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Local rowing club president may have already achieved greatest victory

Georgian Bay Rowing Club coach’s optimism remains buoyant, despite terminal brain cancer diagnosis five years ago
2020-07-02 dh
Georgian Bay Rowing Club president Doug Rourke stays resolute beside the restrictive barriers set around the clubhouse during this pandemic. Derek Howard photo

Down in Midland’s Little Lake Park, there is a volunteer who spends almost everyday between April through September giving back to the community, and has been doing so for decades.

Doug Rourke is the president and head coach of the non-profit Georgian Bay Rowing Club (GBRC), whose members can be seen touching water in non-pandemic times for leisure or competition, in singles, pairs, quads or eights.

“When I started rowing (in the 1980’s),” says Rourke, 49. “I came from a very poor family and this club basically sponsored me when I was growing up. You know, I was the kid who had to ride down with the coach.

“When I was 14 years old, I bought my first single and I’ve been rowing ever since.”

While Rourke has been a world champion himself on multiple occasions, it wasn’t until the discovery of terminal brain cancer in 2015 that put his life on hold, permanently if the doctors had any say in the matter.

“You know, they said the typical life expectancy for this is about three months and that was five years ago.”

Misfortune struck again in 2018 as his brain tumour evolved to the size of a racquetball.

Rourke found a neurosurgeon who understood athletes, granting him the green light to start training and touch water once again, but with the understanding that by year’s end he would never row again.

The tumour was removed through aggressive surgery shortly after.

“Two weeks to the day he phones me up and he says, ‘How you feeling?’ I said ‘I feel good, and can I go for a row?’”

Five days after that, Rourke once more touched water in Little Lake Park.

Rourke was born and raised in Midland, leaving for a decade in his adulthood to pursue education before coming back in 1997 to start a new career and a new family. That return allowed him to become reinvested with the GBRC full-time.

“Initially, we were established as a recreationally-based rowing club,” Rourke explains, “but we’ve had a lot of success over the years. We’ve had a great group of people coming and going through this building, and we’ve had everything from multiple world champions to full scholarships to U.S. colleges.

“And you’ll never hear me say anything bad about the Trillium grant program.”

The GBRC has received three provincial grants totalling $300,000 that have gone towards equipment purchases, including a new dock.

As for giving back to the community, Rourke states that most rowing clubs charge about $1,500 per year to row.

“We charge $400 and for students we charge $200. Our offer is very inexpensive and when you show up to rowing literally all you need to come with is shorts, a t-shirt and socks. That’s all you need.”

He adds that members do need to pay for their own races.

“The focus is on making a better life for people. We often will sponsor kids— the focus is in making a better life for people. I honestly can’t recall how many kids I’ve coached; I have no clue, it’s well over a thousand. I really would like to think we have positive impacts on life overall.

“My belief in sport is simply: I teach sport for life. I want you to learn and develop your skill base and enjoy it forever.”

The GBRC gives back to the community through its involvement in its programs.

“We work with community services and adoptive living, and we get people who have mental or physical challenges. They just want to explore the sport for the joy of it.”

Rowing is a low-impact sport that utilizes core muscles “exactly how they were intended to be used.”

Rourke notes that he would love for more inclusion involving equipment for para- and adaptive- athletes, but that “we just simply have never been able to get kids with that kind of requirement interested, which is unfortunate because it would be awesome.”

Currently, the pandemic has halted nearly all activity within the rowing club with Rourke especially concerned about the coronavirus, treating COVID-19 safety measures with the utmost respect given that he, too, is immunocompromised.

“Right now what they're saying is that we need to get through Stage 3 of the COVID-19 restrictions. Honestly, I don’t know whether or not they’re going to get to that stage even this year, but if they do then we’ll have to reevaluate our dock situation.

“Unfortunately with COVID-19, we’re unable to put it in because we can’t meet the requirements the government places on us; we would have to disinfect and bleach it between every use. The dock gets used by over 200 people a day.”

That said, however, Rourke takes pride in the fact the club is the first in Canada officially on the water during COVID-19, thanks to strict policies and procedures that Rourke, his children and the GBRC board put into practice.

”We’re running mostly singles, and currently this year we have 20 members. Right now, we’re strictly for experienced people, but we’ll open that back up again [once the restrictions lift].”

Many more people are waiting to sign up, but until then the active members will still need to abide by mandated rules.

“This year, everybody is rowing in singles,” says Rourke. “That’s all we’re allowed to do and that will slowly change. They’re now slightly opening things up to what they’re calling ‘bubble doubles’ or ‘quarantine quads.’ So if everybody’s inside your bubble then you can actually row.”

And despite his condition, Rourke is still seen down at the club nearly each day along with his son James, both preparing for the future.

The pandemic itself has additionally granted Rourke an unexpected grace.

“I feel good, I feel blessed,” he says. “I get to spend more time with my kids than I could have ever imagined in my life.

“The other thing that gets me going is… I want to hold my grandkids. And I want to experience the adventures with [my kids]. Life— I love the existence so much that [giving up] was not an option for me."

Rourke is set to undergo an experimental treatment for his condition in January of 2021 which, if successful, will extend his life by another forty years.

“Y’know, when it happens, life is a fatal existence, I realize that," he says. "And when it happens, I go willingly and acceptingly.

“But not today.”