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Don Curphey and Greg Rokosh 1972 Olympics

04-May-2023 5:08 PM | Anonymous

Argonaut Olympian Issue #10

Welcome to our 10th Argonaut Olympian profile. I'm pleased to say it couldn't be about a greater champion of rowing than Greg Rokosh who paired up with fellow Argo phenom Don Curphey to become one of Canada's fastest crews in the lead up to the 1972 Munich Olympics. Their ninth-place Olympic finish, in a coxless four with UBC rowers Ian Gordon and Karel Jonker, was the best placement among Canadian crews at the regatta. Their compelling story is below.

Part 10 – Don Curphey and Greg Rokosh 1972 Olympics

Games of the XX Olympiad, Munich, West Germany

Before the controversy of the 1980 Olympic boycott by the West and the retaliatory 1984 boycott by Eastern-bloc countries, there was the 1972 Munich Olympics - still etched in memory of everyone old enough to remember. All Olympic nations took part. For Greg Rokosh and Don Curphey this was the first Olympics and, as it turned out, the only one either of them would be able to participate in as athletes. Greg and Don, like so many Olympians, were always athletes. Greg, was from the West, excelled at football and wrestling as captain of these teams at the University of Saskatchewan, winning a Major Athletic Award there. Don was born and raised in Toronto and while in high school at Western Tech he competed in swimming, senior football, and rowing - his first introduction to the Argonaut Club. Greg's path to rowing and to the Argonaut Club was an unlikely one. When he had arrived in Toronto in 1967, having been recruited by Shell Canada upon graduation from the U of S, he was already determined to compete at the Olympics - in wrestling! Greg was in peak wrestling shape and felt ready to qualify a spot on the Canadian national team. However, while at the University of Saskatchewan, he had sustained knee injuries which returned with a vengeance on the wrestling mat at the University of Toronto wrestling room. Surgery was required and wrestling at the Mexico Olympic Games was out. Greg set his wrestling goal on Munich in 1972. A wrestling friend, who was also a rower, recommended rowing at Argos to recover leg strength and to generally keep in shape until the knee was ready for wrestling. His first outing at Argos was in a workboat single and he got caught in a sudden storm. Luckily for Greg, Argo Olympian Lief Godfredson came out in his single and shepherded Greg back to the dock. Greg took a shine to the sport almost immediately and started training with earnest. By 1968 he was already racing and winning sprints at Henley and started racing in the senior program.

Don, on the other hand, was never far from the water. After winning the Schoolboy (CSSRA) regatta in the four in high school he went on to the University of Toronto to study chemical engineering. While at U of T he joined the varsity rowing team where he enjoyed many victories on the water. When asked what appealed to him about rowing and the Argonaut club he said,

"Starting in high school I found great pleasure working as part of a team where all members were essential to success and I found that every practice or race was always an important competition. I found that the Argonaut rowers always competed whether it was in the shell, playing soccer by the club or playing touch football with members of the Argo football taxi players."

Sometimes rowing legends such as Bobby Pearce would stop by the club to watch the talent row past the clubhouse. These moments were inspiring to determined rowers like Greg and Don. So the paths of these two oarsmen, an unlikely pairing even by the time they finished university, finally crossed at the Argonaut club in 1969.

After a year of getting his 'rowing legs', Greg was ready for new challenges and things really changed for the better when the club, upon the insistence of George McCauley, and under Club Captain Ted Wilson, hired a high-performance coach. Argos scored big in hiring Tudor Bompa. Tudor is now recognized as the world authority on the periodization theory of training. Under his tutelage Greg and Don would train and push each other towards the upper echelons of high performance. Tudor's training consisted of am and pm rows, weights, running, and a focused attitude about training and winning. The pair and their coach soon began thinking about international racing and the upcoming Munich Olympic Games. Greg was still working at a very demanding job in Shell Canada's Information Services branch and raised the subject of his competitive goals with the President, who was fully supportive of his efforts. Shell provided Greg with time off for key training and competition requirements and used his efforts and goals in staff motivational material.

1970 Henley Royal Regatta Crew, from left, Coach Al Gill, Tony Novotny, Don Curphey, Greg Rokosh, Ron Burgon, D'Arcy Burgon (Spare)

In 1970, Greg and Don had some successful races in the coxed four with a young Joel Burgon as their coxie. With Don as his bow man, the stage was set for a shot at the Olympics! The pair started entering, and winning, big races such as Philly's Independence Day Regatta and the Canadian Henley, and doing remarkably well with so little rowing experience.

By 1971 the Argos had roughly a half-dozen guys with the potential to make the Olympic Team. The club raised money and sent the fellows to race in Europe that summer where they proved to be as fast as the Europeans and ultimately at English Henley. This international exposure was vital to the development of Greg and Don. Later in 1971 at the ARC Double Blue Awards night, Greg was awarded the Argonaut Oarsman of the Year trophy, which he says is one of the most valuable mementos of his brief rowing career.

Finally it was 1972 and Olympic fever was burning at the ARC. As part of their final preparation (there was no national team program supporting this preparation - it was all Argos) Greg and Don travelled to Europe for more international experience. This was part of Tudor Bompa"s periodization preparation. Rowing borrowed equipment in Amsterdam, Lucerne, and at the Henley Royal Regatta in England, the experience was priceless. Despite being there without a coach, using borrowed boats and oars, and low rent accommodations, the pair gained valuable experience.

1972 Henley Royal Regatta, Greg Rokosh and Don Curphey prepare to take on the Russians, among others.

Returning to Canada, Greg and Don entered as the ARC pair in the Olympic selection trials in St. Catharines. To guarantee a spot they had to race a best of three series against the more experienced crew of Roger Jackson and Jim Walker. They lost twice by a few seconds each. It was then that coach Tudor Bompa decided to put the two pairs together to contest the coxless four event. This was the closest thing to a National Team at the time as the concept was still in its infancy in Canada although different European countries already had a national selection process in place for a few decades. The four won easily and so followed an invitation to the National Team training camp in London, Ontario. At the London camp, the coaches switched oarsmen from crew to crew trying to maximize potential. The coxless four from the selection trials was broken up with Greg and Don joining two UBC rowers Ian Gordon and Karel Jonker. Roger Jackson and Jim Walker joined two other UBC rowers in the coxed four. That was the boating order for Munich. The Canadian team was made up of 16 men. Women would not row at the Olympic Games until 1976 in Montreal.

Greg Rokosh and Don Curphey tear up the Argonaut watercourse in the summer of 1972 making final preparations for the Munich Olympic regatta.

The Olympic regatta arrived and the newly formed crew of Gordon, Jonker, Rokosh, and Curphey was filled with excitement as they took to the water. In their first Olympic race the nervous crew pushed hard and placed third in their heat behind Romania and Norway. The four knew that a quick start would be vital to race the best in the world, and they worked on that in training and used it in every start. In their repechage, Switzerland went with the Canadians out of the blocks and got caught for a false start. Both crews knew it was Canada that went first but the big yellow ball indicating the infraction was placed behind the Swiss crew at the start line. Just before the restart, Tommy Keller, President of FISA and a Swiss himself, roared up to the start line in his Mercedes, hopped out and read the riot act to the Swiss crew. This put everyone on edge. In the repechage the Canadian four beat France and the USA to earn a spot in the semi-final. New Zealand was considered the team to beat and they won the race with East Germany in second and Germany third taking the last birth into the finals. Those were the gold, silver and bronze medallists in the finals two days later. Canada's fourth place was a solid effort but ended a boat length short of getting a shot at gold. They ended up racing in the small final and came third behind Great Britain and Bulgaria after leading for almost the entire distance.

By the morning of Sept. 5th the rowing competition was over but Greg Rokosh, habitually an early riser, awoke and quietly left the Olympic residence for a workout. He was confronted by a heavily armed German speaking individual outside the apartment with a gun pointed at the next building where the Israeli team was housed.

"Hostages!" said the trooper.

Greg woke the others and relayed this surreal incident. It didn't take long before an English speaking officer arrived and informed the athletes of their options: stay where you are until further notice or leave now under armed escort to a safer location in the village. We chose the latter and scurried single file past the hooded Palestinians who watched us from the balcony of the building they had invaded. Eventually the Palestinians and the remaining living Israeli team members left the Olympic village by bus escorted by armed troops. What happened at the airport where the victims were taken is unclear. What is clear is that all the captives were murdered there when someone opened fire before the bound Israelis were out of the helicopters en route to a waiting jet.

The backstory is this: Early in the morning on Sept. 5th, terrorists known as Black September, dressed up as athletes and joined a group of Canadian Olympians, Greg Rokosh among them, returning to their apartments after watching an exciting hockey game as part of the 1972 Canada-Russia summit series. Since it was late and the main entrance was far, everyone scaled the exterior fence closest to their building. The terrorists, dressed as athletes, unassumingly went along with the group and gained access to the compound. They went directly to the Israeli building #31, shot two athletes following an altercation, and took the remaining nine athletes and officials hostage. An intense standoff occurred which later that night led to a shootout at a Munich airport leaving the remaining nine Israeli athletes, one German police officer, and five Palestinian terrorists dead. There were 208 Canadian athletes at the '72 Games; among them were 16 Canadian rowers and among them were two Argonaut rowers - Don Curphey and Greg Rokosh who experienced this poignant moment in sports history first hand.

The IOC then took an extraordinary measure in determining if the games should go on. They let only the athletes decide by a simple vote and they overwhelmingly said yes, we will prevail and all events were completed. For Canada, we didn't win a single medal, in rowing or any other sport. But like no Games ever, before or since, the Munich Olympics wasn't so much about winning as about being - being present, being human, and being respectful to those that weren't able to leave those Games.

Five days later, most of the crews from Munich were transported to Heidelberg for the classic Martini Achter Regatta. Don Curphey had already left Germany for Canada and was replaced in the four by Mike Neary of UBC. The Canadians won against West Germany, Romania, New Zealand, Poland, and Hungary.

To this day, Greg and Don remember Munich well, even though it was nearly a half-century ago. After the Olympics Don retired from rowing and moved to London, ON where he taught high school and raised a family. Reflecting on Olympic racing and team competition in general, Curphey says,

"I think that every oarsman tries to be the best no matter the race and it is always nice to win or at least to see what the team needs to improve. Rowing teaches endurance and the importance of team (not the individual). Commitment to the sport is what is necessary from any potential oarsman."

Greg continued to row although training for another Olympics was not considered. He again asked Shell for another sabbatical to go to work for the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen (C.A.A.O), now Rowing Canada Aviron. Without salary or office and a little government funding he became our first National Coaching Coordinator. Carling O’Keefe provided some salary funds. This meant wearing their logoed shirts at all times. Greg's first major assignment in this position was to organize the FISA International Coaches Conference in Toronto. It was the first time this event was being hosted outside of Europe and Thomi Keller, FISA President, was Greg's main contact in putting it together. Thomi was happy with the result. A little later, Greg took on the responsibilities of the CAAO Technical Director when the incumbent left suddenly to organize the regatta at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.

Greg Rokosh proudly displays his C.A.A.O. Championship plaque won in 1972 with Pairs partner Don Curphey. Photo taken in Ottawa, ON Feb. 2017.

In 1975, Greg started the popular 'Catch' magazine, which was distributed mainly to rowing clubs with Gord Layton as editor. Before the internet this was the only way to communicate and when electronic media took hold the magazine went out of print. Faced with returning to a career at Shell, Greg instead accepted an offer from his Olympic team mate Roger Jackson, Director General of Sport Canada, to join his team building Sport Canada. Reflecting on his rowing days with Greg, Don playfully suggests,

"My greatest achievement in training for the Olympic tryouts was beating Greg in a running test since he was a better athlete. Tudor Bompa was the most influential coach in teaching us how to prepare to race and developing our physical conditioning."

When asked what advice he could offer to aspiring young rowers at the Argonaut club Greg says,

"There are two rules to follow. One: work hard, very, very hard. Two: Find the right coach, listen to this coach and put your absolute trust in this coach. In terms of power application at higher rates, increase through the upper body as the stroke progresses. An extra pull, opposed to easing off, at the finish will create a pocket to get your blade cleanly out of the water and will give you a centimetre of advantage over another boat” ~ GS 2017

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