'So wonderful': Former Olympic paddler, 92, back on the water after breaking hip

An Ottawa man and former Olympic paddler recently returned to the water after an injury prevented him from taking part in his favourite pastime.

Alan McCleery competed in 1960 Olympics — and showed similar spirit in his recovery

Alan McCleery, 92, is seen here paddling in an old training kayak for the first time since fracturing his hip early in 2020. The former Olympian overcame both the injury and mobility issues and returned this week to his favourite sport. (Submitted by Gail Gilbert)

Alan McCleery competed as a kayaker in the 1960 Olympics Games in Rome, and until early last year had never stopped paddling.

That was when a hip fracture sent the 92-year-old Ottawa resident to hospital. The injury, combined with mobility issues caused by a rare form of muscular dystrophy, prevented him from taking part last summer in his favourite recreational activity.

"It was a very, very unhappy situation because I enjoyed the sport very much and it kept me in good physical condition," McCleery told CBC. 

"It was heartbreaking not to be able to go out on the water."

McCleery, who works out daily at the gym to maintain his strength, said he was determined to make a full recovery from his injury.

And in an act of perseverance, earlier this week he triumphantly returned to the water.

'So wonderful'

While visiting a family cottage on Blue Sea Lake near Maniwaki, Que., McCleery descended the steps to the dock and mounted an old training kayak he's had for longer than he can remember.

He then took up his seat in the cockpit and put his wooden double-bladed paddle to work.

"When I first got in the boat, I was a little bit shaky because the boats are not very stable," said McCleery. "Then I thought, 'Oh, it just feels so wonderful. I'm so happy to be able to get back in the boat and do something that I love to do.'"

I thought, 'Oh, it just feels so wonderful. I'm so happy to be able to get back in the boat and do something that I love to do.- Former Olympic paddler Alan McCleery

Gail Gilbert, McCleery's daughter, said the smile on his face was the biggest she'd seen since the COVID-19 pandemic forced her father's retirement home into lockdown.

"He sat there for a few minutes and then took the paddle ... and he went off down the lake taking strokes," said Gilbert.

 "He said it was the best day that he's had in a very, very long time."

'The best day'

The lake trip is just the latest McCleery has taken during his life as a competitive athlete. 

He qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne in the flat water racing category, known today as canoe sprint. But he didn't compete because his partner in the men's kayak doubles event, a Yugoslavian immigrant, was eight days short of receiving Canadian citizenship when the games took place. 

The pair requalified for the K2 1000-metre event in the 1960 Rome Olympics, but were eliminated in the repechage round, where the best-placed competitors who failed to win heats compete for a place in the final.

Alan McCleery, second from right, poses with other members and coaches of Canada's paddling team at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. (Submitted by Gail Gilbert)

McCleery, who grew up in Montreal, eventually moved to Ottawa in 1976 and joined the Rideau Canoe Club, where he's been a member for 45 years. 

Gilbert said her father's love of sport has inspired his four children to be active and live healthy lives. It's also instilled a love of the Olympics in the family — whom she referred to as "Olympic-aholics." 

As for McCleery, he's looking forward to watching this year's canoe sprint kayaking events on Sunday night, which will be taking place on Tokyo Bay.

"I'll make sure I don't miss it," said McCleery. "It brings back a lot of wonderful memories."

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