February 12, 2010 Features & Images » Feature Story

Passing the Torch 

Will 2010 Olympic legacies level the playing field for First Nations kids?

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When Hugh Fisher stepped off the podium at the 1984 Games, a freshly minted Olympic kayak champion, he was immediately squirreled away by doping control. Excitement and dehydration conspired against him - it took him three hours to produce a urine sample and by the time he was released, the collapsible paddling venue on Southern California's Lake Casitas had been entirely deconstructed and packed away. His teammates were gone. Alone, still in his paddling shorts, a gold medal in his bag, the 28-year-old champion headed out to the road by the Los Padres National Forest and stuck out his thumb.

"A guy finally drove up and leaned out the window and said, 'Hey, do you have a joint?'" recalls Fisher.

"No. I don't have a joint. But I need a ride to Ventura," he replied.

"Hop in."

Fisher's ride had been watching the paddling events and he commented on the success of the Canadians, who had snagged a total of two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Fisher and his paddling partner, Alwyn Morris, had not only won the K-2 1000 metre sprint, but they'd also posted the fastest qualifying times in the heat and semi-finals of the K-2 500 metre sprint, eventually winning the bronze medal in that event.

"Actually, I'm on the Canadian team," Fisher admitted.

"I suppose you're going to tell me you just won a gold medal."

"Well, actually, I did win a gold medal."

The driver did a cartoon-character double-take. "My family are not going to believe this." And he drove Fisher off to meet the parents.

"So that was my minute and a half of fame, up on the podium, and then out hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere," says Fisher, 25 years later and Whistler/Pemberton's most understated Olympic celebrity, with his characteristic dry humour.

For Fisher's partner in the two-man kayak, Alwyn Morris, those 90 seconds atop the podium were a different experience.

Where Hugh Fisher had grown up with the Burnaby Lake Canoe Club out his backdoor, Alywn Morris had had to come a long way to train there, leaving his home in Quebec's Kahnawake reserve straight out of high school.

Hungarian immigrants exiled by the Soviet invasion built the foundation for Canada's paddling success and Hugh Fisher, having started racing at the Burnaby Lake Canoe Club in 1970 at the age of 15, learned enough from the exiled champions to earn himself a spot on the Canadian Olympic squad in 1976. "They showed me how it was done in Hungary, where the training was very, very hard, and where they have a very big base of athletes in canoeing and the ones that survived moved up to the next level, guaranteeing that the top athletes would be world champions. In Canada you don't have that big base in sports, except maybe in hockey, so you can't afford to burn through your athletes like that."

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