Born in Saskatchewan and growing up in a cattle ranch in British Columbia, Susan Baiton had never picked up an oar, or rowed in a boat.

It wasn’t until her first year at university in the fall of 1976, when Sue Baiton, 18, was walking across campus with a friend and came across the men’s rowing team practicing drills. She had never rowed in her life, but it looked interesting. The men’s coach at the time, Rod Bell-Irving, spotted the two and approached them. There was going to be a meeting that weekend at the Vancouver Rowing Club. He told them,“If you’re interested, come on down.”

“That was kind of the beginning of it all,” said Susan, her last name now Wilkinson, over the phone. “That was the initial development of the UBC women’s crew, and I was on that first team.” Wilkinson was joined by 10 other women in the rowing crew.

This was happening at a time when women’s participation in sport was becoming a central issue at UBC. Women’s soccer, bowling and squash had just been included earlier that year. At the time, $4.20 of the $5 student athletic fee went to the men’s programs and 80 cents went to the women, but in November there was a referendum to increase the athletic student fee from $5 to $7, an increase which would go towards supporting the women’s teams.

In the highest AMS vote turnout till then, 71.7 per cent of 6,100 students voted in favour of the increase. Women’s sports were finally receiving some love.

Screenshot via UBC Libraries

At about the same time, the UBC rowing program was undergoing rapid change. Rod Bell-Irving had been a volunteer coach and in 1976 turned over the crew to Al Morrow – a UBC graduate student in Physical Education and a regular at international competitions. He had just retired from national team level rowing after the 1976 Montreal Olympics when the position suddenly became available.

This initial two years of coaching with a small honorarium in compensation prompted Morrow’s long, unanticipated career in rowing. He went on to coach for the University of Victoria in 1978 and in 1986 joined the Rowing Canada team. He is currently the Performance Director for the lightweight men’s program and is at Rio de Janeiro in his ninth year at the Olympics.

Team Building

The program was just coming off of a decade-long golden era under head coach Frank Reads in the 1950s, and subsequent high of the 60s. But now, the team was in an unanticipated position. Morrow would be the fifth head coach in as many years. The team at the time functioned like the competitive clubs of today – like sailing, lacrosse and tennis. They ran like a varsity program but did not belong to any Canadian- or BC-wide leagues, and so they mostly competed in Regattas and international competitions all over Canada and the world.

Morrow had a friend, Glenn Battersby, who was a coxswain — the member of the crew that is in charge of navigation and keeping time, and also steers the shell — in the coxed pair races at the 1972 Olympics in Munich who had been in the last cut of the Olympic team in Montreal.

“He and I determined that it was about time that there be a women’s team, and we got permission to establish the women’s team at UBC from the athletics department,” said Morrow. Battersby became the first coach of the UBC women’s crew.

It was on. The team was ready. On November 20 1976, the crew attended their first competition, at the annual Green Lake Fall Regatta in Seattle, Washington. Despite the team’s modest placing in the competition, Glenn had much hope in the team. He told The Ubyssey that for such an unseasoned team, a lot of growth and improvement could be expected. The only way to go was up.

They went on to race at major competitions and regattas all over North America like the Opening day Regatta in Seattle, a personal highlight for Wilkinson where she rowed in the UBC women’s eight.

This growth was not without its difficulties. The team faced a lack of equipment and access to facilities.

“Probably the biggest challenge for the UBC women was that we didn’t have equipment,” said Wilkinson, who is now on the Board of Directors for Rowing BC. “Our equipment was essentially cast-off equipment from the men’s crews. It wasn’t designed for women and it didn’t fit us, and so it took us a long, long time to have any equipment that was suitable for women’s rowers.”

The crew didn’t get their get their first piece of new equipment until July 1977. The women’s four that they obtained was funded by Ed Snead, a Vancouver Rowing Club alumni who won the first single sculls of Vancouver in 1928 and also won the Junior 140lb singles at the Canadian Henley in 1932.

Rowing as a sport is cruel, bitter and unforgiving to newcomers. With the winter practices and the thousands of kilometers of distance covered in training, the team’s experiences weren’t always entirely pleasant.

“It’s a rather gruelling sport,” said Wilkinson, describing her practices. “Everybody’s hands were torn from the ends of the oars. We were rowing very, very cold, wet weather. It’s a sport where you train for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.”Another obstacle the women’s rowing team faced, and probably the least surprising, presented itself at the Big Block banquet.

The Big Block bungle

The Big Block Banquet is an event recognizing the best varsity athletes at UBC. Up until 1977, the event was traditionally exclusive to male athletes. In a time when sexist publication the Red Rag thrived on the UBC Campus, and a time when a naked women rode a horse across campus in the annual Lady Godiva, for many this was yet another indicator of deeply entrenched sexism at UBC.

Five female coxswains on some of the men’s crews were excluded from the banquet. However for some – including some of the athletes – this barring made sense. The women were not formally recognized on the crews despite being active participants. In fact, they were not recognized by either the men’s or women’s athletics associations thus would not have been eligible to attend the event.

One of the coxswains, Lona Smith, told The Ubyssey in March 1977, “One thing that bothers me is that I’m recognized as far as I’m an asset to the team yet I receive no formal recognition. They can’t expect to use me all year and then not recognize me.”

Screenshot via UBC Libraries

However, she said that, “If they’re going to make a rule they should stick with it and not allow any women to join the team at all.” She maintained that if it was in their constitution, then they should respect that.

Some athletes were largely unaware that there were any reservations against women joining these institution, at least until they look back at those moments. Wilkinson was one of them.

For Wilkinson, winning her first Big Block in 1977/1978 was one of the highlights of her UBC career. The year she won was the first time women were in attendance at the Big Block Banquet.

“It was a lot of change. I was more interested in rowing and in my social circles in rowing,” she said. “Certainly the rowers that I knew were not in any way unhappy with women becoming part of the group, as far as I knew.”

It wasn’t until later on she realized that there had been a movement to prevent women’s involvement in the awards.

She understood that it had traditionally been a “stag” affair and was a traditionally male-exclusive event. She also knew that there was definitely some pushback because of this. Wilkinson felt in that moment, to some extent, that by the time she was receiving her award, that it had become a non-issue.

“I really can’t say a whole bunch more about that because it seems to me when it was all said and done. By the time we were attending the Big Block I would expect that much of the issues had been resolved,” Wilkinson said.

“Personally, I don’t want to see women at the Big Block banquet,” John Bilingsley, former Big Block president told The Ubyssey on March 26, 1977.

He continued, “Once you open the banquet up it’s going to snowball into a mixed affair. If you invite women team members, then girlfriends and wives will also want to be included,” he claimed in the article. “Then the tradition will be broken, something I really wouldn’t like to see.”

VRC-UBC

Despite living near UBC, with no shortage of beaches and open water, and despite being a fantastic swimmer, Tricia Smith – like Sue Wilkinson – had never picked up an oar. Again, a chance encounter changed that.

In January 1973, Smith was a high school student, but since she lived close to UBC, she would usually study at the library on campus. One day, she bumped into an old friend, Anne Ross, who she swam competitively against in high school. Ross had already graduated and was then a student at UBC.

After catching up, Ross asked her to come try out for the rowing team, to which Smith replied “what’s rowing?”. When Ross mentioned the Oxford and Cambridge races, Smith finally understood. Curious about this new sport, she then followed up up with, “Do women do that?”

It turned out that one of Ross’ other crew members always slept in – unfortunately, because rowing is a team sport. You need everyone present to pick up an oar. Ross invited Smith because they had both swam together and she trusted her.

“She knew I was dependable because I was a competitive swimmer,” said Smith. “Swimmers get up every morning and never miss workouts.”

Tricia Smith was part of the first group of women at the place usually described as some kind of holy temple for rowing – the Vancouver Rowing Club. Led by Dutch rower Els Mols,the crew comprised of several girls from UBC including Ross.

Forty years, four Olympics and seven medals later, Smith looks back and recalls some of the the biggest challenges the team faced in the beginning. They faced their difficulties. Their first changing room was previously a men’s “clothes-drying” room, and they weren’t allowed to use some of the rowing equipment. Women were only allowed to race a thousand metres, which Smith explained was because the perception then was that women could not physically handle the regular 2,000. Yet she still loved the sport.

The early seventies were a period when rowing was exclusive to men, and so there were some rather strange and strict rules. Smith describes a horror story where a team of women from the United States came to Vancouver for a regatta and were prohibited from putting their boat into the water.

“There was something about some little issues with the boats and this one particular person comes to our coach and is trying to blame us for it and we didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Smith about some particular moments when the tensions flared up. She didn’t care, and felt it was their personal problem. “ I thought that was quite strange. We were very very careful with all the equipment.”

Legacy

In a ceremony earlier this month, with speeches from UBC members including president Santa Ono, and senior athletics director Gilles Lepine and Louise Cowin, the UBC community sent off a record number of athletes to the Olympic games. Also at the ceremony was Canadian Olympic Committee president and candidate for the International Olympic committee Tricia Smith.  

UBC rowing has an important but quiet role in the university’s Olympic history. Oarsman Ned Pratt was the first UBC student to win an Olympic medal, a bronze at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The most decorated UBC athlete was Kathleen Heddle, who won two gold medals at Barcelona in 1992, then followed up with a gold and a bronze at Atlanta four years later. The entire program boasts an incredible amount of Olympic athletes and medals – 76 athletes and a total of 46 medals.

But probably these were the most important years for the program. They were the years in which the the program started its metamorphosis into the one we see today. Most Canadians remember 1976, the summer of the Olympics at Montreal as exciting – the first Olympics hosted in their country. But it was also something else. It was the first time women were allowed to compete in rowing.

It’s tempting to view this period as a huge progressive moment in UBC history – storming the archaic strongholds of the patriarchy. But that narrative would not do this period justice. It was slow-going, deliberate, harsh. Rather than a wildfire that blazed up suddenly, the moment was the little ebbing flame on the beach that was coaxed into existence.