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John Armitage and Queen's Rowing

John Armitage and Queen's Rowing

Photo: University Communications

We’re striving to be the best-run [rowing] program in North America.

When Larkin Davenport Huyer, Artsci’16, stepped up to the podium to claim her gold medal at the women’s singles event at the 2014 Canadian University Rowing Championships, she couldn’t wait to share the moment with one of her coaches.

The Caledon, Ont., native says Queen’s ­Rowing head coach John Armitage, Sc’71, was the ­reason she chose to study at Queen’s. “He started recruiting me in Grade 11,” she says.

In the following years, Armitage became a fixture in Davenport Huyer’s life, joining her on the Cataraqui River at 5:15 am for practice six days a week. “When you’re up that early and the weather is bad, sometimes it’s tough to stay motivated,” she says. “John always knows the right thing to say to keep things in perspective.”

Dave Carnegie, MSc’06, MBA’14, who rowed under Armitage from 2000 to 2006, says he’s ­“naturally a great coach. He’s very selfless with his time. He wants to help you grow, both on and off the water.”

[photo pf John Armitage]
John Armitage. (Photo courtesy Athletics and Recreation)

A rower since age 13, Armitage traded in his oars for a hockey stick in his freshman year at Queen’s, which didn’t have a rowing team at the time. He was cut at the start of his third year. “I never forgot how it felt like to be cut as a veteran,” he says.

The lessons he learned more than 40 years ago – the importance of empathy, the need for clear communication – continue to inform his coaching style. “I work hard to be understanding and transparent,” he says.

Armitage discovered rowing in his native Brockville and enjoyed a career that included a stint racing for Canada in 1975. His rowing days ended the following spring when he collapsed during testing and was diagnosed with chronic ­fatigue syndrome.

Fortunately, just as his rowing career was ­winding down, the sport was gathering momentum at Queen’s and the university’s nascent squad was looking for a coach. His 38-year volunteer tenure has included 13 Ontario University ­Athletics (OUA) titles and a national championship on the women’s side, another seven titles on the men’s side, and four Coach of the Year ­designations (one OUA and one Canadian).

Over the next year, Armitage will transition out of the head coach role but will remain as a leader with the program. He is determined to leave the program in the best possible hands. “We’re striving to be the best-run program in North America,” he says. Armitage knows the team will require a full-time head coach to achieve that goal.

To underwrite the position, an $800,000 ­endowment fund is needed. Armitage has made a $100,000 donation and friends of the program have brought the fund close to $400,000. Now, ­Armitage is turning to the Queen’s community. He hopes alumni recognize the strong impact the sport of rowing has had on Queen’s student-­athletes and are inspired by the dedication and perseverance of those who’ve spent many mornings on the Cataraqui River.

To Carnegie, Armitage’s dedication to the ­endowment fund is typical of what he’s come to ­expect from his former coach. “John has always cared about the program’s long-term health,” he says. “He’s exactly what rowing at Queen’s has needed.”

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review 2015 Issue 3]