Vic High’s old stadium departs with many memories

Bob McLaren remembers going into the rusty recesses of the Victoria High School storage rooms to pull out the rickety hurdles that he leapt over during training at Memorial Stadium.

Those sessions helped elevate McLaren to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The Island’s first cinder track, opened in 1951, also helped get the likes of sprinter Bob Hutchison to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and 400-metre runner Terry Tobacco to the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics.

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Vic High stars and future World Cup players such as Hans de Goede in rugby and Ian Bridge in soccer played on the Memorial Stadium infield. The track, however, was open to clubs and you didn’t have to be a Vic High student to use it. McLaren and Hutchison, in fact, went to Oak Bay High and Tobacco came down from Cumberland. Before the opening of Centennial Stadium in 1967, on the UVic campus, cinder was the only way to reach your potential in track.

“We used to rake it and roll it before training on it,” said McLaren, of the Vic High track.

“It was like running on the beach. We never ran on anything but cinders back then, even in the Pac-8 [where McLaren ran for the Oregon State Beavers], until Centennial Stadium opened with its asphalt track. The mondo and tartan tracks came later.”

The demolition of part of Vic High Memorial Stadium, one of the venerable connections to Victoria’s sporting past, began this week in work associated with the $79.7-million renovations to the institution which is the oldest high school west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco. The north stands of the stadium must be removed as part of the work.

Vic High students and the Victoria Gyro Club raised the $20,000 to build the original stadium — $6,600 of which went to construction of the track — in honour of the school’s alumni who died in the Second World War. It was the first high school stadium built in B.C.

A $7-million stadium renewal is planned. The stadium project is considered supplemental to the main work being done on the Vic High seismic upgrade. The Victoria High School Alumni Association has raised nearly $600,000 toward the stadium project, including more than $150,000 from members, $100,000 from the Bays United Football Club and the promise of a $250,000 matching grant from the City of Victoria.

Planned features include an eight-lane track, all-weather field, new bleachers and lighting and a new fieldhouse. The project is expected to proceed in four stages, as funding is realized, with the all-weather field going in first for school and Bays United teams, followed by the fieldhouse, the track and bleachers.

“The fundraising continues,” said former Vic High principal Keith McCallion, past chair of the alumni association, and a point person for the stadium project.

“We have requests in for federal and provincial grants and hope to have announcements. It’s taken longer than we thought and that’s why we have broken it down into phases, with the all-weather field and lighting being the first phase. Overall with the project, we hope to get there sooner rather than later.”

The memorial element of the stadium will be incorporated as part of the renovated facility.

Hosting future high school championships — including the boys’ Colonist Cup and girls’ Ryan Cup soccer finals, Howard Russell Cup in rugby and Island track and field championships — is envisioned for the new venue.

But the old structure will not soon be forgotten. Many were sad to see a portion of the bleachers come down this week.

“It’s was a classic old stadium we don’t see anymore,” said Tom Turnbull, a Vic High alumnus, who has coached track and field at Lambrick Park Secondary for nearly three decades.

“I have great memories of borrowing the keys from [Vic High coach and legendary Island track official] Keith Newell on weekends to take out hurdles from the storage bunker, and training for hours. It was such a neat old structure with a lot of history.”

With a new story to be written.

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