely and cheering on the Canadians.”

Marty Calder, Wrestler
1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta

Marty Calder has gone to the Olympics six times: Twice as a wrestler and four times as a coach. Calder describes competing on the world’s biggest stage for Canada as a dream come true. “One could train for years and years and have no guarantee of getting there, you have this goal in mind and hope that it will be filled,” he states. Becoming an Olympian was an exhilarating experience for Calder.

During the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Calder recalls how everyone shared in fellow wrestler Jeffrey Thue’s excitement over his silver medal win for Canada. “I remember right after we were drug tested, Jeff brought out his silver medal and passed it around the park. He never worried where it was, but eventually it got back to him,” he says.

Participating in a gruelling sport with intense physical demands has developed Calder’s character. “I am grateful that I am in a sport that challenged me so much. There have been many times I felt like quitting, but I found a way to stick to it and ultimately I’ve benefitted from it,” says Calder.

As a coach, Calder is able to instil hard work and dedication in his athletes. “I tell my wrestlers don’t put off tomorrow what we can do today. The Brock program wins by being passionate and training smart,” he states. His effective coaching methods have garnered him an impeccable reputation as a Canadian coach. “It is gratifying when I see my wrestlers achieve something they didn’t know they could.”

If you weren’t an Olympic athlete what would you be doing?
“I would be a pro lacrosse player.”

Where is your favourite place in the Niagara Region?
“At the Highland Tap with my good friend Mike Strange.”

Where will you be when you watch the Sochi Olympics?
“At home with my family. My son and I are huge sports fans and my daughter is a figure skater.”

*Photos of Tanya Verbeek, Gordon Singleton and Rick Morrocco were taken at Evolve located at 325 Welland Ave, St. Catharines.

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