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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Indestructible legs powered John Fripp’s successful careers in skiing, football

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

By Martin Cleary

During his days as an Ottawa athlete in the 1930s and 1940s, John Fripp made his mark in alpine and cross-country skiing as well as football.

He certainly had the skills and speed to zip along the nordic trails, bolt down a mountainside and dart around a football field, which allowed him to win many honours and move ahead in his sports.

Fripp wasn’t that big at five feet, seven inches and 180 pounds, but he had a massive athletic engine, which was powered by his indestructible and mighty legs. He had a couple of nicknames and they were rightfully centred on his two strong and sturdy lower limbs.

A member of the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame and the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, Fripp passed away March 24 in his sleep from natural causes. At 101, he was the oldest member of the Ottawa Rough Rider alumni and probably held the same title for players connected to the Canadian Football League.

“I remember he was referred to as ‘piano legs,’” said Lucile Wheeler, the two-time world alpine ski champion and 1956 Olympic downhill bronze-medallist, who was coached for two years in her pre-teen days by Fripp, the Mont Tremblant ski school director.

In 1943, he caught the eye of a Montreal Gazette newspaper sportswriter, who wrote: “Fripp is known as the guy with the ‘piston-packing’ legs for the tremendous power he generates from them.”

As a 20-year-old rookie coming out of Glebe Collegiate Institute, he entered his first Rough Riders’ game in 1941 as a quick, second-quarter replacement for Andy Tommy. But it was a memorable appearance.

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“It was his bull-like rushes straight through the middle of the Montreal ranks, which carried Ottawa deep into scoring position for the final touchdown,” one of the game’s sportswriters penned.

Wheeler, who married star Riders’ defensive and offensive lineman Kaye Vaughan in 1960 and lived here until 1967, was full of praise for the prominent Ottawa sports figure.

“His personality was always easy going. He never asked me to do something I couldn’t do,” she added. “I had complete confidence in him and his techniques, which had to be very good to be head of the ski school.”

A notable nordic and alpine skier at both Lisgar Collegiate Institute and then Glebe, Fripp won the prestigious Journal Trophy in 1938 at age 17. But the Gatineau Ski Zone ruled he was ineligible to accept that honour because it was for senior racers and he was too young. He also was barred from the Canadian championship because of his age.

But in 1939, Fripp won the Journal Trophy for real and was able to hoist the hardware. He also finished that season by placing second in the famous Quebec Kandahar combined race (downhill and slalom), which included winning the downhill.

John Fripp (centre) alongside Canadian Ski Association employees Ed Champagne (left) and Keith Nesbitt (right) at a 2001 legend ski meet at Mont Cascades. Photo provided

In 1940, he was named Mont Tremblant’s assistant professional ski instructor, but he continued his racing career at 19 by winning the Kandahar as well as the downhill and slalom races at the Eastern Canadian championships.

Serving in the Second World War from 1942-45 by training ski troopers for the Royal Canadian Air Force (he really wanted to be a pilot, but colour blindness ruined that dream), Fripp returned to Mont Tremblant as the first Canadian ski school director with a staff of eight professionals. He also showed he hadn’t lost his competitive edge, placing first in the 1946 Kandahar.

In the early 1950s, he came out of retirement and added another three years to his racing career. He captured his third Kandahar title in 1951 and two years later was the Canadian men’s open class downhill champion.

He finished the decade in a variety of team support and administrative roles – Canadian FIS men’s team coach for the 1958 world championships in Bad Gastein, Austria, director of the Canadian Amateur Ski Association in 1957, and a member of the International Competition Committee in 1958.

Fripp was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 1988.

During the 1940s, he also played football, when leather helmets were the norm, and was connected with the Riders in 1941 and 1946. He was named the Riders’ rookie of the year in the 1941 Interprovincial Rugby Football Union season and played 11 games in 1946. But he left the Riders before the start of the 1947 season to join the Ottawa Trojans of the Ontario Rugby Football Union. He helped the Trojans win the league title, but they lost the Eastern Canadian final to the Toronto Argonauts.

Fripp also played for the Lachine Fliers in 1943 and the Montreal Hornets in 1945. He scored one rushing touchdown in a 1-5, fourth-place season in the Hornets’ only IRFU season.

Kaye Vaughan, 90, was too young to remember seeing Fripp run the ball for the Riders, but he met him on a number of social and team occasions over the years. Fripp would occasionally drop by team practices in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Of all my meetings with people, I put him in the top 10,” Vaughan said about Fripp. “He was genial. He could talk about anything, if you gave him a beer and a cigar. He could talk for hours, but he couldn’t play golf.

“I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”

A celebration of Fripp’s life will be held at a later date.

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 martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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