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Back in the rings

Chris Ius will be carrying the Olympic torch in Trail, BC, on January 24. - Colleen Flanagan/ The News
Chris Ius will be carrying the Olympic torch in Trail, BC, on January 24.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/ The News

Olympian. It was a word Chris Ius hadn’t thought much about in years.

With his boxing days long behind him, the memories of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the 1976 Games in Montreal seemed distant, like a past life.

Ius is now a carpenter and contractor, a husband and father. He has houses to fix and kids to raise, and not a lot of time for the sport that consumed nearly every waking hour until he was 22 years old.

But that all changed a few months ago.

Ius and his wife Pat were up at the family vacation home, a log cabin at Christina Lake. Ius was outside, doing some repair work on the house he built himself when Pat came running out the door and said he was being asked to take part in the torch relay for 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

He would be recognized as an Olympian – a select, elite athlete chosen to don the county’s colours and compete on the largest stage in the world.

Back at home in Maple Ridge, Ius went downstairs to his basement and started pulling out boxes of old mementos: water-stained black and white photographs, yellowed posters and fight cards, dusty boxing gloves stuffed with horse hair and scores of medals and pins from fights he can barely recall more than 30 years later.

It was an archeological dig into his own past, the re-discovery of a life left behind.

“As soon as he heard the word, that’s when everything changed,” Pat says.

•••

Chris Ius’s life in the ring began when he was five years old. His father brought him to the North West Eagles Boxing Club in North Vancouver, where his uncle, Ellio Ius, taught him everything he knew.

Three days a week he put in time at the gym, going for long runs on his off-days to build up stamina. As an important fight approached, he’d be at the gym five days a week, working the heavy bag and the speed bag for hours, before jogging until he was soaked with sweat.

Ellio was a stubborn taskmaster.

“I can’t skate,” says Ius. “I was never allowed to, because I couldn’t get injured before a fight. I couldn’t go skiing, either.”

And there was no social life to speak of. Ellio deemed Pat a distraction, so Friday nights meant Ius was in bed by nine or 10 to rest up for his fight on Saturday.

If she wanted to see him fight, she had to dress up in disguise, hiding under a wig and sunglasses so Ellio wouldn’t notice her.

School was put on the back-burner, and Ius was able to graduate, but for the understanding and patience of his teachers, parents, and, of course, Pat – who once had to finish his wood-working project for him while he was away at a tournament.

“Nobody, unless you live it, really understands how much time, commitment, and hard work it takes,” says Ius. “It was all I knew.

“Boxing was my life.”

He was a small fighter, but those who underestimated the sinewy kid soon found themselves on their back. With surgical skill, his punches hit their target, and he gained a reputation as a smart, patient fighter.

Ius lost his first match at age six at the B.C. Bronze Gloves tournament. By the time he was 22, Ius had more than 200 fights to his credit, the overwhelming majority, wins. Ius won the first of his five Canadian senior titles in front of a packed house at the newly-opened Pacific Coliseum in 1970, when he was 16, fighting against men who had been boxing longer than he’d been alive.

Two years later, he was a lock for Team Canada at flyweight (51 kg) for the Munich Summer Olympics in 1972, and he’d get his shot at being the best in the world.

“I don’t know if I really appreciated it at the time,” he says, looking back on his first Olympic experience. “It was exciting, but it all happened so fast. You train for four years and there’s so much build up, and then you lose one fight and it’s over.”

At the 1972 Olympics, Ius was a child among men. But his cherubic face and unkempt hair belied his 13 years of experience in the ring. He faced 33-year-old Ali Ouabbou of Morocco in his first bout, beating the man 15 years his senior in a 3-2 decision. He did not fare as well in his second fight, dropping a 5-0 decision to 22-year-old Georgi Kostadinov of Bulgaria, who went on to win the gold medal.

“If you’re going to lose to someone, you hope it’s the guy who wins it,” Ius says with a smile.

On Sept. 5, 1972, Ius was fast asleep, having already been knocked out of the tournament. That night eight members of a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September stormed the compound behind where Ius and the other members of the Canadian boxing contingent slept, killing two Israeli athletes and taking another nine hostage, all of whom would eventually be killed.

As his family and friends helplessly watched the drama unfold on their TV screens on the other side of the world, Ius slumbered peacefully, a few hundred metres away from the action.

“We woke up and saw all the military vehicles, but we had no idea what happened until we got home,” he says. “We were just kids, we didn’t know what was going on.”

Four years later, Ius was on home turf for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, this time fighting at bantamweight (54 kg). After a first-round bye and a second-round walk-over, Ius saw his first action against Weerachart Saturngrun of Thailand, losing a 5-0 decision.

And that was it.

After more than 200 fights, Ius hung up his gloves for good.

The 1980 Games were too far off, and would ultimately never come for Canadian athletes, as they took part in a U.S.-led boycott of Moscow. And there wasn’t a lot of money in professional boxing for small fighters then. It wasn’t worth getting beaten to a pulp for less than you could make as a carpenter.

“To win at the Olympics, you have to peak at just the right time,” says Ius. “So many things have to come together perfectly. I thought everything came together for me in Munich better than it did in Montreal.”

But just qualifying for the Olympics is a feat unto itself, he says, and every athlete competing at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver should remember that.

“They should all have that champion feeling, because they’re there,” he says. “That’s not easy.”

But for him, it was time to move on, to marry and start a family, and a life outside the ring.

“I first started boxing when I was five years old,” says Ius. “It was time.”

•••

Few relics of Chris Ius’s life in the ring adorn the house now.

“We took them down to do some painting,” he says. “But they never got back up.”

Sometimes he thinks about what could have been. Sure, he could have gone pro, or fought in the Olympics again, but things were different in those days.

“There wasn’t a lot of support,” he says.

If Ius wanted to keep fighting, he’d have had to live at home with his parents.

“That just wasn’t done,” he says. “It was all about starting a family of your own.”

Within two years of the 1976 Olympics, Chris and Pat Ius were married and expecting the first of their four children.

The two have been together since the eighth-grade, but Pat, like Chris, says she never really appreciated just how special his accomplishments in the ring were at the time.

“He’s so modest,” she says. “But there were a couple times I felt like I was with a celebrity.”

The first was at their wedding at the United Church in North Vancouver.

“There were 400 people who showed up that I’d never seen before,” says Pat.

Referees, judges, coaches, fans, opponents, and sparring partners, all came to wish them well, not to mention the reporters and photographers.

The second time was when was he was asked to take part in the Olympic Torch Relay.

“[Boxing] was such a big part of his life, but the kids weren’t even around then,” says Pat.

“This is an opportunity to for us to celebrate him.”

•••

With his grey sweat suit on, Chris Ius hits the pavement around his neighbourhood for his roadwork nearly every day since he got the call. One foot in front of the other, he charts a course through the leafy streets of west Maple Ridge, chasing after the Olympian he left behind.

His feet may not be as quick as they used to be, and he’s getting gassed sooner than he used to, but the muscle memory is there.

“It’s been like stepping back in time,” he says.

All the old rituals have crept back into his life. He’s skipping rope, doing sit-ups and push-ups. Being an Olympian meant sacrificing everything for his sport. If he’s going to be recognized as one, he’s going to look the part.

“I know it’s only 300 metres, but I don’t want to be huffing and puffing at the end of it,” he says of the relay.

This Saturday, Ius will don an Olympic uniform once more, carrying the torch in Trail, B.C. It wasn’t his first choice of location, but he’s just happy to take part.

“I’m going to jog it, but I’m going to go real slow,” he says. “To make it last.”

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