The last time London hosted the Olympics, New Denver’s Dr. Trevor Harrop had a front-row seat.
It was July 30, 1948, and he was swimming for Great Britain in the 100-meter freestyle, only a few weeks after qualifying.
No one said anything to him as he entered Empire Pool (now known as Wembley Arena). No team official offered last-minute encouragement.
The lone spectator with a vested interest in his performance was his future wife Sheila, who had come from northern Scotland and had no problem finding a last-minute ticket.
“The whole thing,” he recalls, “was extremely relaxed.”
A DENTIST OR A SWIMMER?
Born in Winnipeg, Harrop’s family moved to Scotland to care for grandparents when he was seven. His parents returned to Canada in early 1948 — but in doing so missed his Olympic swim.
The first post-war games were as low key as you could get, he says. They used only pre-existing venues, athletes stayed in military barracks, and food was still rationed.
“Nobody really cared about the people who were going,” Harrop says.
At Easter, Harry Koski, Britain’s swimming chief, began assembling potential participants. Most were gone a week or ten days, but Harrop, a dental student, was only granted the weekend.
“Swimming wasn’t exactly an important part of the dental curriculum,” he says.
The trials were to be held in a big outdoor pool at Scarborough. Harrop, however, balked at its icy ocean water.
“I said ‘I’m not swimming in that bloody thing. I’m going to train up at the small pool in the middle of town.’”
A fortuitous decision, for a ferocious storm forced officials to move the meet to the pool where Harrop was practicing.
He placed third in the final behind Ron Stedman and Pat Kendall, but didn’t know he’d been chosen for the team until he put his clothes back on.
Harrop was one of seven from the town of Motherwell, near Glasgow, to earn an Olympic berth — an achievement he credits to their dedicated coach.
But he then had to beg his school’s dean for further time off.
“Sir, I’ve been chosen to swim for Britain at the Olympics,” he said.
“How long are you going for?” the dean asked.
“Two weeks? How many events are you in?”
“You don’t need two weeks for one event! You take one week, and be back on Monday.”
The dean also told him: “You want to be a dentist or a swimmer? Make up your mind.”
“Nobody really gave a two-penny damn [about the Olympics],” Harrop says.
“Koski wrote this rah-rah letter before the meet, and it was the most despondent thing I ever came across. He said ‘We don’t expect you to win medals or anything, but do your best!’”
As it happened, Koski was right: Britain earned a lone bronze in swimming.
In his heat, Harrop’s time of 1:02.3 left him 27th out of 41 swimmers, just back of teammate Kendall. Ten seconds separated first from last. Stedman finished 16th and squeaked into the semi-final but didn’t advance further. In the final, American Wally Ris took gold.
Sheila recalls gasping at the Americans: “They seemed so tall compared to us and all had straight white teeth and lovely hair. They had the same robes and big white, fluffy towels. They all looked like film stars.”
(Years later, while completing graduate studies in Iowa, Harrop ran in to Ris: “He had been in the US Navy somewhere in Michigan and transferred to Iowa University. He really was good.”)
Soon after his minute of glory, Harrop was on a train back to Glasgow. There was no hero’s welcome at the dental school. Motherwell council did, however, give each athlete a £5 note, which Harrop used to buy his first camera.
PAID IN CHICKENS
Harrop came to Canada in 1950 — at last dispensing with his ration book — and married Sheila the following year.
To their dismay, however, the BC College of Dental Surgeons didn’t recognize his training and would only let him practice in a rural area if he agreed to eventually obtain a Canadian degree. That’s how they came to New Denver.
“I loved it from the minute we got here,” Harrop says.
“We were paid to a great extent in chickens and vegetables,” Sheila laughs. “I had people wanting to wash my floor and babysit.”
Harrop shared an office with physician Robbie Robinson in what’s now the Hidden Garden Gallery.
After 2½ years, he made good on his promise to earn a Canadian degree by attending Dalhousie University in Halifax. But by that time, another dentist set up shop in Nakusp. Not wishing to compete for the small clientele, Harrop instead started a practice in Campbell River.
Later, he helped establish the dental school at the University of BC and taught there for 25 years. He also did several overseas sabbaticals.
All along, the Harrops summered in New Denver with their four children and ultimately retired there.
GUEST OF HONOUR
Harrop, 85, hasn’t thought much about his Olympic moment, and until recently not many people knew about it.
“It was an experience,” he says. “I was very lucky to hit it right. Probably if I had been in any other country it would not have happened, but Britain wanted the largest team possible.”
This year, the British Olympic Association invited him to London, along with all other surviving athletes from the 1948 games.
Of the 50 members of his swim team, 17 are still alive and nine accepted the invitation, including him.
Trevor and Sheila left two weeks ago and attended a royal luncheon. On Wednesday they will be at a reception hosted by London’s Lord Mayor. At the games themselves, they’ll take in tennis, basketball, and swimming.
Harrop received a few freebies back in ‘48: a train ticket, blazer, sweatsuit, swimming trunks, hat, tie, and medal. He still has the trunks and blazer’s crest, but the medal was stolen.
Though he avoids chilly Slocan Lake, Harrop is often found in the water.
“Trevor still swims really well,” Sheila says. “Any time I go shopping in Nelson, he goes for a swim at the pool. He did 27 laps last time.”
Harrop thanks the city for giving him a free pass. (It’s because he’s over 80, but they should extend the offer to Olympians too.)
The 2012 games begin Friday.