One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation.
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
The man who was undoubtedly the greatest rower ever to represent Royal Military College says it was never so much about outcomes.
“I don’t like saying, ‘I won this’ and, ‘I won that,’” Ryan Slate says. “That doesn’t matter to me so much. My medals are sitting in a box somewhere.
“Results?” he says, “so what? It’s the people you meet along the way and remembering where you came from. That’s important.”
Sitting in the otherwise empty library at Loyalist Collegiate in Kingston, where he now teaches anthropology, sociology and psychology, it’s clear that Slate is sincere. He’s clearly uncomfortable when he’s asked to talk about his competitive achievements—of which there are many, at both the domestic and international levels. “I don’t want to come across like I’m boasting,” he apologizes.
“I guess it’s really important if you have an opportunity to win a title, to win it,” he said. “Titles mean something to people, but (more important is) what went into winning that title that nobody knows about or nobody really cares about?
“(For others) it’s ‘Who won it?’ ‘What’s the title?’ ‘What does it matter?’ I’m more interested in the process of winning that title.”
In Slate’s case, the process of becoming a Canadian champion rower took some interesting twists. Born in Brockville, Slate moved to Kingston in the late 1980s. He attended Frontenac Secondary School, and during his time there he rowed “a bit” and joined the reserve unit at HMCS Cataraqui. “I really liked it,” he said, and he decided to pursue the military as a career.
His marks, however, didn’t get him admitted to RMC on his first attempt, so he went to Trent University in Peterborough. It was there that he learned to row, “and found that I was quite competitive in it.”
“I really enjoyed the process of training,” he explained, “and I liked the individual aspect of it. I always enjoyed individual sports because there are simple parameters: it’s your best against somebody else’s best, you prepare and you put it all on the line and whoever’s prepared the best wins. I enjoyed that. Very little is left to chance.
“(Also), I love the water. I grew up on the water, and in a boat, you can see your success and your progress through every practice. The addictive part is you can never perfect it. You can get close but you can never quite get all the way. There’s never a perfect race, a perfect stroke. You’re always working on it, making it better. That’s what I enjoyed, the meticulous process of training and refining yourself, even though you never quite get there.”
Slate made another profound discovery while at Trent: civilian university was not for him.
“My first year at Trent was nice, in the sense that there were a lot of freedoms,” he said, “but I found that there was little reward at civilian university for living a disciplined lifestyle, and I was always like that. I was very regimented in my training, my approach to sports, the way I’d approach my schoolwork—it was very timely and disciplined. I just didn’t feel right at Trent coming into a lecture hall with somebody slurping on an ice cream cone and putting their feet up behind my head and talking during a lecture. It just didn’t feel right.
“I always did want to go to RMC, but after the civilian experience (I was) even more convinced that it was a good fit to go there.”
It was the next year, in 1998, that Slate was accepted to the college and his first year in Kingston was not easy. “I went from tree planting in northern Ontario right to basic training and then from basic training to recruit term.” Since there was no rowing program at RMC at the time, he found himself on the cross-country team. In his first race, he collapsed from heat exhaustion. “Woke up in a golf cart full of ice,” he recalled. “I’d passed right out. Ran into a spiral into the ground, apparently. I was going backwards on the course and everything.”
To Slate’s great relief, the college instituted a rowing team the next year. It had only “club” status, which meant that his work on the water counted for naught toward the mandatory athletic component. Officially, he said, “people treated it like it was our hobby,” and he also had to pursue intramural sports, such as floor hockey.
That meant, however, a decision had to be made. Slate had started in the chemical engineering department, but he realized that to be successful academically in that course, “I couldn’t do anything else but study.”
“Me being a sport enthusiast I got out of engineering and went into the arts program. That allowed a bit of time for sport.” He pursued military and strategic studies and dedicated himself be becoming an infantry officer.
“I found the rigors at the college easy,” he said, “because you just have to follow what you’re directed to do. It’s a good system for people like me who might have found the civilian system more difficult because there’s less structure. I really enjoyed the structure of RMC. It was similar to rowing, I guess: very clear expectations, clear parameters.
“You knew what was expected of you and if you fall in line you could rest easy at the end of the day.”
Alas, misfortune befell Slate once again during Phase II training at Gagetown that summer. He was leading a section attack at night, with full gear, when he ran full tilt into a tank rut. “It was knee deep,” he said. He was sent back to Kingston with a third-degree sprain and a torn tendon in his ankle.
It proved to be a mixed blessing. Slate’s physiotherapist recommended rowing as a therapy, as a non-impact activity that would help him to regain his range of motion. Since his injury severely limited what other sports he could do, rowing became the focus of Slate’s athletic interest.
“I rowed a lot,” he said, “and that was really the start of the momentum I built up in rowing.”
It didn’t take long for it to become more than a pastime or a therapy. “The beauty of rowing is your performance is purely indexed into what you put into it,” Slate said. “That was attractive to me, because the more work you do the more successful you’re going to be. There’s no luck involved.”
“Rowing became a passion, almost an addiction.”
The rag-tag little club at RMC was perfect for Slate. It was somehow fitting that a man who learned the sport at a university he didn’t care for, found a passion for it in a mishap on a dark night in a muddy field where people practise driving tanks, would decide to commit himself to pursuing it at an elite level in the milieu of a club that his peers didn’t take seriously.
For Slate, it was just the right inspirational setting.
“I always liked to be the dark horse or the underdog, and that was the case at RMC,” he said. “They didn’t have much of a program, it was a grassroots kind of thing. They had a really dedicated coach named Ed Ough, and Peter Dawe. Those two were there for the athletes whenever they were willing to train. They were dedicated, and I was inspired by their dedication.
“It was at that time I decided to take it as far as I could. Queen’s, across the bay, provided a bit of extra motivation to win. It’s almost like the David and Goliath story: having a team of 100 athletes at Queen’s, with money, new boats and everything; while RMC had four athletes and borrowed boats from high schools, but none of that matters. It’s the time you spend on the water that matters.”
Slate began training year-round, and by fourth year he won the national championship in the men’s single sculls. He was invited to attend the men’s heavyweight training camp in Victoria to try out for the national team and as graduation approached in the spring of 2002, Slate recalls finding himself at a bit of a crossroads.
“I had to decide, ‘OK, do I want a career in the military or do I want to go and pursue sport at a high level,’ because you couldn’t do both,” he said. “It was one or the other.” Slate chose rowing—“with the support of the military”—and he ended up making a national team, winning a world university title and some Commonwealth medals, and competing at the world championships in 2005.
Slate also won the British university championship in the men’s single—he did his teacher training at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, which he chose because there was open water, year-round—and he even won a title at the Belgian championships while he was overseas. That set him up well for coming back to Canada in 2005 and auditioning for the national team.
Named to the men’s coxed four for the 2005 world championships in Japan, Slate’s crew finished fourth, missing a medal by about a second.
“It was a bit of letdown,” he said. “I was in a boat I wasn’t used to and I couldn’t control the elements. I couldn’t control things the way I’d want to. Our crew on the day just underperformed and it was really disappointing. I was surprised how unprepared our crew was. We were severely over-trained.
“The beauty of the single is you can’t have regrets at the end of the day because you’ve only got yourself to look at in the mirror. In a crew situation there are so many factors that play out.”
Oh, and by the way, among those factors was the broken rib with which Slate was competing, tightly wrapped to protect an injury he’d suffered during training. Almost 10 years later, it remains tender. “I don’t think you’ll ever find an athlete at that level that hasn’t done something drastic like that to their body,” he said.
Slate, who was named Kingston’s amateur athlete of the year in 2003 and 2004—one of only three people to win it twice in its 35-year history, he remains the only person to win it in consecutive years—continued to compete at top events like the Royal Canadian Henley regatta and national championships in the U.S. until 2008, when a plum teaching job arose, to be the athletics director at Grenville Christian College, a private high school just east of his hometown of Brockville.
He was also engaged at the time, and at the age of 26, Slate retired from competitive rowing.
“It’s kind of a regret,” he says today. “I feel like I left rowing early. It was quite an attractive job offer and I took it because at the time I was recovering from the rib fracture and I was feeling down about it and kind of made an impulsive decision to retire from rowing and go and pursue this career.
“Rowing is a sport you can do for a really long time at a high level. There are people winning world medals in their mid-30s, even into their 40s, so that’s one regret I have is not sticking with it long enough, (but) I don’t regret anything of where I am in life now.” Slate and his wife, Allison, have two children, Madelyn, 3, and Anna, 2. “I’ve got a great job here. I enjoy my work, I still get to coach … there’s a lot of good things about this job.”
Slate also moonlights as a driver with a Kingston bus company, as he saves money to build a cottage on Whitefish Lake, near Elgin, north of the city, and it was in that capacity that he most recently reconnected with the college. He was quite pleased to be the one to drive the players to this year's Carr-Harris Cup hockey game versus Queen’s.
“I’m a huge supporter of RMC sport to this day,” Slate said. “I think a lot of teams that come to play RMC may think they’re going to win, but they know they’re going to pay for it, too, because RMC plays hard. You’ve got to respect that. I get a lot of inspiration out of people that can get knocked down so many times but get back up again and keep going.”
Slate said he was proud to be a cadet and he is proud to call himself an ex-cadet.
“I believe in the institution and what it does for our country,” he said. “The quality of the people there is unparalleled. I’ve been in other avenues in my life and you don’t see true leadership like you see at RMC. That was one thing that I enjoyed at the college—having my eyes wide open and observing good leadership and taking that away, using that in other areas of my life has been really valuable.
“That’s why I still support it so much, because I know what it did for me. It’s not about the winning and losing with the rowing. The results are secondary to the ethos that comes with being an athlete and the ethos that the military promotes. The two align really well. A lot of my success at RMC and in rowing came from those fundamental skills that you learn. What it means to be a good cadet and what it means to be a good officer translates really well to what it means to be a good citizen, a good person, a good athlete.”