By Linda White
Allan Ehrlick has been that kind of star athlete most of his life: a hero in the eyes of more fans than he could ever imagine. A motion picture about him would resemble a 1950s Biblical epic, with a cast of thousands. An Oscar-worthy story line would be salted with all the diverse, spine-tingling adventures and achievements that have filled Ehrlick’s earthly journey to date.
At 22, he was selected a member of the Canadian Equestrian Team; three Olympic Games followed. He had a 12-year career in international 3-day eventing; and played ice hockey professionally with the Kalamazoo Wings for a year. He swam competitively, and took up polo, arguably the fastest-moving, most demanding contest in all of equine sport. Before they ever swing a leg over a polo pony, aspiring polo players must understand that an instant’s miscalculation can endanger them and their mount, and put the entire field in jeopardy. (It was polo’s speed that attracted Ehrlick, he now admits, confirming what his friends and loved ones suspected long ago.)
His parents encouraged their son to have high expectations of himself, gave him the opportunity to go after what interested him, and supported their 12-year-old’s desire to join the Eglinton Pony Club, in Gormley, Ontario, 45 minutes away. Pony Club meant that Ehrlick got to study with Captain John de Kenyeres (1918-2004) until he aged out, at 21. Trained in classical dressage and haute ecole at Ludovika Royal Hungarian Military College, De Kenyeres spent almost a decade as a political prisoner in Soviet-controlled Hungary. Following his release from prison, he and his wife sought refuge in Canada. Providentially for young Allan, de Kenyeres became chief riding instructor at Eglinton Pony Club in 1956. Pony Club, and de Kenyeres, became important markers in the budding young equestrian’s life.
“I’m pretty proud of being in the Canadian Pony Club Hall of Fame with people I admire today,” he told an interviewer recently. “I’m a lucky guy!” He also appears on the Canadian Equestrian Team Wall of Honour, and the Ontario Equestrian Federation Hall of Fame.
When Ehrlick was 21, he discovered a young Anglo-Arabian gelding at a local horse dealer’s. He liked the 3-year-old’s looks, so he bought and developed him, and the two went on to win the 1967 National Pony Club A Rally Championship. The following year, he took his Anglo-Arabian to the Canadian Equestrian team tryouts, hoping to compete in 3-day eventing at the 1968 Olympic Games.
De Kenyeres lived long enough to see his star pupil and The Nomad, the Anglo-Arabian, top the Olympic trials and be selected. The pair traveled with the team to the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics. The 1972 Munich Olympics was billed, ironically, as things turned out, as “The Happy Games”. It was during those games that the unspeakable happened. Four Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer, forever darkening the world’s memory of the 1972 Olympics. Ehrlick’s positive memories of the big grey gelding who played such a key role in his life and career have helped him come to terms with the horror of other Olympic recollections.
“The Nomad was sired by the Thoroughbred stallion, Yusof, and was foaled in 1962,” he began. “He was quirky, but he was an incredible show jumper, and could hold his own in dressage. One year at the Eastern Canadian 3-Day Championships, he had the lowest (most desirable) score in the FEI dressage tests, a record that stood for almost 30 years. He was just that talented.”
Equestrian competition appeared for the first time at the Summer Olympic Games in Paris in 1900. They reappeared a second time in 1912, with the competition expressly limited to commissioned military men. Despite ongoing, even worldwide advocacy, women were only admitted into Olympic equestrian competition in 1951, but no specifically women’s events existed; they competed against men.
“Liz Holst Hartel was a pioneer in women’s dressage,” Ehrlick said of another figure he has long admired. “She was a champion dressage rider in Denmark, but she contracted polio in 1944, and was paralyzed ever after, from the knees, down. She was determined to recover and ride again … and she did. She had to be helped on and off her horse, but she won a silver medal in Helsinki in 1952, and took a second silver medal in Stockholm in 1956.
“After Liz retired, she helped raise money for polio victims, and supported therapeutic riding for people with disabilities.” Ehrlick, too has had health issues that would have defeated a lesser individual. In 2003 he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, or skin cancer. Catching it early, surgeons were able to halt the disease’s spread for a time. When the cancer came back three years later, he underwent two surgeries that included 40 stitches in his jaw.
The disease reappeared last year, this time as throat cancer. Against his doctor’s advice, Ehrlick and Cheryl, his wife of 23 years, loaded up their horses and went off to Canadian Nationals … and won two national championships, and two reserves. A week after the Ehrlicks returned home, Allan was hospitalized. In this latest go-round, he underwent an 8-hour surgical procedure that, by his own admission, really knocked him on his ass.
Undeterred, he has continued to give back to the sport that has given him so much. Volunteerism is a family tradition, it seems. “It’s what you do,” he said. “I try to give back to the things I can. My father was a lifelong athlete, and the consummate volunteer. I am my father’s son.”
When you ask most people if they have a “bucket list”, that is, the things they hope to do before they kick the bucket - they promptly recite a wish list they clearly have given some thought. When we asked Allan Ehrlick what was on his “bucket list,” he became quiet, framing his reply.
“I guess I’ve done most of it,” he responded slowly. “I’ve been very fortunate. The good has far outweighed the negative. I have had confidence, and good luck, the timing has been right, and I have an amazing support system. I feel very blessed. My wife, my closest friends, and so many other important people in my life, are the result of the Arabian horse.”
When the lifelong horseman recognized that the qualities he had most relied upon in The Nomad’s character came from the Arabian influence in his pedigree, Ehrlick’s interest in the breed sharpened. Since the 1980s, he has won 105 national championships and reserves with Arabians, Anglo- and Half-Arabians in main ring and Arabian sport horse disciplines.
“Our dining room has become our trophy room,” he laughed. “Sometimes I’ve had to reach inside for the strength, but I still get up every day with positive expectations. And I hold myself to very high standards. I’m constantly disappointed with my performances, but I never allow myself to look back with regret, because hindsight is no sight. You can’t change history, so accept what happened, and move on.” He shrugged.
“If you’re going to be lucky in this life, first you have to identify where you want to go. Then, discover what you’re good at. I hear people talking about what they can’t do. Well, if you don’t think you can do something, why should anybody else think you can?
“Your expectations have to be within your grasp. For example, I used to swim competitively. I worked really hard; I even changed my diet, thinking that it might give me more energy and staying power, but that still wasn’t enough. Oh, I wasn’t bad, but I was never going to excel … so I left it. I moved on.
“Since we last chatted, a couple of things have happened,” he informed us yesterday. “I am now the president of the Halton Region Agricultural Federation, which is all the farm producers in the very affluent farming area where I live. I was on their board as the token horse guy, but they want to use my executive experience. The other thing is that I am being inducted into my fourth hall of fame next week: the Arabian Horse Association of Eastern Canada. I will be going in with three other people I admire greatly.
“Also, my horse, Dal Apollo, was the 2014 WAHO Horse of the Year – only the fifth Canadian ever to be so honored. It’s all very levelling, very humbling.
“Two more radiation treatments to go,” he added, never missing a step.