HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Wilfrid Mathieu was a man for all sports.
Whether it was speed skating, cycling, snowshoeing, swimming, water polo, sailing, skiing or track and field, Mathieu was an outstanding figure and champion performer on the Ottawa sports scene in the 1920s and 1930s.
And even as he hung onto his athletic career, which continued until his early seventies, he also found many other ways to contribute to his sports communities as a coach, official and administrator.
Nicknamed L’eclaire humaine, Mathieu had the lights shine on him more often than not, whether he was using his powerful legs to win world, Canadian, provincial or city championships.
While Mathieu passed away 36 years ago, he certainly hasn’t been forgotten as an athlete or a sportsman.
In 2019, the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame created the Legacy Category to honour great athletes and teams from the past and Mathieu was part of the inaugural group.
Speed Skating Canada stepped forward earlier this month, naming Mathieu to its own hall of fame along with coach Marcel Lacroix.
When you review Mathieu’s lengthy list of accomplishments, you quickly note speed skating was his primary sport. Racing for the East Ottawa AC Speed Skating Club, Mathieu was one of the fastest on the long blades in the city’s playgrounds.
Besides winning many speed skating races in the United States, Mathieu earned multiple Canadian championships, including the men’s senior 880-yard and three-quarter-mile titles in 1927 as a 17-year-old junior.
Mathieu certainly had the talent to challenge for a berth on Canada’s Winter Olympic teams, but financial limitations and a lack of sponsorship restricted him to skating in Ottawa and the region.
He regularly participated in the Inter-City meets between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto clubs and was known to have his accomplishments rewarded by having his name placed on the Spalding Cup, Brewer Cup and Rubenstein Cup.
Noted for his speed over the outdoor ice, Mathieu held several club, regional, provincial and national speed skating records during his career.
At age 72 and six months after major kidney surgery, Mathieu competed in the world senior citizens speed skating championships during Ottawa’s Winterlude and earned a bronze medal on the Rideau Canal course.
Mathieu trained for the speed skating season by cycling and swimming in the summer. As a member of the Capital City Cycling Club, he won the Canadian men’s 10-mile dirt track championship at Lansdowne Park. His victory, which was timed in 27 minutes, 1 second, also was considered the city championship race.
“Wilf Mathieu sprang the biggest surprise of the local bicycle racing season to date, when he romped home a winner in the 10-mile Canadian dirt track championship,” the Ottawa Journal reported after the nationals. “Mathieu, who is better known as a speed skater, had been riding for the past few seasons, but never has been considered a first-class racer.”
One of the first double national champions in Canada, Mathieu stepped out of his comfort zone in 1930 and discovered he could be an ultramarathon athlete. He won the world snowshoe championship that year, which was a gruelling 192-kilometre race from Ottawa to Montreal.
After his successful athletic career, Mathieu stayed connected to his speed skating community. He served as a coach, official and meet organizer, was a member of the Ottawa R.A. Skating Club board of directors in the 1950s and along with Jack Barber played a key role in creating the Eastern Ontario Speed Skating Association. Barber also is a member of the Speed Skating Canada and Ottawa Sport halls of fame.
Mathieu was a former director of l’Oeuvre de la jeunesse d’Ottawa and served as an instructor in swimming, cycling and skiing. In his retirement, he also volunteered as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at the Champlain Bath.
His knowledge of sports and his achievements caught the attention of an Ottawa French radio station, which hired him as a sports analyst.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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