Thomas Merritt (right) helps to kick off the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival promotion. The festival will benefit the new multi-million dollar Northern Water Sport Centre,
Thomas Merritt’s university rowing coach taught him as much, if not more, about life as sport.
“My coach, Mike Nicholls, instilled in everyone on the team that you gave back to the sport, to the community,” says Merritt, who was a competitive rower at the University of North Carolina in the late 1980s.
He learned his lessons well. For Merritt, rowing is more than racing and winning. He has contributed greatly to his adopted community, building the Sudbury Rowing Club’s adaptive program from the ground up, and championing the club’s plans to build the Northern Water Sports Centre on Ramsey Lake.
Merritt, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry at Laurentian University, doesn’t have a background in coaching or working with people with disabilities. He makes up for his lack of formal training in passion and enthusiasm.
He won the Community Builders Award for Sports and Recreation for 2013.
Merritt rekindled his love of rowing when he moved to Sudbury in 2006 to be with his wife, Jackie Litzgus, also a Laurentian professor. He got involved with the rowing club and this led to an opportunity to work with an athlete who was interested in adaptive rowing.
“Minna Mettinen-Kekalainen, a local athlete with a disability, approached the club about adaptive rowing. I was impressed with her spirit, with what she was trying to do against impossible odds,” says Merritt.
Merritt and Mettinen-Kekalainen, who would eventually get a tryout with the national team, wrote a successful grant application to the Ministry of Health to initiate an adaptive rowing program in Sudbury. Since then, Merritt has helped to secure more than $80,000 in funding for the program that enables teens and adults with intellectual, developmental, or physical challenges to be active in sport; one of only a few accessible sport programs in Sudbury. This program has encouraged dozens of athletes of all ages and abilities to try this sport.
Merritt coached Steve Daniel to the national team. Daniel, a retired Canadian Forces sergeant, suffered a spinal injury in a parachute training accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“We got Steve on the water in the summer of 2007. Minna had never been in a boat before. He had never been in a boat. I had never done any coaching before, so we were all equally unprepared…it was exciting,” remembers Merritt.
“Thomas would eventually coach me all the way to the 2008 ParaOlympic Games,” Daniel wrote in his letter to the CBA judges. “The adaptive rowing program in Sudbury has become one of the most active in the country, and Thomas has become one of Canada’s adaptive rowing experts.” (Daniel won a CBA for sports and recreation in 2009 and is currently attending the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.)
As Merritt’s skill set as a coach has grown, so has his influence. He was the 2008 Rowing Canada Adaptive Coach of the Year. In 2009, he organized and hosted an international adaptive workshop in Sudbury, the first of its kind and now an annual event. He represented Ontario at the Rowing Canada Adaptive Summit in Victoria, B.C., in February 2012, a meeting to plan the future of accessible rowing in Canada. In December, he represented Row Ontario at the Ontario Parasport Summit on Accessible Sports.
This story ends with a new beginning. In order to be able to work with more able-bodied and disabled rowers, there is a need for a larger, year-round, fully accessible facility. Merritt is chair of the board for the multi-million dollar Northern Water Sport Centre, a partnership of the City of Greater Sudbury, the rowing and canoe clubs, and the Dragon Boat Festival.
“We have about another $400,000 to go to reach our goal. We are hoping to break ground in June.”