Canada's First Olympic Medallist: The Bud Wilson Story

Photo courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4623, Used with permission.

On August 20, 1909 in a Toronto hospital, William DeLeigh Wilson celebrated as his second wife Jessie gave birth to their son William Stewart Montgomery Wilson. Little did they know that the baby she cradled would grow up to become one of the most successful figure skaters in Canadian history.


Montgomery - or 'Bud' as he liked to be called - grew up in relative affluence at the family's home on Walmer Road with his parents, sister Constance, half-sisters Edith and Lila and two maids. Bud's father was President of the Canada Vinegar Works, which Bud's grandfather founded as the Bay Street Vinegar Works. The company's factory produced as much as eight hundred gallons of vinegar a day and was one of the two main manufacturers of the preservation staple in Toronto's pre-home refrigeration age. 

The Toronto Skating Club's Dupont Street rink in 1925. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Shortly after World War I, Bud and Constance were signed up for lessons at the Toronto Skating Club's rink on Dupont Street. It quickly became apparent that they had some serious talent. Young Montgomery - or 'Bud' as he liked to be called - had his first success in 1922, when he won the club's junior championship at the age of twelve. A local paper described his performance in that year's club ice show as akin to "a miniature wizard on the ice, not inferior in degree to even the professionals."

Clipping from "The College Times", Courtesy Jill Spellman, Archivist, Upper Canada College

As a youth, Bud's talent wasn't limited to the ice. He was Upper Canada College's Junior Swimming Champion in 1925. In 1926, he won his school's Open High Jump competition and was second in the broad jump. A skater excelling in jumping? Colour me surprised. In 1924, at age fourteen, Bud made his first trip to the Canadian Figure Skating Championships and finished second in the senior men's event behind John (Juan) Zaldivar Machado.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

When Bud's sister Constance's partnership to Errol Morson dissolved in 1926, the Wilson siblings decided to give it a go as a pairs team. In 1927, they finished second at the Canadian Championships. Bud also won the silver medal in senior men's that year - his fourth Canadian medal in singles. In addition, he won medals in both the men's and pairs competitions that year at his first international competition, the North American Championships, which was hosted that year by his home club and became one of the first four skaters in Canada to pass the First Class Gold Medal test. Bud and Constance were coached by Gustave Lussi and Walter Arian.


In 1928, Bud travelled to St. Moritz, Switzerland to represent Canada at the Winter Olympic Games. His Olympic debut was hardly a success; he finished dead last in the free skating and an unlucky thirteenth overall. Rather than be discouraged by his failure in Switzerland, the six foot tall skater with brown hair and blue eyes soldiered on with determination, finishing seventh at that year's World Championships in Berlin, Germany ahead of twelve time U.S. Champion Nathaniel Niles.

Bud Wilson, Maude and Cecil Smith and Jack Eastwood. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In 1929 and 1930, Bud began establishing his dominance internationally. He won the 1929 North American titles in both singles and pairs and the 1929 and 1930 Canadian titles in both singles and pairs, as well as earning a fourth place finish at the 1930 World Championships in New York City behind Switzerland's Georges Gautschi. After winning his third Canadian men's title in 1931, he travelled to Ottawa and defended both his men's and pairs crown at the North American Championships. The February 6, 1931 edition of the Montreal Gazette noted, "The new men's singles champion is one of the most consistent winners of national and international crowns skating today. In addition to performing his compulsory school figures with great precision, he gave a beautiful exhibition of free skating."


The 1932 season was arguably Bud's most successful competitively. After yet again claiming both the men's and pairs titles at the Canadian Championships, he headed to the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Skating Axel for Axel with Olympic Gold Medallists Gillis Grafström and Karl Schäfer, he won the bronze medal and made history as the first figure skater from Canada to ever win an Olympic medal. The February 10, 1932 issue of "The Montreal Gazette" recalled his medal winning free skate thusly: "Wilson, following [Schäfer] on his program, found his spot a difficult one, but his rhythm and grace earned him much applause. His free figure work included a dance step in time with the music of the band... Wilson received five votes for third place and two for fourth." Bud also placed an impressive fifth in the pairs event with Constance at those Games. Apparently, their "graceful movements and intricate figures drew rounds of applause from the thousands packed solidly to the eaves to watch the competition." Bud followed his historic Olympic medal win with a silver medal in the men's event at the 1932 World Championships in Montreal and a sixth place in pairs. That summer, he participated in the first summer figure skating carnival in Lake Placid.

 
Photos courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives.

Bud's success continued from 1933 to 1936. In singles, pairs and fours, he amassed an astonishing eleven more medals at the Canadian and North American Championships - most of them gold. He also represented Canada at the 1936 Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, placing a strong fourth in the men's competition. After Constance's marriage and retirement, Bud soldiered on, winning two more Canadian and North American titles. Sadly, both of his parents passed away during the height of his competitive career.

Photo courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives

Let's do a medal count, shall we? Between singles and pairs, twenty medals at the Canadian Championships. Between singles, pairs and fours, fourteen medals at the North American Championships. A bronze at the Olympics and a silver at Worlds... to say that kind of competitive record is impressive is really the understatement of the century.

Photo courtesy Canadian Olympic Committee

Photo courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives

Speaking of impressive, here's an interesting little factoid. As you might recall looking back to the blog on Bruce Allan Mapes, it has also been put forth that Bud was the inventor of the flip jump. The April 1937 issue of "Skating" magazine noted, "It is impossible to state accurately that anyone invented a certain jump or turn with so many skaters experimenting all over the world.  But it is fairly definite that Montgomery 'Bud' Wilson who was the outstanding Canadian skater and champion of North America, was the first to do the Flip Jump in the East. He now has worked out the Double Flip Jump." It has been suggested that [Gustave] Lussi and Wilson developed the flip in the twenties, but like the origins of many skating elements, it's up for debate. Here's what isn't... The International Skating Union credits Bud as the first skater to land the double Salchow and loop in an official ISU competition.


Bud turned professional after the 1939 Canadian Championships and headed south of the border to Minnesota. He coached the first fours team from St. Paul - Janette Ahrens, Mary Louise (Premer) Wright, Robert Uppgren and Lyman Wakefield Jr. - to the North American title in 1941. It was the first time in history that an American team won the fours event at the North American Championships. He also taught Betty Schalow, who went on to become a star with the Ice Follies, and worked with future U.S. Champion Gretchen Merrill. Benjamin T. Wright, former chairman of ISU Technical Committee and ISU Referee and ISU and USFSA historian recalled, "He was a highly intelligent man, but Mary Louise told me that when he came to St. Paul as a brand new coach, he didn't know how to coach. He [said] to Mary Louise, 'Do what I do.' So he'd do figures and she'd follow him. She taught him to how to teach."

Bud's performing career didn't end after he turned professional. He regularly appeared in St. Paul's carnivals, skating duets with Erna Andersen and Christine Newson. In the spring of 1942, he became an American citizen. His professional career was interrupted for a time when he served overseas as a Major in the U.S. Field Artillery, 75th Division. He earned a Bronze Star for his wartime efforts.

Photo courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives.

In 1946, Bud moved to Boston and returned to the coaching world as the Skating Club Of Boston's senior professional alongside fellow Olympic Medallist Cecilia Colledge of Great Britain. Among his students were future U.S. and North American medallist Tina Noyes, Dudley Richards, Bradley Lord and Gregory Kelley. In her book "Indelible Tracings: The Story Of The 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team", Patricia Shelley Bushman recalled a rivalry between Wilson and Maribel Vinson Owen at the club: "Some felt that Bud Wilson of Canada was the primary obstacle in preventing Maribel from teaching there. A long-time rivalry existed between the Wilson and Vinson/Owen families. Bud's sister, Constance, had always placed above Maribel at North Americans, while Maribel usually beat Constance at Worlds; Bud and Constance usually beat Maribel in pairs, and Guy Owen was the perennial runner-up to Bud in the Canadian men's competition. By the time Maribel showed up to teach permanently in Boston, they had strong opinions of each other... The two coaches were polar opposites. Bud was very gentlemanly and always arrived in a coat, tie, and tweed jacket... Mr. Wilson,' as his students called him, was a favourite among skaters, an excellent teacher and a gentleman... while Maribel was oblivious whenever she created a scene; and her lack of attention to conventional dress communicated her disregard for anyone else's opinion." Despite a rough start, Maribel and Bud developed a mutual respect and working relationship over time. Bud even helped ease mother/daughter tension by working regularly with Maribel's daughter Laurence.

Photo courtesy the City Of Toronto Archives.

One can only imagine how particularly devastating the 1961 Sabena Crash would have been for Bud personally. Patricia Shelley Bushman explained that after the 1961 North American Championships, "Bud Wilson wanted to fly with Brad Lord, but the powers-that-be at The Skating Club Of Boston insisted that he return to prepare for the annual Ice Chips show. Bud flew back to Boston but had a ticket to fly to Prague later in the week. Bud, who had helped coach Laurence the last four weeks, planned to work with her in Prague, too." Bradley Lord, Gregory Kelley, Dudley Richards, Maribel Vinson Owen and Laurence Owen, were all, of course, among the Sabena victims. Like so many of the people in the American skating community who bravely soldiered on and returned to the rinks in the face of such an incomprehensible loss, Bud continued planning the Ice Chips show in Boston, dedicating the event to the memory of the 1961 team. Working with the assistance of Dick Button, Bud helped ensure the benefit was broadcast on CBS. He, Dick and Roger Turner even served as ushers at the funeral of both Maribel's and Laurence.


Perhaps unable to face what had happened in Belgium every day at the rink in Boston, Bud took a coaching job for a time at the Michigan State University but returned to live in Lincoln, Massachusetts after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away in Concord, Massachusetts at the age of fifty five on November 15, 1964, just over three years after the Sabena Crash. He left behind wife Mary Ann (Winston) Wilson, two sons, Winston and Stewart and a daughter, Marcia.


Bud was posthumously inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1976, the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall Of Fame in 1990, PSA Coaches Hall Of Fame in 2003 and the Canadian Olympic Hall Of Fame in 2007. His contribution to Canadian sport remains incredibly significant to this day and his last major effort - giving back to the sport through that Ice Chips show - defines a true champion.

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