With the end of the first draft of SIX. DAYS. AWAY. in sight, I thought I would share the first chapter. It’s been a truly enjoyable experience reliving my time with the young men that I coached at Ridley. I hope to have it published and in stores by early September, 2016. Enjoy!
THE PLACE I KNEW
Thirty-one years later, the late summer dew felt cool on my feet as it reached past the edge of my Berks. It was the first staff meeting of the year. Striding towards and then through the School House doors, the Westminster Chimes signaled eight and two quarters reminding me that as much as I was on time, perhaps I was late—a few decades give-or-take.
The familiar tune of this new digital timekeeper portrayed the ultimate metaphor. The days of the soulful analog vibrations that you could feel stirring in your chest standing this close to the clock tower were long gone. Replaced now by a more efficient and cost effective imposter.
Ridley College had been my home since day one. I was born on the campus in 1964 the son of a schoolmaster. The late Dr. Hamilton, Ridley’s 3rd Headmaster, had hired my dad, Carl Dorland, three years earlier.
Dad then promptly moved his family to St.Catharines to assume the role of teacher, coach and housemaster. The life my three siblings and I knew growing up on these sixty-odd acres was pure magic. Manicured fields and wooded areas with classic Ivy League- style architecture—what wasn’t to like? It was a childhood that most could only dream of, and yet we were fortunate enough to be living it.
From September to June we attended the local public school, Edith Cavell. However, late afternoons, evenings and weekends we were cut loose to play on Ridley’s massive campus. Then, come July, when all of the School’s boarding students left for the summer break we owned every square inch of that place.
With the other staff brats I would race out of our kitchen doors after breakfast each summer morning and meet in the front courtyard to plan the day. Baseball, soccer and football on the fields, tennis on the courts, ball hockey in the outdoor arena, and sometimes on rainy days even hide and seek in the gym—that spooky old gym. The day’s activities were capped off with a swim before dinner when all of us would gather in the School’s pool. We splashed and played tirelessly washing away the day’s sweat and grime until one of our parents announced that it was time to go home.
When evenings came, we biked around the parameter of the grounds, played tag in the woods and when we were old enough to stay out past the streetlights coming on, German Spotlight on the main fields. That was our life.
In the same way you felt comfort and safety in the arms of a parent carrying you from the car to your warm bed, Ridley’s campus held and protected us. Yes, perhaps an idealistic cocoon that sheltered us far too much. But, we didn’t know any differently, we certainly didn’t care and we loved it.
When we grew old enough to attend Ridley, most of us did. Sons and daughters of teachers afforded an education normally reserved for the financial elite. However, for staff children it was provided at a cost our parents could afford. The remaining payment came in the form of giving our moms and dads over to 24-hour-a-day access by the full-paying students. For the most part, we saw it as a fair exchange: sharing our parents with a few hundred teenagers for the chance to go to one of Canada’s most distinguished independent schools.
During the early 1970’s, Ridley went through perhaps the most significant single change in the history of the School—admitting girls. Not necessarily a popular decision at the time, but Richard Bradley, the Headmaster who ushered in that change, saw it as essential not only to the School’s survival, but also to creating a more progressive, relevant and all-encompassing education for Ridley students. Eventually, Mr. Bradley would be vindicated, as Ridley became the trendsetter with the majority of independent schools across the land eventually following suit.
The culture of Ridley that I experienced as a young boy growing up on the campus was that of community—family, even. School events were a big part of that community, and most of them focused around the arts and athletics. As a preteen, I looked forward to attending the School plays and musicals each year. They were exceptional.
In the winter, The Assault at Arms was a one-night spectacle of athletic precision displayed through gymnastics and other team events. Colonel Iggulden, or The Colonel as we affectionately referred to him, would run students through their paces to the delight of parents and staff each year followed by the Cadet Band marching into the gymnasium playing Ridley Go. It was the stuff of movies. The traditions were a little corny at times, but this was a nostalgic period that filled us with a sense of belonging. A feeling that resonated throughout the School. It was the essence of the place.
If Ridley was known for anything in those days, it was the unquestioning commitment to sports. The powers that be saw it as an integral part of our education, and we spent a minimum of two hours each day dedicated to our athletic passions. If you liked sports, and the majority of us did, there was a good chance you would enjoy your time at Ridley.
On a crisp autumn day, there was no better time spent than watching a first team football game against one of the other rival independent schools. Whether it was Upper Canada, St. Andrews or Appleby, it didn’t matter. The School would gather on A Squad to vehemently cheer for our boys. With traditional male cheerleaders unapologetically leading a mass of seemingly crazed students through songs and cheers that dated back to the School’s beginning, our voices echoed across the campus displaying a tone of school spirit one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The pride that I, and others, took from those moments of supporting our fellow students was palpable. Our belief in the Spirit of Ridley was our touchstone. It brought us closer together.
For all of the attention that Ridley’s sports teams attracted, the rowing crews seemed to garner particular notoriety and prominence due to multiple national and international successes throughout the late-1960’s right through to the mid-1990’s. Ridley’s rowing program was impressive to say the least.
In 1968, Neil Campbell, himself a Ridley student at one time in his youth, now a multiple Olympic rower and aspiring coach took the reins of the fledgling program and ran with it—full-bore! He recruited an impressive assembly of supporting coaches and built an armada of crews that in short notice dominated rowing waters nationally, in the United States and overseas in Great Britain.
In 1971, our dad began managing the rowing program and helped see it through to the late 1980’s when he retired from the School. Growing up in our household, there weren’t too many evenings where Dad wasn’t on the phone with other coaches or hosting them at boat club meetings in our living room where they discussed the upcoming regattas, fund-raising and all things administrative. It was an exciting time for the Ridley rowing program, and dad as a local rower after the war having followed his father’s footsteps was passionate about his involvement.
When it came my turn to row in grade ten, I had some shoes to fill. My two older brothers, Scott and Paul both having had their turn in previous winning heavy eight crews, had won every major high school race there was, including gold at the Henley Royal Regatta. Known as the most prestigious rowing regatta in the world.
For many of the young rowers in those early heavy eight crews, Neil assumed the role of more than just coach. He was a surrogate father to most. His rebellious character was larger than life and proved irresistible to the young men who followed his training regimen religiously and hung-off his every word when he spoke. As impressionable teens without our parents around, many relied on him to provide leadership in developing our values and life skills. Neil taught us the meaning of commitment and sacrifice. And, for many, myself included, helped us redefine what we perceived as our physical and mental limitations. The result of that tutelage was some astoundingly fast crews.
By the time I had graduated from Ridley, I had been a part of a few myself. It was an unforgettable time. We lived to row. Each day during class, watching the clock and counting the hours and then minutes until it was our time to leave for rowing training. Like so many athletes who utilize sport as an escape, rowing was a safe-haven for me, a place where I belonged and was understood. Whether it was winter-training indoors or on the water in the spring, the butterflies would intensify with each passing moment as we anticipated the workout session for the day.
It was a strange attraction to be sure, a sport that you didn’t play but rather endured. There were no goals scored. No times-outs taken. It was simply full-on aggression from the word go. Each day when you showed up you knew within short order of lifting your barbell or pulling your first stroke you would feel ill. It was hard to explain the allure, or what some might have considered obsession—maybe even an addiction. The pain was the illicit drug. It hurt like hell in the moment, but the rush of surviving it, beating it, concurring it and then on some inexplicable level wanting more. It was an experience I’ve not replicated through any other endeavour.
For me, it came down to belonging to something larger than me. We were a group of odd misfits in some ways, who had found each other through a discipline that few understood and were willing to embrace. There was a membership factor in the craziness of this self-mutilation. Knowing you were part of a very small group that could touch beyond physical exhaustion and keep going. Egoic in nature, indeed. But, hell, we were teenage boys. We believed our role in the world was defined through our accomplishments.
Yes, the races won were gratifying on some level, but mostly it was simply the experience of rowing that you took with you upon graduation from Ridley. A knowing that with focus, determination and a work ethic there wasn’t much, if anything, you couldn’t do.
That was the gift—Neil’s gift. Consciously or not, that’s what he gave us. An impressive life-changing tool to carry around in our back pockets forever.
Undoubtedly, all of these years later, that was my main reason for choosing to return home to St.Catharines and coach rowing at Ridley. I saw this as my opportunity to pay it back. However, I wanted to tweak Neil’s gift—put my own spin on it.
As a young athlete I had embraced the combative model of attaining high performance that had been laid out for us. Where making our competitor the enemy, and therefore someone to defeat, was the foundational source of our motivation.
Now as a coach, I had learned years earlier that paradigm was limited. Instead, I wanted to show these Ridley athletes that experiencing their competitors as someone to work with synergistically created opportunities for high performance beyond their imagination. That was my intention; to build a culture of high performance teams that aspired to reach a higher purpose instead of just creating teams that aspired to win-at-all-costs.
Photo credit: Tony Holmes
Jason Dorland is a High-Perfomance Coach who believes the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals are the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how—contact Jason today!