By Judy Brazil
One of the highlights of Stella Maris Academy’s 50th anniversary and reunion last week was a special tribute paid on opening night to former student Melvin Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was born in Trepassey in 1953. At age two he was stricken with polio. He had little involvement in organized sports except for softball where he would bat the ball and someone would run to the bases for him. He did not begin his involvement in wheelchair sports until he moved to St. John’s in 1973 at the age of 20.
He began training in earnest with a rigorous weight-training and endurance conditioning program. He set up house at the YM-YWCA where he trained for hours daily, taking only Sundays off. To gain power in his arms, he did endurance work on a stationary bicycle, with resistance capacity, pedalling it with his arms.
The long hours of training and his determination paid off. He entered his first national competition in 1976 and in 1977 won his first medal, a bronze, in the national games for the physically disabled held in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1978, when the annual competition was held in St. John’s, he won five gold medals and a silver in wheelchair races and was chosen to represent Canada at the Pan-American Wheelchair Games in December 1978.
There, he set two new world records, won gold medals in the 800 metre and 1,500 metre events, silver medals in the 100 metre, and was a member of the Canadian relay team that won the silver medal. That same year he competed in the Tely 10 Road Race in St. John’s as the only wheelchair athlete, and finished in first place with a time of fifty-two minutes. As a representative of Canada at the Stoke Mandeville Games in England, he won gold medals in the 100 m and 500 m events and a bronze as part of the Canadian relay team. In August of 1979 he was a member of the Newfoundland team at the eleventh national games for the physically disabled in Vancouver. At the opening ceremonies, he was presented with the Gene Reimer Award as the best Canadian athlete in national and International competition during the previous year. He then went on to win gold medals in the 200 m, 400 m, 800 m, 1,500 m, 5,000 m, 15,000 m races.
Fitzgerald was named the outstanding athlete in his class, and was chosen to attend the 1979 International Super challenge held in Montreal, where he competed in the Pentathlon. He also represented Canada at the Olympiad for the physically disabled at Arnhem, Holland and led Canada to a fourth-place finish in competition against more than 100 countries, winning two gold medals, one silver and one bronze.
In September that year he was the only wheelchair athlete to compete in the National Marathon finishing the 42 km race in two hours thirty-five minutes. In 1979, Fitzgerald held seven Canadian records simultaneously and up to 1982 held all Newfoundland records in his class. In 1980, he was named the winner of the Tom “Dynamite” Dunne Memorial Award as the St. John’s Male Athlete of the year.
In 1981, Fitzgerald competed for Canada in the Rome, Italy Games for the Physically Disabled. One of the highlights of his visit to Rome was the honor of meeting and shaking hands with Pope John Paul II. This was after winning the Gold Medal in the 1,500 metre event and a bronze medal in the 100 metre course.
In January of that same year, he received the Canadian Amateur Sports Federation’s highest honour when he was named winner of the Norton M. Crow Memorial Award as Canada’s top male athlete of the year. In 1982, he was named to the Order of Canada. In 1982 he also set world records at the Pan American Wheelchair Games in Halifax in the 800 metre race with the world record time of ...two minutes 12.9 seconds.
In 1984 Fitzgerald competed in the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles and in May of 1985, at the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa. In September that same year, he competed at the Toronto and Montreal marathons.
Fitzgerald is truly one of the best athletes to ever come from Stella Maris School in Trepassey.
To honour Fitzgerald’s accomplishments, former teacher Ted Winter unveiled a special plaque that will be erected on the outside the school by the top of the hill as you turn down toward Stella Maris.