The quiet engine: remembering Olympian and artist Lorne Loomer

Loomer, who won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in rowing and grew up in Nelson, passed away on Jan. 1.

Olympic rower and artist Lorne Loomer is seen here speaking in September at the University of Victoria. He was honoured for founding the university's rowing program with a room named after him and his late wife Elizabeth.

Olympic rower and artist Lorne Loomer is seen here speaking in September at the University of Victoria. He was honoured for founding the university's rowing program with a room named after him and his late wife Elizabeth.

Lise-Lotte Loomer didn’t grow up with an oar in her hands.

In fact, there wasn’t much evidence in the Loomer household of what her father, Lorne, had accomplished. He wasn’t one to brag, and he’d left his sport in the past.

What Loomer’s daughter did have was his Olympic gold medal, which she remembers taking to her Grade 3 class for show and tell.

“It wasn’t part of the home life, per se, but there were moments like that,” said Lise-Lotte. “We knew that Dad had been part of something really special for Canada and we were really proud of that.”

Loomer, who grew up in Nelson, died of esophageal and liver cancer on Jan. 1 at age 79.

In Canadian sports history, Loomer is known for his performance at the 1956 Summer Games, when he and teammates Archibald MacKinnon, Don Arnold and Walter d’Hondt won Canada’s first-ever rowing gold medal.

Loomer’s honours also include a world record, competing at the 1960 Summer Games and inductions into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Sports Hall of Fame, and the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

But the Olympics were just one moment in a life that became about so much more than rowing.

Loomer was born in Penticton in 1937 and moved with his family to Nelson four years later. He spent his early years in the city playing baseball, basketball and curling. Loomer never rowed in Nelson, although a boat named after him sits at the Nelson Rowing Club.

He graduated from Nelson High School in 1954 and had wanted to become a cartoonist. But despite an artistic talent, Loomer’s father discouraged his son and instead pushed him into the University of British Columbia’s pharmaceutical program.

It was there he met his future rowing teammates.

Arnold, who rowed with the team in Melbourne, remembers Loomer as a quiet engine in the boat. “That four that we had, we knew one another so well, we knew there was nobody in there who would let somebody else down.”

The team had been together for just six months before they competed in the Canadian Olympic trials and promptly broke the world record. Soon after they were chosen for the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

The rowing event was actually held at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, about an hour and a half outside Melbourne. The Canadian coxless four team, who were unheralded coming into the event, won their first three races.

In the final they suffered a poor start and were last off the line, so Arnold directed the team to take on a fast stroke to get back into contention.

The team pulled even with the European champion French boat at the halfway point, then caught the leading Americans with 900 metres to go.

“At that point in time it was decided we would go for broke or we’re going home,” said Arnold. “We took the stroke up, then finished the final race off of the Olympics by 500 metres, which is quite astronomical.”

Canada ended up winning gold just 1/300th of a second off the then-Olympic record. Loomer and his teammates collected their medals on the wharf — there was no podium used for rowing at the time — and returned home pioneers for future Canadian rowers. In the press they were referred to as the Cinderella Four.

The team continued racing, winning gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games then continuing on with the Canadian team in different events at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

It was when he returned to Canada that Loomer stepped out of the spotlight and into his family life.

He married his wife Elizabeth in 1963 and the pair had two daughters, Lise-Lotte and Anne-Lise. Loomer founded the University of Victoria’s rowing program in 1965, but for the next three decades his life was focused on his family.

That meant working in a career he hated.

“He was really an artist, and he lived the life of a chemist in a pharmacy,” said d’Hondt. “That really went against his grain. He put up with that and raised his family, and tragically had the stroke that allowed him to go back to his real love of painting.”

After Loomer’s parents passed away, Elizabeth suggested he take an art class. He became interested in working in watercolours and making cedar bark brushes, and started teaching a popular class at Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts outside Victoria in the early 1990s where he continued on until last year.

“As a person he thought deeply about life and about people, and I think his paintings and his art gave him the way out,” said d’Hondt.

“I felt his soul was confined. He had an awful lot more to give that never came out. It’s one of the tragedies of life. Some people are constrained in their own shell and it never comes out. As a person he was just a wonderful person to be with. He was my best friend in the world.”

When he was 53, Loomer suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak and walk.

That turned out to be a blessing, because it meant he couldn’t continue work at the pharmacy and could instead focused on his art. Elizabeth, who passed away in 2013, helped her husband with the tricky work of matting and framing.

Loomer also resumed rowing, which helped him walk again.

“What’s beautiful about it I think is he didn’t let the stroke define him, he didn’t let the circumstance define him,” said Lise-Lotte.

“That was who he was. He was a competitive athlete. He was competitive in lots of ways in his life and he was able to forget the stroke and the recovery, because he was back in the boat and just one of the guys.

“There’s something quite wonderful about that.”

Throughout the years, Loomer also remained close with his teammates.

The last time they were all together was two years ago when they received an invite to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Because of his mobility issues, d’Hondt travelled with Loomer to Calgary where MacKinnon already was, while Arnold flew down from Whitehorse.

“It was great thing for Lorne because it brought him out into reality again that he could still do what he thought he couldn’t do, which was to go on an airplane and go in an airport and find his way around,” said Arnold.

“That was really the last and most important time the four of us were together. I don’t think any of us have ever forgotten it.”