Mon, September 23, 2013

Volleyball ref reaches Olympic level

'Schmuck from Transcona' has overcome major adversity

By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

WINNIPEG - Mitch Davidson remembers the moment he reached volleyball's big time.

If it wasn't the armed guards, machine-guns in tow, keeping order at each arena exit, it was the thousands of fans cheering the Winnipegger wearing the whistle.

Clearly, he wasn't in Manitoba, anymore.

“In Canada you go do a match and they announce the referees, you get polite applause,” Davidson was saying the other day. “But whenever I travel to Europe or South America, they say, ‘Mitch Davidson, Canada’ — people go crazy. The referee’s part of the game.”

In Cuba they love Davidson so much they swarm him for autographs. Seriously.

“I’m like, ‘What’s this? Referees don’t give autographs.’ It’s crazy,” he acknowledged. “In Brazil in front of 30,000 people, I looked and said, ‘Holy smokes, a schmuck from Transcona, and look at all these people here.’ It’s kind of cool.”

This schmuck from Transcona is getting ready for his second and final Olympics, this summer in London. At 55, his 15-year international career is ending.

You can probably count on one hand the number of Canadians who’ve called Olympic volleyball. But I doubt you need more than one finger to count the ones who’ve survived a stroke to do it.

It was the summer of 1999, and Davidson was getting ready for our Pan Am Games, when he collapsed inside the restaurant he managed.

“I knew I was having a stroke of some sort, because my right side was paralyzed,” he recalled “I lost my speech for about a month and a half. Some people would say that’s perfect for me.”

If Davidson does anything with more enthusiasm than talk, it’s live.

Active to a fault, he was getting by for years on four hours sleep, up early to run or work out, then burning the candle at the other end in the restaurant business.

“If you want to change your life, just have a minor stroke,” he joked. “It changes everything. If you’re not getting that eight hours sleep, it’s hard on the heart.”

It took Davidson about a year to recover, although some effects linger: he has an occasional stutter, a bit of trouble reading/comprehending and he can print, but not write.

“The only thing I can write is my name,” he said. “The writing gets smaller and smaller and smaller. I’m happy printing.”

While the use of Davidson’s right side has returned, there’s something unusual about it.

When he was 20, he had surgery to correct a rare condition that saw his lats grow too long, resulting in thoracic outlet syndrome. Doctors cut through his throat to remove part of the muscle and one rib.

They also damaged a perspiration nerve, which means, depending where you’re standing, you’ll never see Davidson sweat.

“My whole right-hand side doesn’t sweat,” he said. “When I work out, the line on my head is a perfect line. The only thing that ticks me off, I can’t turn the pages of a book or deal cards with that hand anymore, because I have to keep licking my fingers.”

None of this has kept him from volleyball.

As Volleyball Manitoba’s high-performance/technical director, Davidson eats, sleeps and breathes the game, travelling the world when he isn’t officiating between 300 and 500 matches a year, locally — which to the wonder of his international peers, who ref in the pro leagues, has honed his skills to an Olympic level.

Last weekend, at a tournament in Brandon, Davidson got a thank you, of sorts, when a young boy asked for his autograph — the first time that’s happened in Canada.

That one autograph might sum up Davidson’s life as a ref, more than all those he’s signed in other countries.

“Kids want to be stars,” he said.

“But not everyone’s going to be a university player, not everyone’s going to be a good coach. I’m trying to convince them there’s another way to participate in the sport and have a really nice life with volleyball.

“It’s about giving back for me.”