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I Gotta Steer and the Frilly Pillow (Originally Published June 13, 2008)

Tuesday's guest blogger, Scott Murray, mentioned Jeff Miller, a paddler from West Rouge/Frenchman's Bay for whom a memorial scholarship has been created at the Pickering Dragon Boat Challenge. I offer some memories of paddling with Jeff, who passed away in Spring 2002 after a courageous battle with cancer. I hope everyone paddling in Frenchman's Bay shares Jeff Miller's passion and love for the sport.

I first met Jeff Miller through Jim Farintosh in the mid 1990's. Jim was on his streak of winning the Masters Over 45 Category 1000m C1 at Sprint Nationals - he won 4 times in 6 years - he had accumulated a collection of buddies who joined in his training like sparring partners. Ian Grinnell and Adrian Taylor were in that group, along with Jeff. They would train hard, go to Florida and paddle, follow Jim's program and race at various sprint canoeing events, primarily at the Masters level. Back then we didn't do much dragonboat. Sometimes I would paddle with this group, either in Florida or if I happened to be in Toronto - at the time I was the Over 30 National C1 1000m Champion and I understood better than most how much respect 45 to 50 year old athletes training that hard deserved. I couldn't imagine my shoulder taking Jim's training program 10 years to 15 years hence. Jim's group was hard working, dedicated, old school and I admired them.

To say Jeff was passionate about paddling was an understatement. I believe he had paddled as a teenager, but he had been away from the sport for a long time and had made a comeback as a master aged paddler. When I first met him he did not have very good balance in the boat and was struggling with some of the skills - steering and so on. But he would do the workouts, never yielding or making excuses, and he would go out and race without expectations. In 1996, I was at the National Dragon Boat camp for the Open Men's team and Jim (in his first year as the National Team Dragon Boat Coach) invited me to a Master's regatta in Richmond Hill on our day off. I accepted his invitation, figuring I'd go hang out, relax on my day off and watch the races. It had been a long week of dragon boat training.

On the drive up to Richmond Hill, Jim mentioned, "I told Jeff Miller that you were coming up today and mentioned you might jump in the C2 race with him." I told Jim I was pretty tired, didn't have any of my equipment (though my paddle happened to be in the car) and maybe Jeff wouldn't be super keen on racing once we got there. Jim just looked at me. I now know that look meant, "you don't know Jeff Miller very well."

When we got to Richmond Hill, and before the car was turned off, Jeff Miller appeared peering in my car window. He had been waiting in the parking lot. I think he said hi. He definitely asked if I was ready for the C2 race. He was pretty much jumping up and down with excitement. I grabbed my paddle and headed to the boathouse to look at the boat.

Every paddler I've ever paddled with will tell you I'm not the equipment guy. Bernie would not let me anywhere near the boat until he deemed it ready. Dave Morris once removed a floorboard, etc. that I had set up and reinstalled it because he was certain my installation had to be substandard. Nevertheless, there I was, in an unfamilar boathouse, with limited tools, setting up a C2 as Jeff excitedly looked on, assuming I must know what I was doing. I naturally was setting things up with me in the front, since no one I've paddled with allows me paddle in the back either. That's when Jeff told me, "um, can you paddle in the back, I've never steered a C2." I dutifully set it up with me in the back, but I'm really wondering how we are making it down the lake.

We then go out for a paddle. It was not good. I can't steer very well, and my guess is Jeff has been in a C2 about 4 times (I find out later this is going to be his second race ever.) We are wobbly, can't go straight, and the floorboard won't stay in place. But Jeff is positive, motivated and very, very keen to race. This is the point where I see our main competition, Jim and Adrian, at the height of their run of National Masters Gold medals, doing full out sprint pick ups. We bring our boat in. I find some tools. I remember all the stuff Bernie, Carl and Dave told me about manufacturing a set up with blocks and foot braces. I believe I resorted to popsicle sticks at one point. We went back out. The boat is level. I make some suggestions to Jeff. I get him to paddle with a longer, slower rhythm - he picks up on my comments right away. I concentrate harder and steer the boat properly. Jeff's passion and enthusiasm have captured me.

We race. Jim and Adrian take an early lead, but we close the whole way and they barely nip us out. We beat 10 other crews. Jeff is pumping his fist. He is so excited when he looks over at the finish he can't contain himself. He asks me if I thought we won. Having been in many, many, close races, I know we haven't and tell him so. He still has hope, "I think we got em. I'm sure of it." When the results come in and we are second, he is still positive, "I can't believe we were that close. That was amazing. You are an unbelievable paddler." And then he says, "almost as good as Kevin Stott." Kevin Stott?!? The Chief? Apparently earlier in the season he had raced with Kevin with the same M.O. in his only other C2 race. Apparently, I'm the second best out of two. But Jeff means it as compliment. Kevin Stott, who was one of the all time great canoe paddlers and a close friend of mine, was Jeff's idol as a paddler. "And you're almost as good as him!" I felt like Seinfeld saying, "Newman!"

I paddled with Jeff after that on the Canadian Senior Dragon Boat team in 2001. After our C2 race, which was in 1996, he trained like crazy and developed himself into a world class dragonboater. He stroked our crew which won the gold medal in the 1000m and 200m Senior races at the World Championships in Philadelphia. Jim once told me, "Jeff will drink all the water in the canal he thought it would help us win." His enthusiasm again rubbed off on the crew, as it had on me in Richmond Hill.

The entire tour that year, Tim Schaus and I took turns mocking Jeff about the dainty, frilly pillow he had brought with him for the long bus ride. I think it might have been pink. His wife was travelling with us and she had brought pillows for her and Jeff. Tim and I, as guys do - and jealous because we hadn't had the foresight to bring our own pillows, would break the boredom of the travel every couple hours by razzing Jeff about his pillow. At one point we stole it and held it ransom, giggling as the hours on the long trip went by and he kept looking for it and we pleaded our innocence. It was hilarious, Jeff was giving as good as he got and defending himself admirably against us. I think at one point, as his frustration with us grew he said to me, "and you are no where near as good as Kevin Stott!"

We went to Philadelphia, won, came back, and with the travel, the practices, the nerves, and the races behind us, the trip over and the season ended, I find myself in Jim's van, dropping Jeff and his wife off at Jeff's house. Jeff has his gold medals around his neck. He's carrying the bags and walking to his door. We've said our good byes. Then Tim says, "wait, you forgot your pillow." This brings howls of laughter from everybody, we're all still laughing as we drive away.

That's the last time I saw him and that's the way I remember him.I am very pleased that the dragonboat community in Pickering continues to honor Jeff with the Memorial Scholarship. It is clear that Jeff's passion and enthusiasm continues to influence the paddling community and the next generation of paddlers in Frenchman's Bay.

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