Lane to glory
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“His intensity and natural leadership ensured that each of us had a solid performance”- Mark Tewksbury in an interview with the Other Press
In the 1980s, Victor Davis, was one of Canada’s top swimmers. Davis’ forte was the breaststroke. He held several world records; winning 31 national titles and 18 medals in international competition. In 1984, the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles would be Davis’ defining moment. He won two silver medals: the 100-metre breaststroke event and the 4 x 100 metre medley relay. He later captured the gold medal in the 200-metre breaststroke, thereby setting another world record.
Davis was a cocktail of overt confidence. He had charisma and combined that with bravado, swagger, and self-assurance. He was fiery and competitive in the swimming pool. His personal motto was “Go big, or go home.” He hated to lose and this was evidenced at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia; Davis’ Canadian relay team had been disqualified, and out of anger, he kicked a chair across the pool deck in front of Queen Elizabeth II.
Davis’ love for swimming started early. At age 12, the native of Guelph, Ontario, became a member of the Guelph Marlin Aquatic Club. He met Clifford Barry, who became his coach and mentor from 1976 till 1989. Barry said Davis was destined to accomplish great things in the pool. “Victor was the most gifted and challenging swimmer I have ever dealt with,” Barry said in an email interview with the Other Press. “Also, [he was] one of the most rewarding [and] loyal athletes a coach could wish for! Victor was the total package. Incredible talent, incredible desire, incredible awareness, incredible leadership qualities! His desire to win was astonishing!”
In September 1988, Davis competed in his final Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He finished in fourth place in the 100-metre breaststroke. However, he captured a silver medal in the 4 x 100 metre medley relay. Retired Canadian swimmer, Mark Tewksbury, was part of the 4 x 100 metre medley relay along with Davis, Tom Ponting, and Sandy Goss. Tewksbury remembers Davis’ passion and desire to win as he helped motivate his team before the start of the race. “Each moment Victor kept asking us what we dreamed of…that this was our moment,” Tewksbury said in an email interview with the Other Press. “His intensity and natural leadership ensured that each of us had a solid performance—and Sandy pulling out a [once-in-a-lifetime] race to win the silver medal. Victor became close like a brother to me after that…”
During his career, Davis received numerous awards and accolades. In 1984, the Canadian government honoured Davis by making him a Member of the Order of Canada. A year later, he was voted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. Swimming Canada named Davis as their Athlete of the Year three times (1982, 1984 and 1986). Davis retired from competitive swimming in July 1989 before publicly announcing his plans to form a business that dealt with pool safety and placement service for lifeguards.
On Remembrance Day in 1989, tragedy would occur. Davis was involved in a confrontation with three men inside a nightclub located in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, a suburb west of Montreal. Davis was with his girlfriend, Donna Clavel, and her friend, Jennifer Watts. According to Clavel, in an interview with TSN in November 1989, the three of them left the nightclub at 12:30 am. Clavel said Davis went to buy an orange juice and when he returned, three men were in a vehicle which had pulled up and they began shouting at Clavel and Watts. One of the three men was Glen Crossley, who was 19 years old and driving. After Davis attempted to confront them in the road, Crossley hit him with the vehicle before fleeing the scene.
Davis died two days later at Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal as a result of his injuries: a severely fractured skull and spinal and brain hemorrhage. He was 25 years old. Davis’ parents, Mel and Leona, honoured their late son’s request by donating his organs to help save the lives of others. In February 1992, Glen Crossley was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to ten months in prison but would only serve four months.
Dave Stubbs, a good friend of Davis, first met the swimmer when Stubbs was head of communications for Swimming Canada in the mid-1980s. “[His death was] such a senseless loss […] Yes, Vic was a great champion; I think about him often,” Stubbs said in an email to the Other Press. Stubbs, in an article he wrote for the Montreal Gazette shortly after Davis’ death, remembers a humourous encounter with Davis—who never enjoyed dealing with the media and would always try to antagonize the press: “On one occasion, he wrestled a walkie-talkie away from me at an international meet and, knowing there were reporters within earshot at the other end, said: ‘Yeah, we need a doctor at the pool, right away. Alex Baumann has fallen and broken his leg.’”
Significantly, after Davis’ death, the honours and tributes continued. In 1990, the Victor Davis Memorial Fund was founded to assist young Canadian swimmers with the ability to continue their education while also training for international competition. Furthermore, in 1990, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame; International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1994; and in 2002, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. In 2008, a two-hour television biography drama, Victor, was released about the swimmer’s life and legacy. In his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, a 50m swimming pool was named in his honour.
In a United Press International (UPI) article published shortly after Davis’ death, he had discussed what he wanted his legacy to be shortly after retiring: “I just hope that all the memories would be positive and not negative…[I want to be remembered just] as a fierce competitor and a true believer in his nation.”