Friday, April 12, 2024

SEEN UP NORTH: Training bodies, moulding minds


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“Pops would hike through snow, rain or the hottest day of the year to go to the gym. Nothing can stop him from going there.”
Dr Heather Harris, an associate professor of business communications at Stevenson University in Maryland, was describing her 81-year-old Bajan father, Ralph Harris, a living legend and physical fitness guru who has been residing in Montreal for more than a half century.
“The story of his life is about weightlifting, bodybuilding and passing on the knowledge he gained from his lifelong passion that began in Barbados,” added Harris.
Harris, a retired hospital employee in Montreal, heads three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – to the Notre-Dame-de-Grace YMCA where he serves as the volunteer “coach”, inspiration and guidance counsellor for those interested in character building and physical fitness.
“He used weight training as a way to guide me,” said Alex Bekunda, 36, who has trained with Harris at the Y for at least 20 years. “Through it he taught me about consistency, about staying the course, about how to handle myself. He practically raised me.”
But Bekunda isn’t alone. The coach, who won bodybuilding and weightlifting titles in Barbados before he emigrated to Canada around 1963, continued his winning ways after making Montreal his home away from home. There he earned gold and other medals in power and Olympic lifting contests and was once voted the “most outstanding” competitor in a Montreal competition.
He  has trained thousands of Canadians at the Y’s gym.
“I see weightlifting and physical fitness as a way of life that’s important to maintain good health,” he told the SUNDAY SUN. “It’s not important how old you are. It is about what you can do and how you treat your body.”
He stands as living proof of the adage that age is just a number. He continues to engage in weight training, imparts his technique to scores of youths and adults. He has a fantastic memory, recalling people’s names with ease, can bench press 200 pounds, challenges young people old enough to be his grandchildren to contests of one-armed push-ups or headstands which he invariably wins.
He uses those exercises to teach them a lesson or two about modesty, dedication and confidence in oneself.
“I tell them: you must have self-respect and you must have character and dignity,” Harris told the Montreal Gazette, one of Canada’s leading dailies. “Those are the things that  carry you through life.”
Frank Bertucci, 43, who has been training under the Barbadian’s guidance for many years can write chapter and verse about Harris’ methods.
“You do it his way or he won’t train you,” said Bertucci. “He’s tough in his ways, but that’s why he became great. Not because of his physique because of who he is.”
HHarris, who grew up in the Westbury Road community in St Michael, competed against or trained with some of Barbados’ great weightlifters and bodybuilders of 1950s and 1960s. Fred Marville, Winfield Bascombe, Darcy Beckles, Cecil Griffith, Austin Beckles and Roy Callendar are on that list of his “great” contemporaries.
“They were some of the best who helped to put Barbados on the weightlifting and bodybuilding map,” said Harris, who also played football for Everton and Rangers, two major clubs in Barbados more 60 years ago. That’s where Reggie Haynes, perhaps one of Barbados’ best known footballers of yesteryear, came in.
He readily recalls his introduction to weightlifting as if it were yesterday. He traced it to a contest of wills while hanging out with friends in a Bridgetown park and hearing some of them bragging about weightlifting.
“I didn’t like showboating so I told them, I’ll beat you all,” he recalled. “And I did.”
There are some things that stand out in any conversation with Harris. First is his commitment to the task at hand because as he put it, “you never know where your ability can take you.” Next is self-respect, an essential quality.
“Not one of the kids I have worked with in Barbados or Canada ever got into trouble,” he said. “I tell them that they must have self-respect. You must also have character and integrity.”
“These are the things that carry you through life,” said the coach who believes in volunteerism. “I volunteer my time at the Y because it gives me considerable satisfaction.”
His daughter had a simple response to that.
“That’s pop,” quipped the university professor. 


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