Rowing legend Al Morrow retires

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There’s just something about the water that acts as a magnet for Hall of Fame rowing coach Al Morrow:

The stillness of Fanshawe Lake at 6 a.m. on a clear summer morning.

The coaxing of the cox as she pushes her team to pull together.

The synchronized whizzing of oars as the tip of a bow ball breaks the finish line.

Morrow can’t recall a time when rowing hasn’t been part of his life; and thousands of athletes haven’t known a time without Morrow embedded in the Canadian rowing scene.

“I used to really love the early mornings. I don’t anymore, by the way. I got that out of my system,” laughed Morrow, BA’72.

After more than 40 years of coaching at club, provincial, university, national and international levels, Morrow is retiring from Rowing Canada Aviron.

It would be difficult to overstate his impact in the Canadian rowing community – a community that, during his time with the national team alone, saw 15 world championships and eight Olympic medals.

“Al’s track record speaks for itself. He is one of the most accomplished coaches in world rowing and Canadian crews have benefited from his tireless support for decades,” said Rowing Canada Aviron CEO Terry Dillon. “While many will see this as his legacy, the rowing community in Canada will recognize his real contribution being the selfless way he has given back.

“There are countless examples of coaches and athletes who have benefited from his wisdom, mentorship and guidance. This is just part of who Al is, and why he will continue to be a valuable member of our community for many years to come.”

A successful young rower at Leander Boat Club in his hometown of Hamilton, Morrow was also an accomplished athlete on his high school’s track and field team when a friend invited him to join the competitive rowing team.

“I had to make choice of either going to (Ontario high school track championships) or the rowing championship, because they were on the exact same weekend. I chose the team sport,” he said. “That was almost the set-off point where I emphasized one sport over another and was doing well in it.”

Morrow went on to be a member of six national rowing teams from 1970 to 1976 – some of that while also rowing at Western – including winning a bronze medal in the men’s four at the 1975 Pan American Games.

His coaching career began when he took the helm as head coach of the men’s rowing team at the University of British Columbia, soon after competing as a member of the 1976 Canadian Olympic rowing team. A couple of years later, he became head coach at University of Victoria, where he also split his time with Rowing Canada.

In 1986, he took on the full-time responsibility as a coach at the National Rowing Team Training Centre in Victoria.

In 1988, Morrow moved back to London to head the Ontario National Rowing Team Training Centre, and in 1990 he took the helm as head coach of ther Canadian women’s rowing team.

During this time, he also returned to his alma mater – his wife Julia and three of his four children are also alumni – and became head coach of Western’s women’s rowing team for the next 20 years.

“We have an unlimited supply of Al Morrow stories – all of which led to valuable crew and life lessons,” said three-time Olympic Gold medallist, Marnie McBean, BA’97, who Morrow coached for more than a decade.

As young adults, we knew we had a great coach. As mature adults and parents, we now realize how fortunate we were to have such a gifted mentor.” ~ Marnie McBean, Olympic gold medallist

“We’re grateful to Julia and his kids for sharing so much of Al’s time with us,” she said.

“I think, sometimes, the best thing I did was I got out of her way,” Morrow said about his time teaching McBean. “You have this amazing athlete who is driven, and you kind of ride on her coattails. That’s the real story. We both gave 100 per cent to our coach-athlete relationship and it worked.”

McBean, along with fellow Lesley Thompson-Willie, BA’82 and BEd’83, was part of one of Morrow’s top career moments – the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

“I’ve had a lot of exciting moments, but that year they won three gold medals, and we have never won any gold medals in women’s rowing until then – and we got three. That was pretty special,” he said.

Western graduate Silken Laumann, BA’88 picked up a bronze medal and men’s rowing won gold at the Games that year. “That was a pretty amazing time for Canadian rowers,” he said.

What’s also amazing is the accolades Morrow has received during his career, highlighted by the Canada Meritorious Service Medal by the Governor General and being named the International Rowing Federation’s Coach of the Year in 1999.

He has been elected into eight Sports Halls of Fame: the Canadian Sport Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Canadian Rowing Hall of Fame, London Sport Hall of Fame, Hamilton Sport Hall of Fame, Western University Women’s and Men’s Halls of Fame and University of Victoria Hall of Fame.

Janine Stephens, Olympic silver medalist and now Manitoba provincial head coach, said Morrow was a great resource and a wealth of knowledge in her transition from athlete to coach.

“As an athlete, you heard Al’s guidelines over and over again. There was never any confusion about his expectations. We all knew the rules of the lake, how to shake hands, how to be respectful in our environment and how to be great athletes,” said Stephens. “Now, as a coach, I wish I had Al around all the time. I have much more room for growth in my coaching and bringing in more ‘Al-isms’ is certainly one of them. He has been a great contributor to rowing in Canada for many years and we are so fortunate to have him.”

Western women’s rowing head coach Matthew Waddell also counts himself lucky to have known, and learned from, Morrow over the years.

“I met Al on my first day of training camp, as a first-year student in 2006,” said Waddell, who added an important encounter bumping into Morrow at the Montreal Rowing Canada Coaches’ Conference in 2009. “Al saw I had a Western duffle bag, and asked me if I was a student or alumni. Upon learning that I was still at Western, he invited me out to coach as an assistant with the novice women’s team.”

Years of his support and mentorship later resulted in Waddell’s being hired to lead Western’s women’s program in 2017.

“Al understands how to build a community. He inspires those around him to join in and do their part,” he said. “He is a great communicator and a tireless worker.”

While accolades continue to roll in, he is saying thanks to the many athletes who crossed his path over so many decades.

I have always kept it fairly simple and tried to do things really well in life. My whole life, I’ve played it day-by-day. You hear coaches talk about burn out and needing to rest. I’ve just enjoyed each day and simply look forward to the next day. That’s how you survive.” ~ Hall of Fame rowing coach Al Morrow.

“Brain surgery, that’s pressure. I get to coach these bright, young, healthy and motivated athletes – and they play games. How can you consider that pressure? What are you talking about?”

Morrow added his success would not have been possible without the support and understanding of his family, in particular his wife Julia, who was also a rower while studying during her time at Western.

“I am so fortunate to have Julia because she truly understood what I was up to and supported it. I have also tried to be a great dad to our four children,” he said. “I was well aware of the importance of balancing my career and family life.

“Next, I have tried to be a good coach who taught good values, built self-esteem and encouraged rowers to go fast on the water. In this latter pursuit, I am indebted to too many people to even name. As I knew it was the right time to get into the sport, you know when it’s the right time to get out. I feel great.”