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Monday June 27, 2011

He had an Olympian talent, but never got to go to the Games

The war got in the way, and later he was unfairly deemed too old to represent Canada

Special to The Globe and Mail

On June 22 at the Winnipeg Rowing Club, family and friends gathered to celebrate the life of Theo Dubois, who passed away at the age of 100 on June 10 in Winnipeg. Many readers will not recognize the name or be aware of his incredible sports achievements.

His is a story of rags to riches, without riches of a monetary kind. Rather, he excelled in cycling, boxing and rowing, at a time in Canada when the majority of athletes competed as amateurs. Reward was measured not by money or sponsors but by your peers, public acknowledgment and personal satisfaction.

Theo was born in Brussels on May 19, 1911, and came to Winnipeg with his parents in 1913. His father, Felix, was a carpenter.

His mother, Alice, provided dressmaking services to many of Winnipeg's wealthy families. Alice, concerned that her only son would get in with the wrong crowd, persuaded one of her clients to help this poor immigrant kid get into the Winnipeg Rowing Club.

Rowing, called sculls at the time, was a sport practised primarily by the rich. Theo, christened "The Kid" by club members, began his training at 14. His passion wasn't a social club with lots of members, rather the lonely sport of rowing. Rowing against the rich and powerful to one championship after another demonstrated his grit, determination and heart.

His sports accomplishments are legendary.

In cycling, he won the annual Winnipeg-to-Winnipeg Beach race a record three times over a punishing 50-mile course with 12 miles of pavement and 38 miles of gravel, setting a speed record of 1 hour 38 minutes. In 1933, he twice defeated American Cycling Champion, Adolph Velthuysen, in the Detroit Velodrome.

The war effort had him working in a machine gun factory in Ottawa and rowing for the Ottawa Rowing Club, during which time he took up the sport of boxing and captured the Eastern Ontario heavyweight boxing crown.

But there is no doubting his first love was rowing. Under the guidance of the late coach Selby Henderson, he was taught the art and science of sculling - skills he passed on to scores of others, when during his post-competitive years he coached at the Winnipeg Rowing Club. There, his title The Kid morphed into The Boss.

He won four gold medals - in singles, doubles, fours and eights - at the 1934 Northwestern International Rowing Association Regatta. At the 1938 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catharines, Ont., he won the junior singles race. In 1939, he won the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsman's Association (CAAO) singles. He and Albert Riley captured both the senior double at the U.S. National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (NAAO) and the senior double at the Canadian Henley, becoming North American champions. This qualified them for the Olympics that were subsequently cancelled with the advent of the Second World War.

In 1940, Dubois won the NAAO singles race. In 1941, he became the North American sculling champion by winning the senior singles crown at both the CAAO and NAAO championship races. This resulted in his being awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's athlete of the year in 1941.

He raced again in 1942, capturing the singles crown at the Canadian Henley. He competed against the likes of Jack Kelly Jr., the brother of movie star Grace Kelly and subsequently Princess Grace of Monaco, and Joe Angyal of New York, who was one of the few scullers to beat the great Joe Burke during the Depression. He won. Having qualified before and now trying for one last shot at qualifying for the Olympics at 37, he entered the 1948 CAAO qualifying race in St. Catharine's, cleanly beating all opponents. However, the Olympic selection committee, at a closed-door meeting, deemed him "too old" to represent Canada in the upcoming Games.

Outraged citizens of Winnipeg offered to fund his trip to the Games, but the officials turned the offer down. The irony of that decision was made clear when the Olympic gold medal winning time in the singles was slower than Dubois' qualifying time.

From 1931 to 1955, he acquired more trophies at the Northwestern Regatta than any other oarsman. In 1976 and 1977, he captured the veteran's singles titles and in 1978 was appointed honorary president of the Winnipeg Rowing Club.

He reluctantly gave up rowing and coaching at the age of 91.

In 1981, Dubois was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

He received his architecture degree from the University of Manitoba in 1952. He retired from his job working for the City of Winnipeg Planning Department in 1976.

Dubois leaves his wife, Adele (Kay) Wilcosh.

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