At some point during the amazing run of success of the Ocean Falls Amateur Swimming Club, someone must have asked whether there was something in the water up in the tiny, isolated company town of 3200 residents on BC’s northern coast.
There could be some truth to that. Perhaps more than any other place in BC, water was a way of life in Ocean Falls.
At the base of Mount Caro Marion, the town was perched above Cousins Inlet 25 kilometers from the open ocean of the Pacific, boat or seaplane the only ways in and out. Few automobiles existed in town and residents walked over the wooden roads. Most of the town worked at Crown Zellerbach’s pulp and paper mill, which transported timber by water and sourced its power from a hydroelectric dam.
Incessant rain soaked the region. The wettest inhabited community in North America received approximately 175 inches of precipitation a year, about four times what Vancouver receives. Water, indeed, was everywhere. It’s no wonder Ocean Falls residents were dubbed the “Rain People” by one author.
And then there was the swim club and its’ cramped, indoor 20-yard four-lane pool, a quarter of a standard international pool’s size. Built in 1928 using local beer parlour profits, many considered the pool the heart of the town. Over a twenty-five year period from 1948-72, the Ocean Falls Swim Club placed at least one swimmer on every Canadian Olympic, Commonwealth, or Pan American Games team, while developing a reputation as one of the most dominant clubs in Canada.
During their reign, Ocean Falls swimmers accounted for 26% of male placements on Canadian international swim teams and these athletes won 35% of all swimming medals won by Canadian men in major international competitions. It’s why this tale must stand as one of the great underdog stories in Canadian sport history.
The pinnacle came in 1965, when the tiny Ocean Falls team of four men, two women, and one coach travelled to the national swimming championships in Red Deer, Alberta and won the Speedo Trophy as combined team aggregate champions for the first and only time.
Although George Gate had moved on to coach in Montreal by this time, he deserves a good deal of credit for developing the swimmers that comprised the 1965 team. Bob Fisher took over Gate’s duties following his departure.
The Ocean Falls men dominated the meet adjusting to the larger size of the outdoor Red Deer pool and its’ strong chlorination, which stung swimmers’ eyes. At the University of Denver on a swimming scholarship, Jack Kelso took silver in the 100m and 200m breaststroke. Sandy Gilchrist, also on scholarship at University of Southern California, won three gold and three silver medals. The events that Gilchrist didn’t win, soon-to-be three-time Canadian Olympian Ralph Hutton usually did, as he captured two gold, four silver, and one bronze. Rudi Ingenhorst was a key member of the two relay teams that both claimed gold medals.
Anne (McDaniel) Linton and Marguerite Wahl were teenaged junior swimmers bumped up to senior competition. Anne’s fourth-place finish in the 400m individual medley gave Ocean Falls just enough points to edge out the much-larger Vancouver Dolphins for the aggregate trophy.
Sadly, Ocean Falls is little more than a ghost town today with only a few dozen permanent residents, but the legacy of the town’s proud swimming tradition lives on.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.