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It’s a family thing

Family of athletes behind Oshawa's Pan Am torchbearer

Pan Am Torchbearer

Oshawa’s community torchbearer for the Pan Am Games, Norma Douglas, holds her silver medal from the 1955 Pan Am Games with her son Cris, left, and grandchildren Ryan, middle, and Kyle.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Times change. Training changes. Sports change.

If one thing has stayed constant, it’s that the Douglas family is an athletic one.

It’s one of the reasons the younger generation of the Douglas family nominated their grandmother, Norma Douglas, to bear the Pan Am torch when it comes to their hometown of Oshawa.

Pan Am Torchbearer

Norma Douglas represented Canada in synchronized swimming in the 1955 Pan Am Games in Mexico City.

“Grandma has been an inspiration for our family’s athletic careers and we’ve been pretty blessed that we’ve all had the opportunity to be professional athletes and it has to stem from somewhere,” says Kyle Douglas, Norma’s second-youngest grandchild.

For the humble Norma, 84 – who was a part of history, competing in synchronized swimming at the Pan Am Games in 1955, the year the sport debuted on the Pan Am circuit – she didn’t think carrying the torch would happen.

“Because of my age, I never thought this would come to be,” Norma says.

A silver medal

The athleticism didn’t start with Norma. Moving from England, Norma’s mother was also a devout swimmer and had her daughter in the water at a very young age.

“She wanted me to be involved as early as I could in swimming, so she took me to the Y before I can remember being there to be taught how to swim,” Norma says.

Growing up in Peterborough, Norma started out with speed swimming before the ornamental swimming coach noticed the strength of her skill. She would be recruited to the team.

For a time, Norma did both; but eventually, she fell in love with the ornamental sport and the challenges it presented.

“You were always doing different things, there was always something new to learn. It wasn’t just getting better at one thing or the two things…so I enjoyed it more. It was more challenging,” Norma recalls.

And in 1955, the Pan Ams announced a synchronized swimming tournament would, for the first time, be a part of the games.

Her coach inquired about putting together a team from Canada.

With a relatively new sport only being practised in major cities across the country, there wasn’t enough to host a sub-tournament to pick a team. So, Norma’s team put in a bid to represent Canada and was chosen.

The team of 12 girls travelled to Mexico City to compete and was greeted with a surprise when they got there.

“The pool was larger than we expected,” Norma says. “We had to change our routine and expand because coverage of the pool was part of the requirements.”

The team also had its first experience with underwater speakers, allowing them to hear their routine’s music while performing certain positions underwater.

Despite the changes, the girls prevailed and brought home a silver medal.

“It was exciting,” Norma says. “That’s all I can think about. We were all just so excited that we had won a medal.”

Norma says her coach was, perhaps, ahead of her time in her coaching.

“She trained us how to control our different muscles in our bodies. She didn’t know the names of the muscles, but she told us which ones we were going to be using and how to control them, and through that control, we could perfect the figures,” Norma says.

Since then, Norma has remained heavily involved in the sport, ranging from forming the Oshawa Synchronized Swimming Club – now the Durham Synchro Club –in the 1970s to refereeing at the Canadian Synchronized Swimming Nationals when they were held in Oshawa in 1971.

Her reasons for keeping so close to the sport are simple.

“Because I loved it, and most of us did and that’s why we still keep in touch with each other. We always loved what we were doing,” Norma says of her Pan Am team.

Four generations of athletes

Starting with Norma’s mother, it would seem athleticism is in the Douglas blood.

Norma’s daughter is also a multi-time national champion in synchronized swimming. Her grandson Kyle, now 29, is a national champion in cycling, winning the Cycle Cross National Championships in 2006. Ryan now also manages Three Rox Racing, a successful team of mountain bikers, which the Douglas family started more than a decade ago.

Also, her grandson Ryan, 37, won a Founders Cup with the Green Gaels Junior B lacrosse team in 1998.

Kyle, who also sits on the local Pan Am committee, was the one who nominated his grandmother for the community torchbearer position, something the family kept a secret from Norma since the papers were filed in November.

“It’s rare that we get a games in our backyard,” Kyle says. “I was, like, that would be an awesome family experience to have grandma run with the torch,” he says.

For Ryan, the experience will be a great bookend for his grandmother’s athletic career.

“You either get your jersey retired, you go in the hall of fame, or you get the chance to do something like be a torchbearer. So at the end, or at some point in your career, it’s an extra bonus, or reward…it’s awesome,” he says.

Prepping to run

Norma admits she is slightly nervous to carry the torch, but she’s doubled her time on the treadmill in order to prepare for the run on June 5.

Norma will carry the torch for part of its 41-day relay, which will see it travel more than 5,000 kilometres by road and 15,000 by air through 60 different modes of transport.

The relay commences on May 30 and culminates with the lighting of the cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the Pan Am Games on July 10.

Thinking of the thousands of athletes preparing to compete in the games, Norma offers her own words of advice.

“Treat it like any other competition,” she says. “It’s a huge event in your life and enjoy it and do the best you can.”