By Jim Morris
They lived in a small, remote B.C. community 523 kilometres north of Vancouver, accessible only by boat or float plane. Yet for over 25 years the Ocean Falls Amateur Swimming Club knew no boundaries.
Only about 3,000 people lived in Ocean Falls, yet from 1948 to 1974 there was at least one swimmer from the community on every Canadian international swim team.
“The swim team was a big part of the community,” said Brian McDaniel, a lawyer living in Duncan, B.C., and a former swim club member. “They took great pride in the swim team and supported it.
“It was a very important part of the fabric of the town. When the team would go away on swim trips the town would turn out for that.”
Dick Pound, former president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee, remembers being 10 years old and standing on the dock when members of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic team returned home to Ocean Falls.
“Here were these God-like creatures that had been half way around the world, representing us and Canada,” said Pound, who went on to swim the 100-metre final at the 1960 Olympics. “It was great.”
The 1965 Ocean Falls swim team was recently named to the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. That team won the combined men’s and women’s trophy at the Canadian Swimming Championships just a few months after a massive landslide killed seven people and destroyed many houses in the town.
The four men on that team – Jack Kelso, Sandy Gilchrist, Ralph Hutton and Rudi Ingenhorst – all earned scholarships at U.S. colleges. Gilchrist and Hutton went on to swim in multiple Olympics. Anne McDaniel was only 13 but was a finalist in two individual medley events and gave the team enough combined points to win the overall title.
Brent Hayden, a world champion and Olympic bronze medallist, said the Ocean Falls team should be an example to all swim clubs.
“The Ocean Falls Amateur Swimming Club should be a reminder to all of us that it isn’t the size of your club, or your town, that determines greatness. It is the size of your heart,” said Hayden, a fellow inductee this year to the BC. Sports Hall of Fame.
The roots for one of Canada’s greatest swim dynasties were planted in 1928 following the drowning death of a child at an Ocean Falls beach. The profits from the local beer parlour were used to build an indoor pool that had four lanes and was 20 yards (18.2 metres) long.
Ocean Falls existed for the pulp and paper mill operated by Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd. The town was built on the side of a mountain. There were few cars and no television until 1963. One of the wettest inhabited communities in North America, it received around 444 cm of rain a year, about four times more than Vancouver.
McDaniel said Crown Zellerbach quickly learned the importance of the pool. The isolation and wet weather resulted in a high turnover of staff at the mill.
“The company realized if they provided recreational facilities, particularly for the families and caused the families to stay, that would affect the bottom line,” he said. “They would have good employees, a stable community and a stable work force.”
The swim team’s success began in 1950 when George Gate was hired as coach. Gate, a competitive swimmer in England, suffered a serious injury while working as a logger on Vancouver Island. Part of his recovery involved swimming in a pool near English Bay in Vancouver.
As a coach, he was ahead of his time in both training and sports psychology.
“He was good on stroke mechanics,” said Pound. “Whenever he went to a meet, he observed the good swimmers. He would talk to the other coaches, find out what they were doing.”
McDaniel said besides making his swimmers physically strong, Gate made them mentally tough.
“He had an innate understanding of how to motivate people,” McDaniel said. “Because of his physiological coaching, we were not intimidated. In fact, we had a bit of an attitude.”
McDaniel believes the very nature of Ocean Falls contributed to the swim team’s success. The houses were connected by wooden roads and staircases.
“The kids were very special,” he said. “We were primarily working-class kids but we were naturally very fit. We walked and ran all the time. We walked up and down hills and stairs all the time.
“There just were some really talented kids. It was perhaps a freak of nature or history. Very talented, athletic, very competitive kids would follow George or go where he pushed them.”
Crown Zellerbach paid the coach’s salary and also helped subsidize the pool. Children paid 75 cents a month to use the facility. The town held bake sales, bingos and raffles to raise money to send the swim team on trips. Millworkers rearranged their shifts to watch local competitions.
Pound said the swim team was Ocean Fall’s pride.
“We exported paper and swimmers,” he said.
Among all the great swimmers to come from Ocean Falls, Hutton might have been the best. He competed in freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and individual medley events. During his career he won 24 medals in international competitions. He swam at three Olympic Games and won a silver medal in the 400-metre freestyle in 1968.
Gate left Ocean Falls in 1964 and eventually became had coach of the Pointe Claire Swimming Club. He is a member of the Order of Canada, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the BC Sports Hall of Fame. Bob Fisher, who later died in a hunting accident, took over as coach.
By the early 1970s rising labour costs and the expense of operating the town made the pulp mill unprofitable. In March 1973 Crown Zellerbach decided to close the plant. The provincial government bought the town and mill and kept it operating until 1980.
By 1986 the abandoned town, including its famous swimming pool, was destroyed.
“The old pool does not exist any more,” said McDaniel. “It’s a forest now. It’s very sad.
“Some people have gone back and generally say to others who haven’t, don’t go back. It’s too depressing. I haven’t gone back.”
PHOTO: BC Sports Hall of Fame