Lost story of teenage speed-skating sensation subject of new play

A world-champion speed skater, born in Sackville more than 100 years ago, is the subject of a new play that will premiere in his hometown on Wednesday as part of the Bordertown Festival.

The tragic story of Chester Cole tells how he rose to the top level of his sport and how he died tragically after an accident at Madison Square Garden in New York City at the age of 17.

"I really like plays that tell historical stories," said Ron Kelly Spurles, director of the Bordertown Festival, who wrote the play titled Cole

Like most people in Sackville, Kelly Spurles says the only thing he knew about the young speed skater was from a plaque at the Chester Cole Memorial Ball Field in town.

"It basically said that he had become a world junior speed-skating champion at 14 and then he had died following an accident at Madison Square Garden — and that's all it says."

Submitted by Ron Kelly Spurles

"I kept wondering, 'What's the story, like what happened to him and how had he risen to become an international champion?'"

Kelly Spurles tracked down Cole's sister-in-law, who still lives in Sackville, and she shared the Cole family archives with him which included newspaper clippings, trophies and photos.

As he learned more about Cole, he was so intrigued that he wrote a play.

Local stories often forgotten

Kelly Spurles said many people in Sackville recognize the name, Chester Cole, but that's about it.

"A lot of people sort of know of him, they've heard of him, but they don't really know the story, it's been lost a little bit."

Charlie Rhindress, who is directing the play, has spent much of his career in theatre telling Atlantic Canadian stories.

"The first really successful show I wrote was called, Guilty — The Story of the Great Amherst Mystery, and it was kind of an eye-opener for us because we realized that people really love hearing their own stories," he said.

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Rhindress believes Canadians "tend not to mythologize people," in the same way as Americans do.

"Something like the Great Amherst Mystery for instance, I feel like there would have been a TV series and a movie about it and everybody in the world would know it," he said.

"It's the same with Cole. I feel like we certainly have well-known people from our communities that are perhaps known within a community, but we don't mythologize them in quite the same way and spread their story."

Tragic death

Cole grew up in Sackville and in 1926 won the World Junior Championships held at Lily Lake in Saint John at the age of 14.

That was also the year that Saint John's Charles Gorman, a veteran of the First World War, won the World Speed Skating Championships at the same competition. He also competed in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.

Submitted by Ron Kelly Spurles

Cole was poised to follow in Gorman's footsteps at the next winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. 

"He was rumoured to be a top contender for the 1932 Olympics," said Kelly Spurles.

But Cole met an untimely death as the result of an accident in a competition.

"He had an accident at Madison Square Garden in New York and after that he got sepsis. He hurt his knee and then he got sepsis and he died … very sad."

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that is caused by the body's response to an infection.

New play celebrates competitive spirit

Rhindress said the fact that Cole joined the Iceland Skating Club, which was in New York City, as a teenager showed how committed he was to his sport.

"He liked to win … not above all else, but it was very important to him to win. He was a driven young man. At 17 years old, in 1930, we have to point out, he left home and went to New York to train."

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Rhindress joked that when he was growing up in Amherst, N.S., in the 1970s, a trip to Moncton was a big deal.

He also points to one of the old newspaper articles about Cole that detail another accident he had.

"He was in a race and someone lost their skate and the skate went flying — cut a hole in his knee — and he still finished the race and won, so you know he's a pretty remarkable young man."

Cole was posthumously inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in Fredericton as a Sports Pioneer in 2000.