Gardner swims into Niagara Falls sports wall
2020 Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame inductee Larry Gardner is pictured where the Niagara River meets the Welland River. It is where he first learned to swim.
There were no ticker tape parades or civic receptions when Larry Gardner returned from the 1980 Olympiad for the Disabled in Arnhem, Holland, with a silver medal in the 100-metre breaststroke and a bronze medal in the 100-metre butterfly.
“Basically nothing happened,” said the 2020 inductee into the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame. “I came home and there was no recognition back then. So to get this award now 40 years later is pretty special to me.”
Things have obviously changed since 1980.
“There was no TV coverage or internet and basically after a three-and-a-half year buildup, I came home and I think I spent six months on the couch.”
Gardner expects Sunday’s 2 p.m. induction ceremony at the Gale Centre will be an emotional moment for him and his family. Filming a video segment for the ceremony brought those emotions to the forefront.
“My two sisters (Cathy Conlon and Carol Gardner) were interviewed and the one we thought was going to cry didn’t cry and the other one was the opposite.”
The 1980 Olympiad would mark the end of his competitive swimming career, but he did get involved with competitive skiing.
“I was 25 which is old for a swimmer so once I stopped, I raced as a skier for three years.”
Swimming was always a big part of the Westlane graduate’s upbringing. The 64-year-old Ridgeway resident was raised in Chippawa and spent a lot of time swimming in the Welland River, or the crick as it is known as by locals.
“If you don’t swim here, you can’t swim anywhere,” he said.
Gardner used to train where the Niagara River meets the Welland River.
“The current comes in and I used to swim against the current. I had this big Bouvier dog and the dog would dive off the 10-foot drop with me all the time,” he said. “There is a fence there now but when I was a kid, you could swim there.”
Gardner had a typical active teen upbringing in Chippawa, but his life was turned upside down at age 19 when he was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident and lost his left leg above the knee.
“I have a T-shirt that says, ‘The leg story $10’ because I told it so many times,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s an old T-shirt so I have to up the price now.”
The accident occurred when a car crossed the line and hit him and his friend on a motorcycle.
“They gave me the choice to decide whether to try and keep it or have it amputated and move along with my life and that’s what I chose,” he said.
Being given that choice helped him deal with the disability.
“I was mentally prepared going in so I just made the best of it,” he said. “But, of course, when you lose a limb, it is just like any other loss. You go through the stages.”
Two years after the accident, he became inspired while reading a local newspaper article about a local competitive amputee swimmer named Jackie Mitchell, who had competed at the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto.
“It was an a ha moment, for sure, because I grew up swimming,” he said. “In the old days, you could look people up in the phonebook so I called her up and ended up joining the YMCA. By 1977, I was a member of the Niagara Falls YMCA swim team.”
He wasn’t an instant success.
“I had never been on a swim team and I was 20 years old, but I had a good coach and some good people on the team.”
Gardner trained with Mitchell and raced against able-bodied swimmers. To qualify for international events, he had to advance through provincial and national qualifying events.
He gives coach Mac Bowman, a fellow sports wall of fame inductee, a lot of credit for his success.
When looking at his career, Gardner points to the bronze medal in the 100-metre butterfly in Holland as his highlight.
“I had to give the last kick,” he said. “I could tell I wasn’t going to win but I gave it that last little kick and I ended up medalling. That was a tough race.”
Gardner worked as a truck driver and as an administrator at the University of British Columbia before he retired. He now has his own company which specializes in website management and search engine optimization.
He also has an amputee resource website, amputee.ca, which he started in 2003 and has done amputee peer support visits on numerous occasions.
Also being inducted into the sports wall of fame are Ray Barkwill, David Conte, Todd Simon, Mike MacGillivray.