There is a wall within Brentwood College School’s rowing centre dedicated not to the school’s Olympians, but to the select few — eight athletes in total — who have brought home a medal from the world’s biggest sporting event.
“Who else would have a wall limited not just to being an Olympian, but to those who have won a medal at the Olympics?” asks Tony Carr, the coach who built Brentwood’s rowing program.
Brentwood has produced 25 Olympians. Among them are one in equestrian (Ian Roberts in 2004) and one in field hockey (Connor Grimes in 2008), but the vast majority have competed in rowing.
Including Brendan Hodge who will represent Canada in the lightweight men’s four in Rio de Janeiro, Brentwood has had athletes named to the last 11 Canadian Olympic rowing teams, going all the way back to 1976. Perhaps even more remarkably, at least one of those athletes in those 11 Olympics was coached directly by Carr.
Among schools that focus on education, and not on specific sports, Carr is pretty sure Brentwood stands alone.
“We are very, very proud of the consistency,” he says. “I challenge any institution, a school, college, a university, whatever it is, to match that. Where in the world is there a school that has sent an athlete to 11 straight Olympics?”
At a reunion of Brentwood rowers just last weekend, the reminiscences weren’t just about rowing.
“They were talking about the other things they did when they were here,” Carr says. “Maybe they were on stage in a play, or on the rugby team, or did track. In many cases, they were so happy to talk about those experiences because they didn’t come here and do just one sport.”
For example, Carr said, Darren Barber was a two-time Olympic rower and won a gold medal in 1992, but at Brentwood, he wasn’t just a rower; he played rugby and captained the boys soccer team.
The streak of 11 does include the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when Canada named a team, but ended up joining a massive boycott of the games to protest the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier. Three former Brentwood students and one coach would have competed in the Olympics otherwise.
“That was very, very sad,” Carr says. “Pat Walter and Bruce Ford in the men’s double almost certainly would have won a medal. There might be another couple of guys on the medal wall if that hadn’t been the case.”
Carr hasn’t attended the Olympics in a coaching capacity, but has coached teams to medals at the junior and U23 world championships and the Pan Am Games, and coached a team at the senior worlds that qualified for the Olympics.
Rowers at Brentwood are surrounded by plaques, photos and other mementos recognizing past greatness. It’s not about putting pressure on the current crop of athletes, but more to let them know what they can achieve.
“We like our youngsters to see the legacy of those who came before them,” Carr says. “And it’s a good way to start the year, knowing they’re going to an institution that has sent so many athletes to the Olympics.”
Many of Brentwood’s best rowers go on to post-secondary or international competition, but some of the top performers stop when they graduate high school.
“We never say you should continue,” Carr emphasizes. “But if you’re having fun and still have unfinished business, please continue.”
Carr started teaching and coaching at Brentwood in 1964 when there were “hardly any boats,” for the crew to use, a far cry from the dozens that fill the rowing centre today. Made of wood then, in contrast to the carbon fibre shells used now, the boats regularly fell into disrepair.
“It was common to start a practice and have something break and have to go back to shore,” Carr laughs.
Carr, who had rowed at Trinity College Dublin and for a small Irish club in Drogheda, came to Brentwood as a senior science teacher, moving from a boarding school in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he had spent three years. He coached in his “spare time,” taking over the rowing program started a year earlier by Tom Browne, who wanted to focus on rugby.
“Most of it was learning how to repair boats,” he recalls.
Brentwood sent its first crew to the Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association championship regatta in 1972, and the senior boys eight surprised even Carr by winning gold. The school has continued to win CSSRA titles, adding four more in 2016: the junior boys quad, senior boys four, senior boys lightweight four and senior girls four.
Officially retired since 2004, Carr has handed off the responsibilities for running the Brentwood rowing program to a new generation, including his son Brian, and current head of rowing Debbie Sage. He remains involved, taking on the role of mentor to new coaches.
“The ones who have been here 10, 15 years don’t need help,” he says. “The younger ones have experience as athletes, but not as much teaching the sport.”
Brendan Hodge, who will row for Canada in Rio, was a member of the “Last Eight,” the final crew Carr coached as Brentwood’s head of rowing. The Vancouver native won gold medals in back-to-back years at the CSSRA regatta, then went on to compete for Harvard, where he earned a law degree. Another Canadian rower in Rio, Will Dean, did not attend Brentwood, and didn’t row at all until he went to the University of California, Berkeley, but because of ties to Brian Carr, lists Brentwood as his home club.
Tony Carr’s Olympic legacy isn’t over yet. He has a good chance to make it 12 straight Olympics, as 2012 Brentwood grad Martin Barakso, who Carr provided one-on-one coaching as a junior and who missed qualifying for the 2016 games by mere strokes, has his sights set on the 2020 Tokyo games.
“He took me under his wing and he’d take me out to practice,” recalls Barakso, now a member of the national U23 team. “That was the year I won CSSRAs. He was definitely proud of me. It was a good feeling to know he was a big part of my success.”