Before WWI Orillia was known far and wide as "The Town of Champions". Walter made it clear he wanted to emulate those champions, most notably his neighbour George Gray who held the world record for the shot put for 17 years and was undefeated over that span. He also admired his older brother Jack who was Canadian pole vault champion.
But Orillia has developed many other athletes who succeeded on the level Walter did.
Jake Gaudaur, in 1896 at the age of 38, won the world professional sculling championship, and proceeded to defend it for 5 more years, when his advanced age finally caught up with him. He had duelled the best in the world for two decades already winning enormous sums in those matched races just as Walter did.
Harry Gill won the North American All-around title in 1900 and the professional All-around title in 1902. He also broke the world record in discus and almost broke the high jump world record. His career was cut prematurely short when he lost his amateur status and, in frustration, retired and took up a coaching career. He was Walter's training partner.
Lovering Jupp, in the four years prior to WWI led Orillia's hockey teams to three Ontario championships in four years, first as a 16 year old phenom. At the outbreak of war his whole team enlisted in the Sportsman's battalion. While training in Toronto he joined the battalion hockey team organized by Conn Smythe which was the dominant team in the Ontario Senior hockey league until it was called to France late in the season. 17 years later when Smythe's Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup, Smythe said his old teammate, Love Jupp, would be on his first line today!
And speaking of hockey, Orillia is home to Rick Ley, the great player of the 1970's. After 4 years with the Leafs, Ley jumped to the new WHA where he was an all-star and once was named the league's best defenceman. In the 1974 Russia vs the WHA All-Stars series, Ley was assigned the job of shadowing the great Russian, Kharlamov. Ley was the best defenceman on the team. He returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers playing with Gordie Howe and his sons.
And we couldn't forget the great Brian Orser, the 8-time Canadian champion figure skater who trained in Orillia from his early teens. He was on the podium for a remarkable 8 consecutive years at the World Championships in the 1980's, winning gold once. He also contested for two closely fought Olympic medals, both times ending up with silver , mainly because of the out-dated "figures" component that was eliminated in future Olympics.
Walter Henry was Canadian flyweight boxing champion for 8 consecutive years starting in 1958. He fought to a career 385-18 record, but many of those were one or two classes above his weight owing to a lack of competition for him in Canada. He fought for Canada in two Olympic Games. His was a very long career in a light weight class.
More recently, Toyin Olupona won the Canadian 100-metre sprint title four out of five years starting in 2005. A stand-out high-schooler in Orillia, she blossomed into an All-American at the University of Tennessee. Frustratingly for her, the COC would not take her to the Olympics in 2008 because her trials winning time, into the wind no less, did not make their standard, even though she did make their standard just three weeks earlier. Toyin did get to a World Championships where she was a quarter-finalist.
Yes Walter was a great athlete, but he has competition for the title "Orillia's Greatest".
I have a list, that's still growing, of Orillia's Canadian Champion athletes (or their equivalent). It stands at 39 names and is growing as I sort through the files at the library and museum. Come on out to Doors Open Orillia (linked here) in June to read more about the "Orillia's Greatest Athlete" poll, and vote for your favourite. We'll even be having a celebrity debate on the issue aka "Canada Reads" show on CBC radio. That'll settle it once and for all!
Yes, Walter is great, but so is Orillia, "The Town of Champions".