The 2020 Summer Olympics are about to begin in Tokyo, Japan and there’s one person in Orillia who will definitely be paying attention – especially to events taking place in the boxing arena.
That would be two-time Olympian, Walter Henry, who has called Orillia his home for 63 years. He is well known for his accomplishments as a boxer, not only in Orillia but around the world.
During his boxing career, he competed for Canada, Ireland and the United States and fought a total of 403 fights, losing only 18 of those.
Henry’s collection of medals, awards, certificates and photographs is awe-inspiring and clearly shows that this athlete has not only competed in two Olympic Games – 1964 in Tokyo and 1968 in Mexico – but was truly an accomplished athlete who is well-respected within both the amateur and professional worlds of sport.
How did this 108-pound flyweight athlete, the eldest of 11 children, who emigrated from Ireland as a teenager, become such an astounding athlete?
Henry credits his training at the St. George’s boxing club in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he started out at the age of nine, as well as the support of his father and members of his family, once settled in Orillia.
“I trained with professionals at St. George’s. They taught me to throw out a great left hook. That’s won a lot of fights for me,” said Henry.
Henry and his family immigrated to Canada in 1957, a move his mother had encouraged.
“My mother is Peruvian, with Incan ancestors, but grew up in Hong Kong. That’s where my dad met her – he was serving in the British army," Henry explained.
"Once they were married, they returned home to Ireland, but after growing up in Hong Kong, my mother never really got used to the weather in Ireland and she knew there would be more opportunities for us in Canada,” said Henry.
“I wasn’t sure about the move because I was becoming pretty well known as a boxer in Ireland and was just about to enter a more senior category. When we arrived here (in Orillia), there was no boxing club. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Henry.
After arriving in Montreal, the family travelled to Orillia because they knew a family who lived there.
“They lived at 68 Scott Street – the Quinns. It turned out that they were about to move and we were able to rent the house,” said Henry.
Before long, Henry found out about a small boxing facility owned by Jack Duncan who ran the Gamebridge Inn. Even though the boxing club had closed, Duncan allowed Henry to work out in the gym.
“Jack saw that I could fight and asked if I was interested in competing again. I said, ‘Oh yes, that’s why I’m here!’ He called people he knew in Toronto and arranged for me to compete at the Palace Pier in Toronto.”
That was 1958 and the beginning of a boxing career in North America for “Wee Walter,” as he was known in Ireland.
His skill as a champion flyweight boxer was quickly recognized and he was asked to compete at a St. Patrick’s Day event at Maple Leaf Gardens. He was awarded both the Sniderman Trophy as the night’s best boxer and the Globe and Mail Trophy.
He was then invited to compete at the Canadian championships in Vancouver and the British Empire Games in Wales.
It was this initial success that earned Henry the 1958 Athlete of the Year award from the City of Orillia.
“Orillia has always stood behind me,” said Henry. “I worked hard and was successful in boxing, but Orillia always supported me, as did my family and my employer.
“My dad and my brothers were my coaches. They made sure I was home early, in bed, and up at 5 a.m. for my morning runs. In the evenings, my brothers would hold the medicine ball for me and spar with me. That’s where I trained for the 1964 and 68 Olympics – in the kitchen at 68 Scott Street!”
“I was fortunate to have an employer who also supported me,” added Henry.
After working for a short time at the Wide Awake shoe repair shop on West Street, Henry got a job at Otaco, where he was able to take time off to travel to competitions.
Throughout the 1960s, Henry competed as an amateur boxer, winning numerous provincial, national and international championships and titles until he retired from the sport in 1971.
Although approached many times to become professional, Henry always declined, saying he boxed for the love of the sport, not for money.
“I’ve had a great life through boxing. I can go anywhere in Canada and someone will know me. I’ve been all over the world, representing Ireland, Canada and the U.S. at different times. And I’ve had so many great people around me; it’s overwhelming to think about it,” said Henry.
His collection of memorabilia and awards includes many framed photographs of some of the people he’s met over the years, including political leaders, such as President Harry Truman, sports greats like Jesse Owens, George Chuvalo and Bobby Hull, and talented artists such as Gord Lightfoot and Paul Anka. But his most memorable was Mohammed Ali.
“We were very good friends,” said Henry. “There was something about him that was magical.”
Both Ali and Henry were members of the 1960 Olympic team, but Henry was ruled ineligible at the last minute because his Canadian Citizenship application had not been finalized.
Following his retirement, Henry’s recognition as a champion boxer continued. In 1972, he was inducted into the Orillia Hall of Fame, the Irish Boxing Hall of Fame in 1973, the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame in 1974 and was an inaugural inductee into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Henry was also selected Orillia’s “Athlete of the Century” in 2000 and voted “Orillia’s Greatest Athlete” by citizens of Orillia in 2015.
Being named Orillia’s greatest athlete meant a lot to Henry.
“It’s amazing, especially considering the other outstanding athletes like world sculling champ Jake Gaudaur and former Toronto Maple Leaf Rick Ley, who were also in the running.”
“I love Orillia,” said Henry. “I’ve always found the people to be friendly.”
He also credits his love of the community to the love of his life, his wife, Sharon Stinson Henry. “We met in 1959 and have been together ever since – she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He is also quick to point out not only how supportive she has been of his boxing career, but how proud he is of her and her accomplishments, including 14 years as Chief of Rama First Nation.
In 2020, both Walter and Sharon were thrilled to learn about Henry’s latest recognition from the City of Orillia. After being nominated by local resident, Mel St. Onge, a new park in West Ridge was named in honour of “Orillia’s Greatest Athlete.”
“The naming of the park is such an honour, and a real surprise,” said Henry. “It’s a beautiful park that we need for our youth so they can stay active and healthy.”
Staying active and healthy is something that continues to be important to Henry, now 83. He says he walks and runs regularly. “I still do all my exercises, the same as I always have.”
As we celebrate the world’s greatest athletes this summer, we can be inspired by one of Orillia’s own great Olympians and share his love of sport, especially when visiting Walter Henry Park.