In its inaugural year, Powell River’s Sports Hall of Fame will induct eight athletes and one team that have had a lasting legacy. In the weeks leading up to the gala, taking place June 15 at Hap Parker Arena, the Peak will profile the inductees, giving more insight into their accomplishments and contributions to the fabric of the community.
Born in Italy in 1919, Gino Bortolussi immigrated with his family to Canada in the early 1920s. The family first settled in Alberta, before arriving in Powell River.
Gino was the eldest of five children and, along with his siblings, loved playing sports. He excelled at track and field and his skill caught the attention of Powell River’s Martin Naylor. In 1936, Naylor had represented BC in the Olympic trials held in Montreal, coming fourth against the country's strongest competitors.
Naylor became Gino’s mentor and coach. Under his guidance, Gino developed as an athlete and set his sights on competing in the Olympics. The start of World War II in 1939 put those dreams on hold, however, as Gino enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces. Many young athletes had their careers end when they enlisted, but war did not diminish Gino’s enthusiasm or competitive spirit.
As a member of the Western Regiment, Gino served on the front lines in Italy and Holland from 1943 to 1945. During this time he distinguished himself at track and field events held during the war in Canada, England and liberated parts of Europe.
Gino became the best Canadian Army sprinter for two years in a row, excelling in the 100- and 200-yard dashes and winning for his regiment, the 5th Division. The Powell River resident ran in the Aldershot meets against the best runners in the British Empire.
“Apparently he was a very stylish runner to watch,” said his youngest son David Bortolussi. “He was said to have been very graceful. He looked like he was just floating down the track.”
By the end of the war Gino had either beaten or held his own against many of the top sprinters in the world and his Olympic goals were still alive. Complications from a back injury suffered in combat eventually brought these dreams to an end.
After a lengthy recovery from back surgery at Shaughnessy Military Hospital in Vancouver, Gino returned to Powell River where he and his wife Mary raised three children. Gino commenced what would become a 40-year career with the Powell River Company/MacMillan Bloedel and continued his involvement with track and field, coaching a number of local athletes into the 1960s.
An unforgettable moment of this time, said David, was when Gino met one of his idols.
“He got to meet Jesse Owens, which was a really big thing for him,” he added.
Owens, the four-time Olympic gold-medal sprinter from the United States, was a superstar and an inspiration.
“Dad got a signed picture [from Owens],” said David. “It says ‘from one great athlete to another.’”
Gino maintained his military connections, serving as an officer in the Sea Cadet Corps. In honour of his military service to Canada and outstanding athletic achievements he was inducted into the Canadian Armed Forces Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 77.
Being recognized locally is important, said David.
“He should be remembered; he kind of put Powell River on the map back in the day,” he added. “He was the favourite son for a lot of years for his generation. His accomplishments brought inspiration and pride during a very dark time.”