When W.A.C. Bennett officially opened the Kelowna Vocational School June 26, 1964, he promised a gym would be built shortly after.
That promise would be made again. And again. But sometimes, even politicians with a few gentle reminders keep promises made over decades and OUC was third time lucky: it got what many consider the best gymnasium between Vancouver and Calgary. “The first two didn’t get built and it’s a darn good thing, because if they had, this one wouldn’t have been,” said OUC Athletics Director Rob Johnson. “We got so close in the early 1980s that they actually built the change rooms, shower facilities and weight room. It was all plumbed and wired and ready to hook a gym onto it. But there was no money.
“I started June 10, 1991 and there was no desk for me and no computer in those old change rooms at the KLO Campus. Recreation Director Alex Recsky and I got a desk and computer ordered and put a budget together and started to work.” While Johnson’s office was on the campus, the College gym was at Hollywood Road Secondary School, which had been leased from the Kelowna school district. “I started to order things like a washer and dryer. We had to put a hot water heater in as well. One of my memories from the first year is trying to educate the soccer players that when they took their socks off they need to turn them right side in. Otherwise, after a weekend’s competition, I had to sit down on Monday morning with 40 packs of sweaty socks that were in a ball, pull them back through and throw them in the washing machine. I think some of the players, when they heard it was me doing it, said, ‘This is perfect, I forgot again. Sorry, Rob.’
“The Hollywood facility was a good place for us. It wasn’t a huge space. But the high-school athletic director had been a real badminton buff and he had the ceiling painted navy blue so you could see the badminton bird against the ceiling, which is great for badminton but navy blue sucks up a lot of light. We’d regularly have coaches come in and say, ‘You’re going to turn the lights up for the match, right?’ Our teams thought it was great because they were used to playing there, and when we went to another gym, it was bright. Langara College, which is always strong in basketball, came into Hollywood Road one night, and Rod Charlton shot 41 points. They couldn’t stop him. He was having a night when everything that left his hand was going in. He’d shoot and then he’d start running for the other end before the ball was on its way down. He just knew. He was an All-Canadian.”
Charlton was one of 12 All-Canadians OUC would produce. It also won numerous provincial titles and made a splash a few times on the national scene, like the time it held the national volleyball championship and the men won the bronze medal, even though the team had started the year rated fifth in B.C. Some coaches were also All-Canadian. Roy Shaw (men’s soccer) and Paul Thiessen (men’s volleyball), were national coaches of the year while Steve Manuel (women’s volleyball) was a provincial coach of the year twice. Johnson was also chosen the national athletic director of the year.
Okanagan College was a charter member of the Totem Conference Athletic Association that was formed in 1970. The association included BCIT, Capilano College, Cariboo College, Douglas College, Okanagan College, Selkirk College and Vancouver Community College. They competed in volleyball, soccer, badminton and curling, and in men’s hockey and rugby.
Okanagan College’s first Totem Conference championship was curling, won by a Salmon Arm-Vernon rink in 1971. “We were involved in organizing it and getting it promoted,” said Gene Puetz, the third on the winning rink. “I think we won all our games that year and played Caledonia College in the last game,” said Puetz. Pat Roberts, also from Salmon Arm, was the skip.
The foursome didn’t defend its title the next year because Puetz went to college in Kelowna and Roberts dropped out. The Okanagan College men’s team did, however, win the silver medal and Puetz skipped a mixed team of all Salmon Arm players to gold. “I had curled with Kathy Dunn and Enid McCauley in high school and I had curled a bit with Brian McDonald.”
He enjoyed the tournament better the second year because he didn’t have to help organize it. “We just concentrated on the game. We had quite a few good games. We didn’t smoke anybody, but in every game we had a good start,” Puetz said.
Eldon Worobieff made sure that the College won more Totem Conference titles. The former Olympian and university coach brought a winning attitude, great experience and realistic expectations when he started as Student Affairs Co-ordinator, looking after athletics and intramurals, recreation and student government. While on the UBC rowing team, he had competed in the world championships, Pan-Am Games, Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games. After teaching high school for a few years, he went to the University of Southern California on a coaching scholarship and, after graduating with a master’s, was hired by the University of California at Santa Barbara to set up a rowing program.
He wanted to come back to Canada and when he saw an ad for Okanagan College, he knew he had a ticket home. “There was a very small athletic program there: men’s soccer, rugby, but no basketball, or volleyball. After a while, we got a program underway, but we didn’t have a gym or facilities. We negotiated with the school district to get into high-school gymnasiums. It was difficult, but we were competitive with schools that had full facilities. You never knew where the practices would be: they could be at KSS, SpringValley, at any school and I think that helped with the competition. The teams were good for the simple reason that they were able to endure a lot of difficulties. They didn’t get upset about things going wrong. The athletes and coaches did really well.”
Worobieff, who had also played rugby at UBC, coached the Okanagan College team and asked them to set a goal for the year. The players decided they wanted to win the B.C. championships. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, how well did you do last year?’ They said, ‘Terribly.'” He suggested they aim for the top three. “It was agreed and it was handed out to everyone and they had a contract. It’s a great motivator,” said Worobieff, who had been athlete of the year at UBC. “They had a fantastic year. They scored 193 points and had three points scored against them on a penalty kick for the whole season. We had such a talented group of kids who worked so hard.”
The core of the team came from Rutland Secondary, as did the captain, Bill Lang, and the players brought that camaraderie and team spirit with them. “It was quite a special group of players and a lot of it was based on camaraderie,” said Lang, who had been recruited, in the school hallway, to play rugby when he was in Grade 8. “We hung out with each other and socialized together.”
Lang, vice-principal, at KSS, said team chemistry, and core players are the two key components of success, and Okanagan College had both. They had something else: fitness. “We had a training regimen in the winter: weights, cardio and gym stuff. I was in pretty good shape, but Eldon took us to a new level of fitness. Once, we ran 25 miles. The team had so much fun, talking and fooling around, we couldn’t believe we finished.”
Worobieff involved his team in his decisions so they would support them whole-heartedly. “When we walked on field, he was coach, but off the field he respected my input," Lang said. “He would come up with drills, and we would talk strategy about why it would work and why it wouldn’t.”
The team wasn’t quite as dominant in a tournament at the University of California at Santa Barbara, but it was chosen as the most sportsman-like team. “There were 85-95 teams and it had the social atmosphere that came with it. All the teams were on one field, about the size of Parkinson Rec Centre’s and they all started to sing their national anthem. We sang God Save the Queen and O Canada and when the Welsh team, which won the tournament, heard us sing God Save the Queen, they joined us.”
The Lakers didn’t have as many teams to contend with back home, or ones that were as talented. Douglas College was “the nastiest team” in the 12-team Totem Conference and Malaspina “was quite ferocious,” but neither nastiness nor ferocity could match the special force Okanagan College fielded. “The brotherly part of it is very special because of the contact involved. You have to push together as one, act as one man. The key thing is the pleasure in keeping the ball alive. You know going down the field that there’s someone on your right and left. You never doubted that you were being supported. With that comes that ability to get ferocious. In the scrum, you feel the power and the adrenaline. It takes a long time after the game to come down; it’s such a euphoric feeling.”
Lang played rugby at UBC where he had good times and good memories, “but Okanagan College was more memorable. It was a rush. It was one of the most fun times of my life.”
The 1978 women’s Lakers basketball team had that same combination of fun and fierceness. The Lakers, the first College team to compete in a national competition, played beyond its ranking to bring home a bronze medal.
Duncan Kippan and Brock Tully, former high-school basketball teammates, coached the team. “It was a strong group, a lot of top players from throughout Okanagan,” said Kippan, who only coached the Lakers one year. “Two were from Salmon Arm and Joanne Ritchie from KLO was the starting centre. We had three good players from Vernon, one from Cranbrook, one from George Pringle, one from Rutland Secondary, and one from KSS. They were a good representation of the top high school players throughout the Valley. We knew we were competitive with every team and we just chugged along like the Kelowna Rockets are doing this year: a great team without any stars. That will always give you a more successful shot at a winning season.”
The team went 13-1 in the Totem Conference and tied for first with Langara College, but since Langara didn’t intend to send a team to the Nationals, the Lakers were awarded the right to represent B.C. “We secretly hoped to be in the medals. I think we surprised the Seneca team that was rated higher than us,” Kippan said.
Okanagan College beat thirdranked Seneca in their first game of the tournament in Montreal, but lost to the Montreal team that eventually won the Canadian title. The Lakers beat Cape Breton for the bronze. “It was a really exciting time to finish third in Canada against some good competition. The nice thing was that we did it without a home gym. We played at Hollywood Road, which didn’t have a college atmosphere, but we persevered without any home court,” Kippan said.
Ritchie, who was 19, doesn’t remember much about the Nationals, except the facility they played in a vast improvement over Hollywood Road and the party after. She joined the Lakers because the team was going to Hawaii at Christmas. “Everybody knew that coming out of high school, so it was a bit of an enticement. It was a lot of fun.” After spending the day at the beach getting what Ritchie suspects was heat stroke, the team was hammered by the University of Hawaii. “We were definitely not on top of things.”
Ritchie went to SFU the next year and played junior varsity, which wasn’t as high a level as the Lakers. “It was a good group of girls from the Okanagan, a real Okanagan team, kids we had played against in high school. It was during the Salmon Arm Golds era, or one of their eras. We were well coached and pretty fit. We were a pretty good team.”
They were also highly motivated, having Tully, a guru of motivation, as one of the coaches. “I remember him telling me to get the Inner Game of Tennis. It was a good little book. I tried to find it last year.”
Worobieff learned much of the philosophy espoused in that book in a business course he took at Santa Barbara. “The instructor was talking about empowering employees. Why not have the employees set the goals? I thought if it works in business, it should work in sport, so I started with the rowing team. I tried to introduce it with other teams as well. It’s their ideas they’re committed to. But if you give out the goals to a group of workers or athletes, there’s no connection to them.”
Worobieff’s connection with the College was severed during the restraint years: his job was axed and the athletics program shut down. Recreation and intramurals were the only things going at the College when Alex Recsky, a former head trainer with the Calgary Stampeders, was hired on a six-month contract. Recsky, who had planned to hang out his shingle as a massage therapist when he moved to Kelowna in 1985, had worked with youth all his life, first at the Y and then with the Calgary Stampeders. After his temporary College contract was made permanent, he picked up Worobieff’s theme and borrowed or rented gyms, got deals at fitness clubs, doing anything, including renting Silver Star Ski Resort for a weekend, to work his philosophy of mind-body-spirit. “It was effective because the community was behind it knowing we didn’t have any facilities. In the earlier days, we had work-study students students with a financial need would apply for a position and get paid by government and that really helped with my programs.”
He hired as many as he could, usually 25 a year, to help run programs in Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Salmon Arm. “Each centre has its own identity, its own personality. You couldn’t do the same things in Salmon Arm as here or in Penticton. We had a lot of fun and the kids came up with some really good ideas. We had some really successful programs like the slow-pitch tournaments that were held in Vernon. Everything was strictly recreational: Mountain bike trips, hikes, golf tournaments, and we had medieval games one year.”
Don McPherson, a Penticton high-school graduate, was a work-study student in Kelowna for four years. He was studying to be a paramedic, but switched to business after two years. “While I was there, we started developing recreation programs, event programs and all the things in between, from slow pitch to bocce ball to a Friday night social club. A lot of things we designed were stress relievers. I helped the business students put on one of the first concerts the College did that drew 5,000 people to see Rock and Hyde who had been the Payolas, a big Canadian band of the 1980s.”
McPherson also helped organize the medieval games, which had all the pomp and pageantry associated with the idea of medieval England, with tricycle jousting and sword fighting and a club that demonstrated the traditional way of making weapons, tools and clothing.
“I ended up doing that for a living,” said McPherson, sales and marketing director for Three Dimensional Services. “Most students, when they come out of a business program ask themselves, ‘What do I want to sell?’ Alex Recsky, an amazing mentor, said, ‘There’s a career sitting in front of your face.”
Although it didn’t have varsity teams, the College wasn’t a sporting wasteland. “KLO Campus did have an outdoor field and three tennis courts, a sand volleyball court and an outdoor basketball court,” said Recsky. “Campus Recreation also offered soccer, touch football, rugby, baseball, ball hockey, and Frisbee. In addition, we had special rates at Big White, and Silver Star ski resorts. We offered the students once or twice per season a trip to Vancouver to see an NHL game at a very special rate.”
Even though recreational activities were well received, Recsky never stopped “doing my spiel that we should once again go into athletics, but there was no money.” Administration finally allowed a referendum to see if students would pay an annual fee so the College could get back into varsity sports. “The students thought this was a great idea, even though they didn’t have athletics in Salmon Arm, Penticton or Vernon, but they had the opportunity to come down and make the team,” said Recsky. “I chose the two top high-school sports basketball and volleyball and we thought we would be able to expand and we did. Then, the school district closed Hollywood Road school and we had a gymnasium.”
In 1990, Laker volleyball and basketball teams, both men’s and women’s, completed an exhibition year as part of the process to re-enter the Totem conference, now known as the British Columbia Colleges’ Athletic Association (BCCAA).
In 1991, OUC hired Terry Flannigan as director of Development. The Bold Horizon’s Campaign exceeded its $4 million goal for development of the North Kelowna Campus and contributed $1.1 million to help build a new gym. “In 1992, Jack Falk phoned me up and said ‘Tell me what you would like to see in a gym if you had your wish,’ which is not a call too many people get,” Johnson said. “I was incredibly fortunate to have that opportunity and worked with the architects and the committee and we drafted the plans for the gym. From a competitive athlete’s perspective, it is fabulous. It’s a high performance floor, the lighting is terrific because it’s indirect, and from my perspective, I have the nicest office on campus. I have great views down the valley. It’s a wonderful space to work in.”
But Johnson and Recsky had to coax and cajole to get the gym the way it is today. The ceiling was designed to be 36 feet, but international volleyball requires 40 feet. “We went back to the architect,” Recsky said, “and asked, ‘What will it cost to put in an extra four feet?’ ‘He said $20,000.’” To get that for $20,000, brick and stucco panels were used around the building instead of all brick. “We probably have the best facility in B.C. because of the flooring, but there were a lot of little games that had to be played with budgets before a game was ever played in the gym,” Recsky said.
In June, 1994, the building opened and four days later, OUC hosted the B.C. Summer Games. “We were scrambling,” said Johnson. “We didn’t even know how to run the building; air handling was still a challenge. The only time of year we have hot spots on the floor from the sun shining through the windows is July. We have this beautiful new facility; we invite the province and for an hour in the morning, there would be this big glare off this shiny new floor and we’re trying to hold blankets up.”
But they learned and the gym went from highlight to highlight: Davis Cup Tennis, CCAA Men’s Volleyball Nationals, the Indo-Pacific Tumbling and Trampoline Championships, the Conceca World Junior Volleyball Championships Qualifier, and numerous BCCAA and high school provincial championships. It’s also the venue for exams and convocation.
“The neatest thing for me,” said Johnson, “is I get to work in a building where people play. People come here to relax and to relieve their stress and we’re able to deliver that for them. Lots of the projects I’ve been involved with have been celebrations in some way like the national championships.”
Volleyball earned the College the most acclaim. Teams have won two provincial titles, six silver medals and six bronze, and brought home two of the College’s three national medals bronze. Eleven of OUC’s 12 All-Canadians were volleyball players.
Hailey Bauer is the last OUC All-Canadian. The volleyball player was also an academic All-Canadian, BCCAA player of the year, a provincial All-Star and OUC’s athlete of the year an honour she shared with Jackie Wong, her Laker teammate. Bauer started playing volleyball in Grade 5 at Westbank Elementary, kept playing at Glenrosa Junior and at Mount Boucherie, a perennial power in B.C. high school play. Unsure what she wanted to do after high school, she went to OUC and took general studies and then switched to computer science.
She made the team in her first year, but wasn’t a starter and the team didn't do well. That changed the next year when Steve Manuel, who had coached her in club volleyball, took over the OUC team. “We were rebuilding and ranked fifth,” Bauer said. “Everyone thought we were a write-off, but we played amazing, out-of our-minds volleyball.” The Lakers beat Douglas College, a perennial powerhouse. “It was pretty awesome.”
Her final year was bittersweet: sweet personally, but a little bitter for the team “We had a great season and only lost two league matches. We went into the championship ranked first, the only time that has happened.” The Lakers played Kamloops in the championship match. “We expected to win, but they played really well, and we didn’t play our greatest.”
OUC lost the final game 15-13.
Bauer credits her teammates for helping her win her awards. One of those teammates was her younger sister, Karlyn. “She was amazing. I had never played with her before. I didn’t know how good she was and I can’t imagine how good she will become.” She is absolutely convinced that team sports develop stronger individuals. “People who don’t play team sports miss out on a big part of life. The team is a support network. It means a lot to have them there for you.”
Her coach was also there for her and the team. “Steve was kind of a mentor. He teaches you things, makes you realize things about life.”
Manuel took the team to the silver medal in his first year and was picked by his peers as B.C. coach of the year. “OUC has always been competitive,” said Manuel, who has coached the Lakers since 2001. “There have been a few teams with a better record, but we’re definitely a contender, year in, year out. We’ve had some pretty good athletes and, for some reason, we get a lot of them. At tryouts, we will have 30 girls. Every year, we have some tough cuts to make. Some teams only carry eight to 10 players because that’s all they had at tryouts.”
For a team to make it to the medal round, said Manuel, director of development for Volleyball B.C. and former executive director of Volleyball New Brunswick, it must be consistently strong, have at least three go-to players and a great supporting cast. “We have had success without studs, with six players on the floor playing well together, but that’s a tough route to go, scratching and clawing for every win.”
In 2004/05, the team and its “studs” helped Manuel win the provincial coach of the year award for the second time. “In both those years, I had athletes who went out there and played really well, although I had a little something to do with it. Success comes down to hard work and team work.”
Competitors in one of the most recent OUC sporting events know all about hard work: racing 13.1 miles is a test for even the fittest runners! “The OUC Campus-to-Campus 1/2 Marathon was developed to bring together Campus Recreation, the North and South Kelowna campuses, and to provide a community event for Valley runners,” said Jane Muskens, Campus to Campus race founder and organizer. “After the success of the inaugural run in 2003, a Bookworm Relay race was added in the second year. This race combines learning with running as each team gets a book that has to be stamped at the water stations as they complete legs of the relay. In 2005, we had record participation with about 220 runners, a significant increase from our first race where we had only 115 runners. This race will continue, as an event that bridges UBC Okanagan to Okanagan College.”