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australian rowers profiles and history

Ian McWhirter

Haberfield Rowing Club (NSW)

Ian was a quality senior Oarsman from Haberfield Rowing Club who life was tragically cut short by cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer after his selection into the 1972 Olympic tea,

The following article appeared in the Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), Wednesday 7 June 1972, pages 2 and 3 and describes the period between diagnosis and operation.



"lan relies on me and I rely on him," said Erica McWhirter. They met 12 months ago when lan was visiting Perth, her hometown.

"IT was just a slight pain," said Ian McWhirter. "I thought I had pulled a muscle or something - it didn't worry me "But when I asked the rowing club's doctor to have a look at me he told me to go straight to Sydney Hospital and see a specialist. "He picked it up straight away. Cancer in the liver, and a one-in-ten chance of curing it."

Because of this diagnosis late last month, 26-year-old McWhirter withdrew from Australia's rowing eight for the Munich Olympics. Six days later he and his 20 year-old girlfriend were married.

I talked with the couple four days after their wedding and three days before the operation.

Ian is quietly spoken, grave of manner, ruggedly good-looking, 6ft. 2 in. tall with thick, sandy hair. He was a member of the N.S.W. eight-oar crew which three times won the King's Cup, the Australian rowing championship. In all he has won 120 races - "a lot of sweat," he said.

With his crew in 1967, he toured the United States, Canada, and Europe. And so came the Olympics selection.

Before leaving for Munich there was to be a party to announce his engagement to Erica Collins, of Perth. On his return they were to marry.

But the doctor's diagnosis changed their plans. They decided to marry straight away. "Because," as Erica explained, "Ian relies on me and I rely on him."

Ian and his wife were staying with his parents in Five Dock, Sydney, when I met them. If you were looking for tragedy, you would have found none in the green - and - orange sitting room where we talked.

The young people laughed and teased each other. Erica giggled happily when she said she would love to have 12 children but - with an adoring look when her husband raised his eyebrows -would probably settle for three.

"I don't like people saying that Ian has only six months to live," she said. "That's not true. It's morbid." "But it is true," he said. "I don't know how long I have."

"I'm not letting this operation worry me," said Erica. "I just don't think about it. We will take each day as it comes and enjoy every minute of everyone."

They had had no honeymoon, they told me, because Ian was making hospital visits for blood tests in preparation for the operation.

"I'm very happy about that," said the serious-faced young man with large grey eyes. "I couldn't have waited around too long. I want it over and done with. "If the cancer had been on only one side of the liver, they could have cut away that half. Unfortunately it is on both sides, so all they can do is pump anti-cancer drugs into it. "So far, a liver transplant hasn't been done. Anyway, where would you get a donor?"

Ian's trouble really began two and a half years ago when he was on a world tour with friends.

He had had a small mole on the back of one leg for as long as he -could remember. Suddenly he noticed it starting to grow larger. "It looked like a large piece of confetti and it started to bleed." "We went to the Greek Islands for a few weeks and I got a terrific suntan all over my body except for one area, around the mole. "When I got back to London, I went to a local doctor who sent me to a Harley Street specialist. He put me in hospital and operated on my leg.

"I was there for six weeks and when I left the doctor told me he thought he had got all the cancer out. If, however, one cell had been missed it could start up again." Since that operation Ian has had a check-up every two or three months. But until the slight stomach pain that sent him to the rowing club's doctor, tests had shown nothing.

Ian met Erica when the Perth Rowing Club, of which she was a member, acted a host to his Australian King's Cup crew 12 months ago. "It was love at first sight for me," she said. "I remember I asked him if he was coming to the club dance that night and he sort of looked oddly at me and said, 'For sure.' "

She came to Sydney four months later and took a job with the Law Society of N.S.W. A determined shake of her long, fair hair when asked if she still rowed. "No, definitely not. It is not a woman's sport really. Makes you muscly."

Their instant decision on marriage had been made easy with the help of their friends. "All I had to do was buy a dress," said Erica. "Ian's friends have been behind us all the way. They organised the marriage, the reception, the guard-of-honor, which included members of the Olympic crew."

A chuckle from Ian. He said, "They even organised all the publicity for the wedding. I was taken aback when I came out of the church and found cameras popping all over the place. "Do I mind the publicity? No. I really don't know why people are taking such an interest in me. But it has helped. It's created a sort of interest for us both, given us something to do. And it keeps your mind off things a bit."

Had he, when he first heard the news, wanted to give up? "Yes. At first I wanted to run away, sit down, and cry. But then I thought, why be a dropout? Approach the whole thing sensibly. "It's not my character to run. I prefer to face up to life. Ten to one isn't a big chance, but it is a chance. And with that there is the hope of a miracle. "Crying and worrying about it isn't going to help. It's only going to make everybody around you darned unhappy.

"Erica is my staff. If she got worried, I think I'd be gone. With her at my side, I feel strong. "When I come out of hospital I should know whether it is win, lose, or draw.

"We have made no definite plans yet for the future. I have a cousin who is going overseas for eight weeks, so we can use his place for that time. I may have a long convalescence. I don't know. "We'd like to go to Perth for a couple of weeks. Erica's mother flew over for the wedding, but her father couldn't come.

"If the doctors can stretch it out, I want to go to the Olympic Games. I've had an offer to send me there. I'd love to see my crew win. "Hurt a bit not being with them? Of course, but I'd love to be there to cheer them on."

Ian was a Rugby League player until his brother Gordon talked him into rowing. It took a long time, because Ian was sure he wouldn't take to the sport. "But Gordon kept on about it so much that I gave in and had a go. From the moment the oars were in my hands I knew this was the sport for me.

"It's a dedicated life. You practise a lot. Every day for six months, two or three days for three months, with a three-month letdown. Then there's the added exercises of weight - lifting, long-distance running. It takes up a lot of time."

Before he became ill, Ian was working for a friend who manufactures oars. He hopes it will not be long before he returns to his job. "It's quite a big business, oar-making, and mainly for export. Parts can be done by machine, but the spoon has to be done by hand. Yes, I can make one by myself."

Erica, a natural beauty, sparkles with vitality and good humor. She had, she told me, been trying to talk Ian into having a game of golf with her. "I look at the golf course across the way and long to have a game, but Ian just growls and says no, it is not for him."

We suggested some pictures of them on the course and they agreed happily until they realised they would have to wear shoes. "Oh, no," they both said, laughing. "We hate wearing shoes," said Erica. "I would have walked up the aisle barefoot if I had been allowed." She lifted her foot to show a blistered heel. "Just like a woman, new shoes," said Ian in teasing despair.

But, like two happy children, they sat down and put on shoes, Ian adding long socks at Erica's insistence. "I hate wearing anything but shorts and shirts," he said. "Erica’s like me, she enjoys casual living."

We said goodbye at the golf course. The traffic was getting heavy and they said it would be quicker to walk home than for us to drive them. As we watched them walk hand in hand across the lawn, laughing, the last rays of the sun glinting in their hair, we wished them a silent good luck.

Some details

1965 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship, bow – First

1965 – Trans Tasman Series, Men’s Eight, seven seat

1966 – National Championships Men’s Coxed Four, bow – Fourth

1966 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship, bow – Second

1967 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship six seat - Second

1967 – European Championships – Men’s Eight – Sixth

1971 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship six seat - Third

1972 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship six seat - First

1972 – Olympic Games, Men’s Eight, six seat - selected but withdrew due to his cancer diagnosis. He died not long after the Games.

Andrew Guerin
January 2022

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