Ahead of the Rio Olympics, The Varsity takes a look at the history of U of T olympians.
Varsity Blues have been representing Canada in the Olympics since 1900. The Blues have been representated in sports like swimming, track and field, and women’s hockey. The very first Blue to compete in the games was George Orton. Orton was the first Canadian to medal at the Olympics, earning a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles and a gold in the 2,500m steeplechase.
Orton’s successes came before Canada even had an Olympic team. In the early years of the modern Olympics, Canadian athletes competed as individuals in primarily track and field events.
Although Orton was a Blue in his undergrad, his invitation to the Olympics came when he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Since Canada did not send a team, Orton competed with the American team. It took decades for Orton’s accomplishments to be recognized as a Canadian triumph; however, he has since been regarded as Canada’s first Olympic medalist.
Allan Keith and Orville Elliot were two members of the Varsity Blues gymnastics team who represented Canada at the 1908 Olympic Games. That same year, Ed Archibald and Cal Bricker, members of the track and field team, each earned bronze medals.
Greater successes for the Blues came later. As the Olympics increased in popularity, the Varsity Blues represented Canada in greater numbers. In the 1924 Paris Olympics the entirety of U of T’s eight-man rowing team was selected to compete. The team more than held their own against the international competition, cruising to a second place finish.
U of T has since had a consistent presence at the Olympics. Members of the Varsity Blues hockey team were chosen to play for Canada in the 1928 Winter Olympic Games, earning a gold medal, Canada’s third straight gold in hockey.
This came during a very dominant period for Canadian Olympic hockey; the team was in the midst of a run that would see them winning six of seven gold medals from 1920 (the year hockey was introduced to the Games) to 1952.
As dominant as the men’s team has been, Blues women have been just as successful. The women’s hockey team earned silver in 1998 and has won gold in every Olympics since.
Besides medals, another fixture of this team has been Jayna Hefford, who has represented the Canadian team in every competition since women’s hockey was introduced in 1998. Hefford, who played for the Blues as an undergraduate, recently retired to become an assistant coach at her alma mater. Her goal in the 2002 championship game won Canada a gold medal.
In addition to our nation’s penchant for winter Olympic glory, the Varsity Blues have maintained a presence in the summer Olympics as well. The Blues swimming program has had a long history of success at the games. In 1972, five Blues represented Canada’s swim team. Erik Fish earned a bronze.
Current Blues swim coach Bryan MacDonald also competed in 1972. Since he began his head coaching tenure in 1978-1979, the Blues have sent 27 swimmers to the Games, representing Canada, Switzerland, Barbados, and Swaziland. MacDonald’s presence at the games has extended beyond his players — since 1984, he has been a commentator for the swimming events at nearly every Olympics. He has won two Gemini awards for his coverage, in 2004 and in 2008.
The most recent competitors to represent Canada and U of T came in 2012 by athletes Sarah Wells and Rosie MacLennan. Wells, a former CIS gold medalist, competed in her first Olympic games in London in the 400m hurdles competition where she placed twenty-fourth. Current kinesiology graduate student, and trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and won Canada its only gold medal of the entire London 2012 games. Both Wells and MacLennan hope to represent Canada and U of T in Rio.