FEATURE: Once an Olympian: Sioux Lookout man Knowles McGill’s Olympic flame burns bright after 50 years

Sioux Lookout’s Knowles McGill competed in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France — a member of the Canadian Biathlon Relay team. Submitted

By Chris Marchand

There was a familiar stirring in Sioux Lookout’s Knowles McGill whenever he tuned into the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, something that rings true even after 50 years.

A member of Canada’s Olympic Biathlon Relay Team in 1968, McGill and his fellow athletes walked into Olympic Stadium in Grenoble, France for the first games under Canada’s new Maple Leaf flag.

Four years before that, McGill was a member of the military on his first posting in Wainwright, Alberta when the federal government approached the army with the idea of forming a biathlon team for the 1968 Winter Games for which Calgary had a bid to become host city.

While McGill says a few civilians did their best to make the team, none could match the intense training schedule and resources the military had provided their prospects. It’s the training, he says, that left him with his most enduring impressions.

“A person has no idea what they’re capable of until they try,” said McGill. “I didn’t expect that I’d be capable of making it all the way through to the Olympics. I just thought, ‘I’ll give this a shot and see how it goes’. But when you do work, work, work and train, train, train you’ll be astonished at what you can accomplish and how fit you can get. What I cherish the most from it is what I learned about my capacity to do things I didn’t think were possible as a result of all that training.”

Those Games were marked by gold and silver medals for Canada by (now Senator) Nancy Greene in alpine skiing and a bronze for the Men’s Hockey Team.

McGill says his own squad in the 4×7.5km biathlon relay did not fare well as one member of the relay fell ill in the midst of the competition.

Into his 70s, McGill is still an avid Nordic skier.

“We were up against the Norwegians, Swedes and Finlanders who have been cross-country-skiing and shooting their whole lives so-to-speak,” said McGill. “At one point we were in third place, but our fourth runner became ill on the trail and we dropped right back. But just the thrill of participating and being there with all those wonderful athletes was incredible.”

Comparing that particular biathlon event of 50 years ago (in its first appearance at a winter games) versus the event at Pyeongchang 2018 is interesting. In McGill’s day of wooden skis and cane poles, the modern ‘skate’ style stride wouldn’t be accepted in competition for another dozen years. In 1968 the Soviets captured the biathlon relay gold in a time of 2:13:02, last week in Pyeongchang the Swedish team crossed the finish line of the same event in 1:15:16.

Instead of the lightweight .22 calibre rifles used by today’s biathletes to use of the modern 50m (160 feet) range, McGill’s squad were using the kind of guns you might take to a battle.

“We used big heavy guns — full .308 calibre,” he said. Big recoil, big noise. We shot farther, but at bigger targets. It usually took us 15-20 seconds to get each round off.”

Still skiing into his 70s, McGill says he’s been greatly enjoying an excellent Olympic Winter Games for Canada at Pyeonchang.

“When you are watching those guys or girls out there doing their darndest and something goes wrong, God, you want to cry for them,” said McGill. “Those kids have been working for four to ten years, practicing, breaking their arms and legs — everything to get there and do it.”

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