A Life's Story
August 21, 2021
The right moves
Rick Borland reigned in racquet sports; as transit director he oversaw the completion of the southwest RT corridor
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Rick Borland was the rare athlete who found his greatest success in his second sport.
It certainly wasn’t like he was a chump in his first one. Anything but, in fact.
After winning 18 Manitoba Open tennis titles in singles, doubles and mixed — accomplishments that merited being inducted into the Tennis Manitoba Hall of Fame in 2008 — he picked up a squash racquet in his late 20s. He was a quick study and went on to win a record 16 senior national squash titles.
The racquet pedigree is strong in the entire Borland family. In fact, it could be argued Rick wasn’t even the best racqueteer sitting around the dinner table every night while growing up. He was inducted into the Tennis Manitoba Hall of Fame alongside his dad, Lloyd, and older sister, Judy. His dad was primarily a builder, recruiting kids to play tennis at the Wildewood club, rolling and dragging the clay courts and giving lessons. Five of his protegés went on to become national champions.
One of them was Judy, who won the Canadian junior singles in both the Under-13 and Under-15 divisions. She also won a pair of national junior doubles titles, 29 Manitoba Open titles in singles, doubles and mixed as well as three national doubles titles in badminton, plus numerous provincial badminton titles.
She was a silver medallist at the first Canada Summer Games in 1969 and was named Manitoba’s female athlete of the year in 1970.
(Rick’s sons Trevor and Jonathan are accomplished squash players, Trevor has won three senior national squash titles and numerous provincial titles.)
Lloyd’s coaching continued to pay dividends as young Rick became Manitoba’s U-13 champion at the age of 10. A few years later, he reached the final of the U-13 nationals, losing to Mike Carol of Ottawa. A couple of years after that in 1960, Borland exacted his revenge on Carol, defeating him to win the national U-15 title.
Still a teenager, he won his first of four Manitoba Open men’s singles titles in 1964. He also collected nine Manitoba Open men’s doubles titles with six different partners and five mixed doubles championships, all with Judy.
Archie Chawla will never forget one of those doubles victories because he was on the other side of the net. Playing alongside Bob Mitchell, they were down match point at 9-10 in the third set tie-break to Borland and Glen Ziprick.
Chawla, a multi-racquet player himself whose tennis overhead was the stuff of legend, jumped up for a lob and drilled a smash directly at Borland. He had no time to react so the immediate question was, how badly might he be hurt?
"He blocked it right in front of his crotch, like a goalie save, and hit a winner down the sideline (for the win). I’ll remember that for the rest of my life," Chawla says.
Borland died from cancer in July, just a few days shy of his 76th birthday. He is survived by his wife of nearly 54 years, Heather, and sons Jonathan (Lisa, Owen and Delilah) and Trevor (Roselle, Sophia and Stella), nephew, Riley Peake, sister-in-law Helen Holmes and their families as well as many cousins.
After making the transition to squash, Borland had a standing game every Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. at the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club with his good friend, Henry Thiessen.
"We played every week for 33 years," he says, guessing they played more than 1,000 times over the years. "He had as good hands as I’ve ever seen in squash."
One of Thiessen’s few regrets with Borland is they never competed at the world championships together.
"I went to the worlds twice but I couldn’t convince him to go," he says.
The one weakness in Borland’s game on either court was his temper. Thiessen says he probably could have been a world champion if he’d been a little less fiery.
Borland was one of eight inductees into Squash Manitoba’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 2018, alongside the likes of Alana Miller, Marnie Baizley, Turk and Thiessen.
Trevor and his dad won senior national titles in the same year on two different occasions and the son, who was now one of Manitoba’s provincial coaches, was now able to play a role in his dad’s success.
One year at the Jericho Club in Vancouver, however, Trevor’s advice to lengthen the rallies and wait for his opportunities wasn’t paying any dividends. His dad was down two games to none in the best-of-five final against an opponent he had played many times.
"After the second game, my advice was, ‘Screw it, just start going for winners.’ Then the whole match turned around and he won in five (games). It was the complete opposite advice to what I’d given to all of my other athletes," he says.
Borland was always known for having incredibly soft hands on a court but in his early days on the senior circuit, he was never the fittest player around. That changed in his mid-40s when Trev says his dad became "obsessed" with the Stairmaster.
"Then he became quite fit, one of the fittest guys in his age group. He usually steamrolled people," he says.
Some years later at senior nationals, Trev counselled his dad that he should probably do a little stretching after a tough match so that he wouldn’t be too stiff the next morning for his final.
"He just stood there. So I said, ‘stretch out your quads and your hamstrings’ and he’s still doing nothing. ‘I don’t know how,’ he told me. You don’t know how to stretch your hamstrings? Are you kidding me? He was 50 and had been playing national competitive sports since he was 12 and he didn’t know how to stretch. I had to show him. It seemed ridiculous that he’d done this his whole life and never stretched," he says.
Speed and mobility dominated Borland’s professional life, too. He started his career with the City of Winnipeg as a transportation planning engineer and in 1980, he became the director of Winnipeg Transit at the age of 35, making him the youngest to hold the post. During his time there, he oversaw transportation for the visit of Pope John Paul II, two Grey Cups, the 1999 Pan Am Games and two "once-in-a-century snowstorms" that took place 11 years apart in 1986 and 1997 that shut the city down completely.
Jon had the unique distinction of knowing his dad as both the head of the household and Winnipeg Transit, having started to work there in 2003, two years before his father retired.
Jon may have been the only bus rider in town to read the fine print when he looked at his bus tickets as a kid. They had his dad’s name on them.
"I felt a sense of pride. It always made me feel really good," he says.
After he retired, Rick and Heather spent many years travelling — Ixtapa, Mexico, was a favourite spot in the winter and Europe in the summer.
He loved planning each adventure almost as much as going on them and became a much-valued resource for friends and family looking to get away.
Jon says his dad was most proud of two particular initiatives — bringing low-floor buses to Winnipeg in 1998 and completing the Southwest Rapid-Transit Corridor.
"The low-floor buses increased accessibility for people with disabilities to move around the city. They arrived just in time for the Pan Am Games in 1999. That was a big deal. Before that, people with mobility issues only had Handi-Transit (at their disposal). But they were also very helpful for parents with strollers. They were a game-changer for a lot of people in the city," he says.
"The southwest corridor had been on the books since he started with Transit. He and other senior managers worked on it for 25 years. He had a bus pass and he would ride buses to Jets games and Bombers games. He would walk to the Jubilee station to catch the bus. The completion of the transit way meant a lot to him."