Jack Nicholson was an extraordinary rowing coach who dedicated his life to helping athletes at all levels to improve. He was the standard by which all volunteer coaches, who do it simply for the love of the sport, should be measured. Dedicated, selfless and tireless, Jack’s passion for helping others never waivered for nearly 60 years.
Born in 1932 and passing away in 2014, Jack called St. Catharines home for all of his 82 years. He graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate in 1948. He became a draftsmen at a local company, raised a family of two daughters Carey and Tracy and joined General Motors, becoming an engineer until his retirement in 1988. Retiring allowed Jack to dedicate himself to full time volunteer coaching with his partner Nancy Storrs. Jack saw the advantages of being a volunteer. He once said;
“If you’re a volunteer and you don’t like it, you say so and you tell them you’re not going to do it.”
Jack’s impact on the St. Catharines rowing scene was unmatched. Throughout his long career he was a boat builder, a Club Captain, a coach and an organizer. He was the first Head Coach of the Brock Badgers Rowing Team in 1964, and had coaching stints at Sir Winston Churchill, Niagara District and most notably a 42-year association with Ridley College and the Ridley Grads Boat Club. His coached athletes to success at every level – high school, club, university and national team. He coached for Canada for four Olympics in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2000. His most notable success was coaching the men’s quad of Doug Hamilton, Robert Mills, Paul Doumat and Mel Laforme to a gold medal at the 1985 World Championships. They followed up in 1986 and 1987 with bronze medals.
For his service to coaching, Jack was made the Row Ontario Coach of the Year in and the Rowing Canada Coach of the Year awarded the Row Ontario President’s Award and was given the Rowing Canada Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the St. Catharines in 2014.
But regardless of medals or the accolades, Jack was simply proud of his athletes’ performance if they achieved their personal best, or win or lose, had a great race. He never let his athletes’ lose sight of the bigger picture. He once sagely said, “You never remember the races, you remember the people.”
Jack was a master motivator and technical coach who set knew to set progressive, attainable goals to keep his athletes, whether novices or national team members, improving. Former National Team and Ridley Grad member Fraser Berkout summed Jack’s philosophy when he said; “To keep an athlete motivated you have to have an attainable goal and then you move to the next goal. The paid coaches want you to become an Olympic medalist right away but Jack was all about the process. And the process worked for everyone.”
When Jack passed away in 2014, the rowing community took stock of his impact on rowing. Peterborough rowing coach Carol Love noted that “Jack’s spirit was the thread that was interwoven though our sport.” The sentiments that expressed this spirit summed up the man; that he had time for everyone, that he had incredible stamina; coaching up to three practices a day (and sometimes falling asleep in his coach boat), that he was a giant despite his tendency to work in the background.
Rowing colleagues and friends described Jack as dedicated, generous, thoughtful and supportive. One of his former athletes, Olympian Fiona Milne said of Jack; “I think you are the last of truly volunteer coaches around anywhere, the likes of which are likely never to be seen again. His daughter Tracey Nicholson summed Jack up perfectly when she said of her dad; “He had to coach, and that’s how he connected with the rest of the world.”
In his memory, the Jack Nicholson Coaching Bursary was established in 2015, which provides coaches with financial assistance to continue their growth, in Jack’s spirit.