CBC Sports Oral Histories: How a Canadian sailor became an Olympic hero

CBC Sports Oral Histories: How a Canadian sailor became an Olympic hero


Larry Lemieux abandoned his chance at an Olympic medal at Seoul 1988 to save the lives of two fellow sailors

By Doug Harrison, CBC Sports
July 15, 2021
 

Larry Lemieux never climbed an Olympic podium during his sailing career, but he does possess, arguably, the rarest Olympic award there is: the Pierre de Coubertin medal.

Only 17 athletes have ever been awarded the medal, which is given by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognize those who demonstrate the spirit of sportsmanship in the Olympic Games.

Each of those 17 medals were awarded under vastly different circumstances, but one in particular resulted from dramatic moments that could rival any gold-medal victory.

This is the story of one Canadian sailor's heroism in the heat of competition at the 1988 Games.

 
 

 

Before Larry Lemieux became an accomplished sailor, he loved playing table tennis in the family basement in Edmonton and trying to earn bragging rights from his seven older siblings or anyone else.

Lemieux's father, who often worked many hours, made a rare appearance at the table when his youngest child was 10 or 11.

Larry Lemieux: He was a semi-pro hockey player when he was young and played a lot of racquet sports – tennis, badminton, ping-pong. I had never seen him play ping-pong. He said, 'I'm going to spot you 20 points and win without scoring a point.' All he did was return, return and return [my shots] until I made a mistake. He did that and won.

That was a huge lesson for me. Wait for the other guy to make a mistake, and the sport of sailing is very much like that. You learn from your parents, brothers and sisters. We’ve heard through our whole lives it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.

Lemieux played the men's Olympic sailing event the proper way on Sept. 24, 1988, in Pusan, South Korea, where he was on the water for the fifth competition in the seven-race series.

Gary Jobson, sailing commentator for NBC Sports: The weather in Pusan [now officially known as Busan] was forecasted to be kind of light for that series. But a series of low [pressure systems] came blowing through Pusan and that’s what made it so unusually windy and rough, and I think it took everybody by surprise.

Lemieux: The boat I was racing, the Finn, is a little bit different of an animal than the rest. The way it’s designed it’s capable of dealing with harsh conditions. As a Finn sailor, I look at it as more of an opportunity to beat the weaklings, the guys who were afraid or hesitant [in the poor weather]. I know I’ve got an upper hand on them because I'm loving it.

The first part of a sailboat race is into the wind. We sail upwind and [in 1988] it was about a mile and a half to the first mark and then it's like a triangle. You come back with the wind kind of on a slant, and there were three races on our course – the Finn, 470 [class dinghy] for men and 470 for women.

The wind was very strong [at 35 knots]. We raced to these big, orange inflatable markers that are eight-feet high and four-feet wide. The waves were so big you couldn’t see the markers, at times, if they were in a trough of a wave. The waves were steep because of the current going the opposite direction to the wind and that doesn’t always happen. It was like squishing an accordion, definitely unique and basically getting out of control.

Jobson: He was leading the race … and I’m pretty sure he had the bronze medal wrapped up.

 
 

 

But Lemieux had lost sight of one of the markers that enabled a competitor to get inside and take the lead. As he passed the southernmost marker to head north for the second upwind leg, Lemieux saw something on the adjacent course, about 100 yards south of him. It was a 470 operated by two male Singapore sailors that had capsized 32 kilometres off the coast of Pusan.

Jobson: The 470 was upside down. You’re not going to see it in the waves. It’s got a white bottom and the whitecaps are white, but Larry saw it.

Lemieux abandoned his own race near the halfway mark, sailing away from the finish line to go downwind to try to rescue Joe Chan, the crew, and Siew Shaw Her, the skipper.

Lemieux: They were getting washed away from their race course to a point where people might not look there. The centreboard was sticking up in the air and [Siew] was hanging on, sitting there. It’s a two-person [boat] and I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the other guy?’ As I sailed along [in my own race] out of the corner of my eye I saw this head bobbing up and down in the water.

[Chan] had a life jacket on but I’m thinking he’s going to be lost at sea. It’s just a little head in this really rough ocean, no one’s ever going to see him, so I decided I had to do something.

Brian Ledbetter, U.S. Olympian & Lemieux's training partner: Larry was one of the fastest downwind in the Finn class. His competitiveness made our practices hard and fun. They ended up sometimes being harder than the races because he did not want to lose.

Joe Chan, Singaporean sailor: It was very windy and not [conditions] I had experienced before. I was on the outside so only my seat was in contact with the boat. Initially, we attempted to upright our boat but because of the wind and rough sea, we lost our rudder [part of the steering apparatus] so it was impossible to keep the boat upright.

I lost contact with the boat because it was higher than me and the wind blew it away from me.

I saw [Lemieux] from a distance and he signalled to me asking if I needed help. I was desperately trying to swim back to the boat. I didn’t think much about survival [because] there wasn’t time. My main thought was to get back to the boat and complete the race.

 

Lemieux: There was so much noise – the sails are flapping, and wind is blowing – I couldn’t tell what [Chan’s] response was. He had a life jacket on but also a trapeze harness, wet suit and boots. You could swim for a very short distance but trying to catch a boat being blown by the wind, no way. He was getting further and further way. [Siew] was about 200 metres away clinging to the centerboard.

To get [Chan] in my boat took seconds. I’m sailing by with speed and I grabbed him by the back of his life jacket and swung him into the boat. We [sailors] were fit in those days.

I pulled [Chan] into my boat, a singled-handed boat, and now there’s two of us in it. There’s not room for two, plus the conditions were so brutal, it was dangerous. He was a little bit in shock and I’m sure scared shitless. Everything happened so quick.

Jobson: [Lemieux] was putting himself in peril. Those waves were huge and a Finn is not an easy boat to get up because you’re by yourself. I was in the compound watching our U.S. women’s team, Allison Jolly and Lynne Jewell, on a screen because they were in contention for a gold medal [they eventually won]. They capsized, were in last [place that day] and worked their way back to 12th or something. However, the Lawrence Lemieux story was too good.

I’m watching [the rescue attempt] on the screen and didn’t know why Larry [left his race]. Did his rudder break or did he hit a whale? And then you could see him headed for this boat that was upside down … so that got everybody’s attention.

Lemieux: I decided the best thing was to take [Chan] back to his boat because the [capsized] boat's not going to sink unless it had a hole, but that's not usually the case. Normally, if you capsize you can right the boat and keep moving, but not if you've lost your rudder. I went looking for the rudder and found it, which was strange and just pure luck.

Chan: I really appreciated his help. To give up his winning position, turn around and help us says a lot about him as a person.

Ledbetter: Sailors today don’t leave the dock without a coach. We almost never had a coach [in the 80s] until we had qualified for the Olympics, so a lot of the times on the water we were looking out for ourselves and our other Finn competitors. We would always scan the practice grounds as we were headed [to shore] to see if anyone had capsized. It was natural for us.

Jobson: It was kind of shocking there were no chase boats around to see if somebody capsized. It was an extraordinary long time before help came, at least 10 minutes. One minute is a long time.

From left to right, International Yacht Racing Union president Peter Tallberg, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, Larry Lemieux, holding his Pierre de Coubertin medal, and King Constantine of Greece. (Photo courtesy Larry Lemieux) From left to right, International Yacht Racing Union president Peter Tallberg, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, Larry Lemieux, holding his Pierre de Coubertin medal, and King Constantine of Greece. (Photo courtesy Larry Lemieux)
 

 

In the 1980s, support staff and coaches were not permitted in the race circle that measured about 3 km in diameter to assist athletes. On Sept. 24, 1988, the race committee gave permission for coaches to rescue sailors.

On Jan. 1, 2021, World Sailing revised some rules and stated, "A boat, or competitor or support person shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger."

Lemieux: My coach, Pat Healy, knew I was winning the race at one point and he was waiting at the windward mark [upwind of the start line] and I didn't show. He went on the course looking for anyone to help but mainly me because I was his guy. He found me just as I was giving the rudder back to [Chan and Siew] and took over the rescue as I continued racing.

By the time I got back in the race it was spread out so nobody was trying to pass me and the guys in front of me were so far ahead I couldn’t catch them.

Jobson: Larry was kind of matter of fact about 90 minutes after the race. He looked exhausted. He was still wet and perplexed by it all. He probably had it in the back of his head that his [Olympic] medal was slipping away, but I don’t think that was his concern, really.

Lemieux finished 11th in the seven-race series, one spot below Ledbetter, who won Olympic silver four years later in Barcelona and is currently the sailing director at Seattle Yacht Club.

 
 

Lemieux, a sailing coach the past 25 years in Alberta, was awarded the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship by then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

At the time, Lemieux, who competed at the 1984 Olympics and won silver at the 1990 world championships, was only the second athlete recipient in Olympic history.

Jobson: The fact he gave up a bronze medal to save somebody and didn’t think about it, that's impressive. He showed us what the priorities are in life and sports, and that's why he was a hero.

Lemieux: I was doing the sport to prove to myself how far I could take something if I put everything into it. It was kind of ironic at [the 1988] Olympics, where I was getting accolades for rescuing [two men], I was actually pretty good in the competition.

The longevity [of my rescue] is fairly impressive and it’s nice to be recognized every [few years] but it would have been nice to have been recognized for my accomplishments on the water.

(Top image photo courtesy the Canadian Olympic Committee)

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