Rowing coach wins local Citizenship Award

John Armitage life devotion to rowing and the City results in prestigious award

John Armitage at the Kingston Rowing Club.
John Armitage at the Kingston Rowing Club.
Credit: 
Marc-Andre Cossette/For the Whig-Standard

During Canada’s sesquicentennial, former Queen’s rowing coach John Armitage stood outside City Hall as one of Kingston’s five outstanding citizens for 2017. 

With his tireless commitment to the sport and his involvement within the Kingston community, Armitage was honoured with City of Kingston’s Distinguished Citizenship Award.

It has been 40 years since he founded the rowing program at Queen’s in 1977; working with over 2,000 rowers, winning one national championship, 20 OUA championships and 86 individual OUA gold medals; he has coached 20 rowers who went on to represent Canada at the international level. 

While Armitage paved the way for rowing at Queen’s, he was also active in the city’s economic projects, acting as a past chair to both the city’s Economic Development Commission and the Focus Kingston committee. He also served as president for the Kingston Home Builders Association, the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce, and the Area Economic Renewal Project, amongst others. 

“The award came as a surprise to me. I didn’t even know I had been nominated,” Armitage sheepishly admitted. “And, you know, it’s humbling because I thought, ‘There are a lot of people more deserving than I am.’” 

***

In the early 1960s, John Armitage and his friends would ride their bikes for hours. They would course through the calm and still streets of Brockville, Ontario, their hometown, until their legs gave up or the sun came down. 

“We were like those kids in E.T. that rode their bikes around all over the place,” Armitage remembered.

From an early age, Armitage loved to be active. He gravitated towards anything that exuded even the slightest semblance to physical activity, but it wasn’t until his first year of high school that he found his niche.

“My older friend came up to me and said, ‘We’re going to try rowing!’ And I said ‘O.K., yeah. Sure, I’ll try it.’” 

But he didn’t simply try it — he fell “in love with it.” 

***

With sports like football, hockey and baseball dominating the country’s sporting culture before the mid-70s, rowing was considered an afterthought in the realm of Canadian athletics. 

Still, since Armitage’s first stroke of a paddle at age 13, rowing had become a part of him. It wasn’t a means to satisfy his need for physical activity — it was something that he just loved to do. 

“It was a part of our lifestyle,” he said, adding that his wife of 40 years, Janice,  was also an avid rower during their time at the Brockville Rowing Club.

After appearing at the Rowing World Championships in Nottingham, England, Armitage moved to Kingston at age 27 thinking he had completed his final race. But when Canada hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics, the sport found him again. 

“I was reading an ad in the [Kingston] Whig-Standard about a group of people that wanted to start a rowing team at Queen’s,” he continued, “and I got in touch.” 

“I answered the few questions on the ad and it turned out to be a life sentence.” 

But even as the sport began to attract a wider audience, Canadian schools remained hesitant to include it as part of their athletic programs. 

Al Lenard, the former Queen’s Athletics director, was what Armitage characterized as “a football guy,” and someone who was reluctant “to see anymore sports at the school.” 

“[Lenard] said to me, ‘I’m not gonna have a team unless you commit to coach for five years.’” 

Remembering back to a decision he made after graduation — to do one thing in the world in business and another in sports — Armitage instantaneously accepted. 

“Taking the job was life changing.” 

*** 

Armitage’s work at Queens and within the Kingston community illustrates that passion, not time, bears more importance in the direction of a person’s life. 

“It’s amazing how much time people waste,” he said with candor.

“There’s 24 hours in a day. If you sleep eight hours and you work eight hours, that’s still another eight hours. It’s just a matter of productively using your time.” 

Armitage has since retired from the Queen’s rowing program and, for the foreseeable future, has hung up his business and volunteering chops. 

“I just got back from Brussels to see my granddaughter” he said. “She’s three years old and I had the chance to drop everything and go there for a week and I jumped at it.”  

Yet what comforts the Kingston Sports Hall of Famer most is not necessarily time off, but rather the assurance that the avenues of work he’s left behind are in steady hands. 

“I’m delighted with the direction that Queen’s Athletics is going related to high performance sport,” Armitage said, questioning why some schools would ever accept being exclusively recreational in their approach to sport. “High performance in school and sport is not mutually exclusive."

“And Queen’s gets it now. We’re giving all the tools that our high performance athletes need to be the best they can be in every facet.”

Corrections

An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Armitage's surname.

The Journal regrets the error.

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