On a hot afternoon last summer, a group of young paddlers gathered in a conference room at a hotel near Toronto Pearson Airport. They were flying to London that evening, and CanoeKayak Canada had invited a few of their heroes to offer words of inspiration. John Wood, a 62-year-old legend, spoke first.
His casual appearance – black shorts, glasses and purple short-sleeved shirt – belied Wood's iconic status in Canadian paddling, and also his wealth. He spoke with the ease of a man accustomed to a boardroom – after winning silver at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he made millions as a stockbroker and the innovative CEO of numerous investment companies. But the three-time Olympian also knew exactly what the young athletes needed in the stomach-churning days before the Games.
He made them laugh.
"It was stand-up comedian-type funny," recalls Larry Cain, who won gold and silver in singles canoe racing in Los Angeles in 1984, and also addressed the Olympians that day. "I got totally off on it, and here I was at age 49 as thrilled to hear him speak as I was at 14. I was also thrilled because a whole new generation of Canadian paddlers was getting to know the guy who started it all."
And yet beneath the affable exterior was a man who had struggled with an illness that touches as many as one in 10 Canadians. His closest friends knew that he faced periods of depression over the years, but since his death by suicide Jan. 23, even they have struggled to reconcile the way he died with the person they knew: a fun-loving, Porsche-driving family man who achieved greatness in sport and business, yet always seemed the most humble guy in the room.
Wood's wife, Debbie Daymond, and their four children, Jason, Michael, Alan and Jenny, ages 31 to 23, say they hoped that, by acknowledging the cause of death, "it might assist others suffering from mental illness to seek help," writes friend and former coach Mac Hickox in a statement approved by the family.
Hickox got to know Wood as a teammate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when both belonged to the dominant Mississauga Canoe Club, competing at nationals and later, worlds. But when Hickox began his transition to a teaching career, Wood lured him back onto the water, asking him to be his coach and help him hurdle past his fifth-place world standing in 1973. "You have to understand, this is a person who was so determined," said Hickox.
That drive is evident in Paddles Up, an 18-minute documentary featuring Wood the year after he medalled in Montreal. As he paddles down the Credit River in Mississauga, his shaggy hair in his eyes and sun on his bare back, his remarkable concentration is evident in each rhythmic, perfect stroke.
Over the splashes from the blade, he says: "What I enjoy most about padding in a race is winning. But that's not necessarily what I enjoy most about paddling. I get real satisfaction out of training: just spinning along out of doors."
Before Montreal, a Canadian paddler had not won an Olympic medal since 1952. And when Wood finished just 34/100ths of a second behind Alexandre Rogov of the Soviet Union in the 500-metre singles, he offered hope to paddlers across the continent that the East Bloc's dominance could be broken. His achievement has been called the catalyst that has led Canadian paddlers to win medals in every Olympics since Montreal, except 1988.
"He bashed down a door and held it open for everybody else," says Cain.
But soon after inspiring the next generation, Wood was racing off in another direction: business. He began by following his father's footsteps into chartered accounting, but soon found a niche as a stockbroker, a field that better suited his creative mind and ability to think outside the box. Ten years after Montreal, he founded 20/20 Financial, an investment company specializing in mutual funds.
Wood put together a small, loyal team that would do things differently: Rather than rely on in-house staff to come up with investment portfolios, they scanned the globe for hotshots with expertise in niche markets, and packaged their picks. While that strategy is widely adopted now, it was innovative at the time – as were some of the markets that 20/20 Financial was delving into, such as India. The strategy paid off. In 10 years, Wood and his team took the company from zero assets to over $4-billion. The company was sold in 1995.
Laurie Davis, a chartered accountant Wood hired early on and his business partner ever since, said he was an anomaly in the cutthroat, ego-driven world of business. "He was one of those very unusual leaders who really had no ego. He really wasn't striving for power, he was striving for influence. And people gravitated toward him because he really didn't care who you were or where you were from; he would see something in you and he would let it develop."
His fortune set, Wood could have retired at 45. Instead, he spent almost two decades applying his business instincts and to a wide range of projects, from real-estate ventures to scanning technology used in galleries and museums.
The athlete who competed in an era of East Bloc dopers, never lost his disgust for cheats. Whether it was duping investors with hidden commissions, or doping in sport, he despised duplicity and bad governance. And he didn't shy away from trying to fix such problems, such as devising ways to make the mutual-funds industry more transparent and helping the Canadian Olympic Committee make its financial system more efficient.
"There was no in-between with John. … He just didn't care if it offended you, if it was in the right," Davis says.
Despite his inner problems, Wood knew what made him happy. Sport was a constant in his life, and he saw more than his share of sunrises, whether squeezing in a round at the Toronto Golf Club before work, or spinning his canoe down Sixteen Mile Creek near his home in Oakville, Ont..
Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medalist in singles kayak, recalls how Wood would often be wrapping up his workout at the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville before his own group made it onto the water.
"He'd go for a 10-kilometre paddle and take, like, 65 strokes a minute for the whole thing without a break, still sweating and breathing hard as he wiped the creek water from his wooden canoe. The man epitomized a lifelong dedication to sport and fitness to me," van Koeverden writes on his blog.
It was his family, though, that he was dedicated to the most. Daymond, also an accomplished golfer, was often his partner on the links or the tennis court. He snowboarded with Michael in Whistler, travelled to Peru with Jenny, played Scotland's famed St. Andrews course with Alan, and discussed business with entrepreneur Michael.
Right up until the end, friends and acquaintances said, he was making lunch dates, and firing off e-mails, quizzing people for insights on the next big idea.
"I've spent the last week now talking to people all across Canada who knew him, who worked with him, and it was always the same kind of theme. He was always forthright in his views, but very caring, and the kind of person who would do whatever he could to help anybody," says Bob Sewell, president and CEO of Bellwether Investment Management, where Wood presided most recently as chairman and founder.
How he died does nothing to tarnish the glorious manner in which he lived, Davis says, but it does make losing him more difficult.
"He would never do this to hurt anybody. He would do it only if he felt they were better without him," he explains. "I mean, this is not in his nature at all. If he felt like he was hurting anybody, he would never do it. He must have been in such a desperate spot, and felt so alone. And that's what's so sad for us, because we would do anything for him."
A celebration of Wood's life will be held Saturday at the Mississauga Canoe Club from 2 to 5 p.m.