Brock University possesses a long and illustrious 50 year history of athletics. In that time, the institution has managed to create an internationally respected reputation, storied programs and an immense number of championship titles ranging from inter-university tournaments to national gold medals.
Since Brock opened its doors in 1964, the university has grown its athletic programming and now has over 40 official athletic teams, counting both varsity teams and athletic clubs. However, looking back to the inception of Brock we can easily see that one program in particular was instrumental to the establishment of Brock’s reputation and philosophy of excellence. Above that, the sport served as a common link between the community and the newly founded institution and cemented Brock as a permanent stakeholder in the Niagara region. The Brock Rowing program has and continues to be vital to Brock Athletics.
Jack Nicholson, a legendary Canadian rower with over 60 years of coaching experience, is the man who began the Brock rowing team. Nicholson also established several high school programs within the St. Catharines community and won a gold at the World Championships.
“I say that it was Brock’s first varsity sport because they were on the water at the end of August in 64’. Most university students were relatively local and rowed for the St. Catharines Rowing Club so it was almost like an extension of that club for the university. They were rowing in the fall as Brock students,” said current head coach, Peter Somerwil. In many ways, it was fitting that rowing would be the first organized sport at Brock because at that time, it was the rowing capital of Canada. This is largely due to the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta moving to St. Catharines in 1903 where it would remain until this day. This is an extremely prestigious competition that is often referred to as the North American club championship attracting crews to compete from all over the globe.
The founders of Brock University capitalized on this well established culture in the community.
“The University wanted some means of developing spirit and of making the University’s name known among the older universities without the initial outlay of funds for equipment and facilities. During the summer, the University, represented by Dr. Hart, held discussions with the St. Catharines rowing club to see what kind of arrangements could be made.” This excerpt came from an article published within the book, “Brock University Athletics: 40 Exciting Seasons of Generals and Badgers”. As much as rowing was a force used to help in the establishment of Brock, it also proved to make the university stand out as an institution dedicated to innovation and inclusivity. In 1967, under the guidance of head coach Tony Biernacki, Brock University debuted the first ever Canadian University women’s rowing team.
“Brock started women’s rowing at university; that’s huge especially when you consider the context of the time when it was still a prevailing philosophy that women were meant to watch not compete. Tony Biernacki, who decided to go along with this and get it done, really took a beating from the community when he encouraged women to row,” said Somerwil.
The importance of this triumph cannot be overstated; every Brock student can feel proud to know the school they attend was built on a foundation that defied unchallenged and oppressive ideals in order to support its students. At that moment, through rowing, Brock began a legacy that would endure its five decade history.
“I think it’s amazing having a program where women were allowed to be there first. It really shows how much [Brock] believes in their women and how much they want them to succeed,” said current Brock rower and oarswoman of the year, Alyssa Toffolo. This legacy would continue on in other ways. Leo LeBlanc, a St. Catharines native, spearheaded the project to bring together community members in order to contribute funds for the construction of a world class rowing centre right on campus. In 1995 the Leo LeBlanc Rowing Centre was operational.
Year after year, Brock’s reputation for innovation, as well as its facilities, attracts rowers to become student athletes. Brock also has a legacy in developing alumni who compete as Olympians. In total, Brock has had 16 students go on to represent Canada on the world stage in rowing and the most recent, Eric Woelfl, sat down with The Brock Press.
Woelfl, a St. Catharines native, began his rowing career at the high school level while attending Governor Simcoe.
“My dad always taught me to finish what I started. After high school I continued rowing at Brock. I came in at a mediocre level; I’d say I was average. I held onto a spot on the varsity team by a thread when we won bronze at OUA in my first year,” said Woelfl. Brock supported the development of this young athlete until he made the U23 team and joined the national training centre in Victoria BC. Although he finished 13th in the 2016 Rio Olympics, Woelfl values the experience of representing his country and all the people who believed in him through his journey.
“A lot of people could learn a lot from [Woelfl]. His singular drive to always get a little better was what made him succeed. He’s not someone I could have predicted would end up competing in the Olympics when he arrived. It was his hard work that got him there and he should take the credit that got him there,” commented coach Somerwil.
Brock rowing also takes its current student athletes to the international stage and its developmental opportunities like these that inspire such success. For example, Brock was the first Canadian school to the open Men’s eight at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia in 2010. This win over hundreds of other universities allowed Brock to compete in the Royal Henley in England which is arguably the most prestigious rowing event that exists. Brock has also made appearances at the Boston Head of Charles Regatta where they competed against institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT. Some years Brock has medaled and even won gold in certain events.
“The coaches and volunteers are what make our team so competitive. It’s a second job for them. [Somerwil] has worked extremely hard to get what a lot of coaches call the best fleet of boats in all of Canada. It’s amazing to have equipment of that quality,” said Toffolo.
With new recruits coming in next year, the rowing team will look to improve from their finishing positions. The women’s team has continued to improve for the third year in a row, a process Toffolo says she’s honoured to be a part of.
“Brock is a world class academic and athletic institution. Having the opportunity to be student athlete and represent the school at all levels, I’m so proud when I say I’m an alumni. The torch is passed to the next generation. I fulfilled my expectation and goals I set for myself and I hope to see next set of rowers and students or athletes or both to fulfill their goals. Brock is an amazing place to achieve those goals,” concluded Woelfl.
When someone says Brock University, rowing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It should be, however, because it connected Brock to the community, established innovation within the institution and continues spread the reputation of the Badger around the world. Brock is synonymous with rowing, it was the first OUA Provincial title the university ever achieved and will always have the banner to prove that.