TORONTO – Martha McCabe is an Olympic finallist and FINA World Championships medallist. But she wouldn’t be here without the support of her tight-knit family in the Toronto area. With Remembrance Day around the corner, the 24-year-old recently spent some time with her maternal grandmother Katherine McKillop, a 90-year-old World War II veteran. McKillop – better known as “Nana” – and her late husband Alexander (Sandy) McKillop, both served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Swimming Canada: You and your husband served in World War II, can you tell us a bit about your roles?
Katherine McKillop: We were both in the Air Force. My husband was a navigator with the RCAF. He was sent to Germany 33 times and managed to come home alive. He was stationed in England, and they would send him over to Germany. He always flew at night. I wouldn’t like it. I was in the Air Force also. After my basic training in Ottawa I was sent to Halifax to a very secret job. Radar had just come on the market, it was to do with radar. They picked up – don’t ask me how – tracks of aircraft coming over to make sure they could identify them as friendly, also submarines and things like that. We looked after plotting the course of these. You’ve probably seen it in old movies: girls with headsets on standing around a table taking plots from different radar stations, and making paths for aircraft to be identified by another group of people. I spent a year and a bit in Halifax, then I was sent to Newfoundland to do the same thing, which happened to be ‘overseas’ then.
SC: How did you and your husband meet?
KM: We went to Jarvis Collegiate (Institute in Toronto), both met there, and had hung around with a group the whole four or five years we were there. Then the war came. He says he wanted to get married before he went over, I don’t remember any of that, but when we went home we got married after the war in ’46.
SC: With you being in Halifax and Newfoundland and your husband stationed in Europe, how did you keep in touch?
KM: They were pretty strict about what we could say in the mail and stuff so we didn’t get too much of that done, but a little bit just writing letters.
SC: Martha, what do you think about your grandparents’ story?
Martha McCabe: It’s amazing to me hearing the stories every time. Even right now hearing it is really cool. It’s amazing because it’s so foreign to me. It’s so close family wise, but just so out of this current world. It’s amazing to hear about it and my own grandparents having been a part of that.
SC: What do you think is the most amazing part?
MM: I don’t know if I have an answer for that. The fact they were monitoring how much they could say to each other in letters is crazy. That just doesn’t exist now. It’s
just so far from where we are now, everything is instant and on your lap, you don’t have to get up. Just the entire situation is pretty amazing: the fact they were able to go away, come back and get married is a pretty amazing story. They went to school in Toronto probably 10 minutes away from where we are right now, married and had a house five minutes from where we are right now, and I grew up five minutes from here.
SC: Do you have any special plans for Remembrance Day?
KM: I like to see the service on the TV, that I like to watch. And here (The Briton House retirement home) they will have something where I live.
SC: Nana, what do you think about how Martha has represented her country through her athletic career?
KM: I still can’t believe it. I think it’s wonderful. What do you say? It’s “cool.” I was the star of Briton House for a couple of days when they heard about all the swimming and all this stuff.
MM: When I got back from the Olympics I came because when the Olympics were going on everyone knew that Nana’s granddaughter was at the Olympics. So I came in and met with a bunch of them to talk and say hi, that was kind of cool.
SC: Why was that important to you?
MM: It’s just so important to me because it’s more about that family thing I’ve always touched on. Nana’s a big part of my family. She helped me get where I was, when I was little or even having that extra support now. It’s just kind of giving back, that’s the big thing. It was special for her and if it’s special for her it’s special for me.
SC: Nana what do you remember about Martha swimming when she was younger?
KM: At the cottage we swam together but I don’t remember too much.
MM: At that cottage we’d go up together and Nana would be there when I was starting out in the water.
SC: Nana, do you remember a time when you started to think Martha could really go places with her swimming?
KM: Not exactly but when she got going I kept saying ‘I just can’t believe this!’All the people here were cheering for her too, it was really something.
SC: Do you have any final thoughts about Remembrance Day for our readers?
KM: I hope they don’t have to do it again someday. I just hope. It’s just so ridiculous the whole thing of war and all this. All I can do is pray and hope the next generation won’t have to go through all this and it’ll be worse than when we went through it.
MM: As someone from this generation who doesn’t know a lot about it, I think the big thing and something I know I should be doing is to try to educate myself a little more. The more we know the better, and the less likely it will be to happen again. Each of us takes responsibility for that. Learning, and talking to all the people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for us, that’s the big thing.