This is David Calder’s story of Olympic glory and a heartwarming chapter about his return to Brandon where it all began.
When Calder competes in men’s pairs rowing in his fourth Summer Olympic Games next week in London, he will have some proud members of a once-lost family cheering him on from southwestern Manitoba.
Calder’s remarkable Olympic journey and the story of his life is part tragedy, part triumph, but most importantly a testimony to the power of family — in whatever form that may take.
Born 34 years ago in Brandon, David was adopted by Doug and Susan Calder six weeks after birth and raised in Victoria by a loving family with three sisters he adores. While he knew he was adopted, not knowing who his birth parents were didn’t mean much to him at the time.
“My parents told me from a very young age that I was adopted, even probably before I understood what it meant, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that I started to think about wanting to search for my birth family,” Calder said in a telephone interview from overseas.
“I felt if I wanted to find my birth family that it would be in a way betraying my family and I am very close with my parents. I have lived a very blessed life ... but at the same time, at some point, I think it was around when I was 19 or 20 or 21, I started to feel that it was really important for me to learn what my story was.”
A year after competing in his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, fate played its part. Just two days before he was scheduled to compete in the 2001 world championships, Calder suffered two herniated discs in his back, ending his season. However, Calder quickly put his disappointment aside and turned injury into opportunity, driving halfway across the country to Brandon — bad back and all — in search of the birth mother who reluctantly gave him up for adoption when she was a high school teenager all those years ago.
Unfortunately, because it was a sealed adoption, his parents didn’t know the name of his birth mother’s family, and they in turn did not know who had adopted Calder, so he headed to the Wheat City not knowing if he would ever find what he was looking for.
“I drove out to Brandon and all I really knew from the paperwork that I had was that my maternal grandparents were welders,” Calder said. “I had no names whatsoever, it was a sealed adoption, so that was all blacked out ... So I went and ripped out a page in the yellow pages for the welders and I started driving around from shop to shop.”
After scouring the city, Calder finally knocked on the right door, a welder whose wife was a social worker. While she didn’t know anything about the case, something in Calder’s story clicked with one of her co-workers. That woman was Lynne Rempel, a social worker just days away from retirement who received special permission to pursue the case and help him track down his family. It remains one of the fondest memories of her career.
“That was one of the best things that I ever did in my career ... and I truly believe things happen for a reason,” Rempel said in a interview from her retirement home in B.C.
Had Calder not been injured and made the trip back to Brandon that summer, all connections to the case might have been lost forever.
“I have this very special place in my heart for Lynn because she made it all possible,” said Calder, who now has a family of his own with wife Rachel, daughter Mira and son Bowen. “Everything with my story would have left with her, so if I hadn’t walked in on her at that point ... I would never have met my birth family.”
After weeks of digging, Rempel finally found the family, although it wasn’t all good news. Tragically, Calder’s birth mother Donna had died years before, after slipping into a coma during what should have been a routine procedure to get her wisdom teeth removed, leaving husband Garth Nixon to raise their three boys — David’s three half-brothers.
While Calder never had the chance to meet his birth mother, her family welcomed him with open arms when they finally met in Virden in 2001.
“I tried to go into it with very low expectations, so if I found nothing, or if it was a very hard story, I would be OK with that,” said Calder. “But I knew that it was important for me moving forward to know what my past was ... And I can’t tell you how incredible, not only my family was when I first went and met them, but the community around them. We would be sitting having coffee around the table and people would just pop in because they wanted to meet me, they wanted to say ‘Hi’ to this long, lost relative. And again, I feel like I was really blessed. I know that other adoption stories are not anywhere near as peaceful or harmonious as this was. I was welcomed with open arms.”
Calder, who also later met his birth father and his family, has travelled back to Virden since that first meeting to visit with his newly found family, with the Nixons also going to Victoria to spend some time with him there a few years ago.
From afar, they shared in Calder’s devastation when he and rowing partner Chris Jarvis were leading their semifinal heat before their boat accidentally strayed into the adjacent lane and were disqualified in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. But they also proudly watched his triumphant return four years later when Calder’s lifetime of work finally paid off by winning a silver medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing with new rowing partner Scott Frandsen.
They are back this year for Calder’s fourth and final Olympics. And the Nixons will be watching, proud to have an Olympic medallist in their extended family.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Nixon. “We were just trying to figure out what time he is rowing so we can catch him (on TV).”
“We will be watching,” added Calder’s half-brother Brad Nixon. “Everyone is excited for him.”
For his part, Calder thought Beijing would be the end of his Olympic career, but he came out of retirement for one last shot, and he’s happy to know his family back in Westman will be following him.
“It will be great to have them cheering me on for this last Olympics,” he said.
You can watch Calder compete in his first race on Saturday, July 28, with the men’s pairs rowing semifinals set for Wednesday, Aug. 1, and the final slated for Friday, Aug. 3.
MAKING WAVES: Calder isn’t the only local connection on Canada’s Olympic team this year.
Swimmer Erica Morningstar of Calgary has plenty of relatives in Brandon as well as Boissevain, where her parents WesMorningstar and Lana Chambers grew up. While Erica was born in Regina, her parents were born and raised in Boissevain and graduated high school there before moving on, with Lana playing one season for the Brandon University Bobcats women’s basketball team in the early 1980s before they headed west.
Erica competes in the 200m individual medley starting on Monday, July 30, with the final set for July 31.
(After a vacation break, Shew’s Views will return on Friday, August 24)