How Swede it is: Burak joins hall
Ron (Swede) Burak was somewhat reluctant when he first started rowing at Henley Island when he was 17.
“Friends dragged me down there after two years of bugging me,” said the 2019 inductee into the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame.
His first day on the water as a Beamsville and District Secondary School rower didn’t start with a bang. It was more of a splash and it definitely wasn’t love at first stroke.
“It wasn’t the first night because I don’t swim and the boat kind of filled with water,” the 66-year-old Welland resident said. “It was a really rough day.”
Things got progressively better for the 1976 Olympian.
“They dragged me out the next night and it was OK,” the Kirkland Lake native said. “Then the weekend came along and we ended up in someone’s barn and polished off a case of 50. Then I thought ‘OK. This rowing is good for me.’ ”
It certainly was for the present assistant coach for the Brock rowing team, who became a national youth team rower the following year under coach Neil Campbell.
After winning Schoolboy medals every year in high school, his international resume would grow to include: a seventh-place finish at the 1971 junior worlds; a 12th-place showing at the 1973 worlds; a ninth-place result at the 1975 worlds; a gold medal in the coxed four at the 1975 Pan Am Games in Mexico; an eighth-place result in the eight at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal; and, a bronze medal at the 1983 Pan Am Games in Venezuela.
“Being at the Olympics in your home country was a pretty big deal,” said the 2009 Ontario University Athletics coach of the year and the 2012 Canadian University Rowing Championships coach of the year. “Walking into Olympic Stadium, rowing with your family watching you was a great experience.”
His biggest rowing highlight is something he doesn’t remember.
“When we were in Mexico City for the Pan Ams in 1975, I got violently ill,” he said. “I did get a little better and they trusted me enough to put me in the boat. We won the race but I don’t recall the race at all. It is an experience that I don’t remember.”
It was the first Canadian medal at the Pan Am Games in several years.
His rowing background would also include a couple of near-misses. At age 18, he and Brian Dick were the last cuts from the 1972 Olympic team and in 1984, at the age of 31, he was the last cut for the 1984 Olympic team.
The first cut sticks out the most.
“I had been rowing for two years and it was ‘I’m not going to the Olympics? Are you kidding me?’ But the head coach told me that I was young and that I would be going the next one. That was a low point.”
In 1984 at age 31, he was deemed too old to be an Olympian.
“It wasn’t until the late 1980s or early 1990s that the sport recognized that people could compete and excel in their thirties.”
Burak, who came to Niagara when he was 14, spent three months at Acadia on a football scholarship in 1972 after high school and didn’t return to university until he was 48 years old and enrolled at Brock in its sport management program. At the time, he was still employed as a plumber/pipefitter at Stelco.
At age 50, he rowed for Brock and had the distinction of being the oldest varsity athlete in North America.
Rowing has become his lifelong passion.
“I am in my 50th year in the sport and I can’t pin down exactly why that is,” he said. “I played football but I chose rowing because of the camaraderie, the friends you make, the experiences I was having at the time and it brought me places,’ he said. “It’s also a sport that is easier on your body and you can do it your entire life.”
It has been a few years since the former head coach of the South Niagara Rowing Club actually climbed into a shell, but he enjoys his ‘water time’ as a coach.
“There’s nothing better than getting out there at 5:30 in the morning and the sun’s coming up, the girls are all rowing and nature is just waking up,” he said. “It’s glorious every day and what a job to have.”
It’s also a glorious feeling to be inducted into the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was knee buckling and emotional for me when I found out,” Burak said. “You look at who is in there and it is ‘Wow.’ You have NHL players like Gerry Cheevers and Stan Mikita, and Jim Minards and Neil Campbell. There all kinds of great people and athletes and builders in different sports.
“I know when I stand on the podium I am going to see so many people who should be here.”
Burak is also delighted to be inducted at the same time as fellow Beamsville alumnus and Olympian Tonya Verbeek.
“I don’t know how she feels about it but for me it is pretty neat,” he said.
Also being inducted into the hall are Bill Schenck, Wanita Dykstra-May and Ellard (Obie) O’Brien.
The 2019 Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. Doors will open at 5 p.m. and following the induction ceremony, there will be a reception which will include hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.
BPSN’s coverage of the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame is brought to you by Peter Partridge of Partridge Wealth Management of RBC Dominion Securities (www.peterpartridge.com).