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Local boxing legend a tactical fighter who lived with grace and dignity despite Olympic setback

Sudden loss of Steve Nolan leaves those he loved ‘numb’ and brings back a flood of memories

Stephanie Allinotte Nolan took about two seconds to describe her emotions Tuesday night and quickly blurted out the word ‘numb, just numb.”  She then gathered herself, just as her late husband Steve Nolan would want her to, and focused on the task ahead.

It wasn’t an easy task. It was a task that involved recounting a 30-year marriage with the love of her life and dealing with the after effects of the loss of Nolan, who died suddenly Sunday after an abdominal aortic aneurysm the size of a pineapple ruptured inside of him, causing massive bleeding that severely damaged his liver and kidneys. Nolan was 62.

This is a story about how the world changes in a moment and how you are here one day, gone the next. It is a story about how fleeting and precious life is. It is a story about an incredible and humble man who lived his life with grace and dignity, always putting others first and making sure those he loved were well taken care of.

It is also a story about arguably the most decorated boxer to ever come out of Sault Ste. Marie, about a man who was once named to Canada’s Olympic Boxing team for the 1980 Games in Russia, only to see all his hard work, sweat and tears washed away by Canada’s boycott of those same Olympics due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

If ever there was a man who persevered in the wake of adversity and disappointment, it is Steve Nolan. He was a true warrior inside and outside the ring. He always fought the good fight and he did it with a skill and meaningfulness that methodically picked apart his opponents, one by one, round by round, second by second.

But for as brutal of a sport as boxing can be at times, Nolan’s ring demeanour was a stark contrast to the man he was outside the ring.

“His legacy was his kind soul and the giving heart and his greatest accomplishment was me, the kids and the grandkids he adored and was so proud of,” says Stephanie, who was looking forward to their 30th wedding anniversary on May 30th of this year. “He was the smartest person I ever met in my whole life. He was the most generous person in the world. He adored me and he cherished our family and we never wanted for anything.

“He was an amazing provider, role model and father and nothing was ever about him. It was always about us and he was so humble.”

Nolan is survived by his wife, five children, Shayenna, Sheldon, Debbie, Julie and Jesse and by 12 grandchildren.  

Even on his way out, Steve made it more about his family. He reassured them everything would be “OK.”  Just seconds before going into surgery, he told Stephanie “I’ll be good, it’s OK, I love you, I’ll call you after.”

But after never really came, at least not how everyone wanted it to come and today, a city and family are left wondering how things could change so quickly. One day he’s celebrating his 62nd birthday, eating cake and opening presents with his wife and kids and grandkids. Three days later, his journey on Earth is over, stomach pain turned to back pain turned to a burst abdominal aortic aneurysm. It happened so fast that even Stephanie admits to just feeling “numb.”

What other feeling is there? When the man of your dreams is alive and kicking and laughing one day, then fighting for his life the next, you really don’t know how to decipher such a tragic loss. They celebrated his birthday last Thursday. He then complained of stomach pain Friday but still managed to go to work Saturday before leaving work and driving home from Michigan to Windsor because his back was now in severe pain. His son Sheldon took him to the hospital Saturday and that was the beginning of the nightmare as Steve’s condition deteriorated from bad to worse to tragic.

“We got to be with him at the end,” Stephanie said. “We got to say goodbye. He always said ‘I want to die in your arms ‘ and he did. It was so sad. He was so healthy and everything and we were so looking forward to our 30thwedding anniversary. We were supposed to have a big party on a beach somewhere.”

One way to cope is to remember the man he was and the impact he left on so many. Those are the fond memories, the good recollections, the warm and fuzzies that for a minute or two take away some of the sting of his passing and make us all smile in amazement at the life he lived and the accolades he quietly compiled.

He was kind and gentle. He had a work ethic that belied his diminutive stature. He overcame some of life’s toughest obstacles and instead of drowning in sorrow after watching his Olympic dream crumble in 1980, Nolan set his eyes on a new dream and conquered it just like he did so many opponents in the boxing ring. 

He put away the gloves, went back to school and went on to become a well-respected robotics engineer, working mostly in Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, where he worked as a Sr. Robotics Engineer at Level 1 Robotics & Controls.

“When he went back to school and graduated with his robotics engineering degree, that was huge for him because of education and it made his parents so proud,” said Stephanie. “He always said he went back to school to use his head for better things. He told everybody that and that’s something he was so proud of and he had a decorated robotics career and had two patents he made for General Motors.”

It seems that that mind of his is what also separated him from others in the ring

Almost to a person, those that knew Nolan said he was a master tactician in the ring, a guy that put in the hard work and reaped the benefits from it. He was a role model to a young crop of Sault fighters who would go on to put this city on the boxing map, people like Ken Casola, Steve Beaupre and the younger Nolans, particularly Frank Jr., Brien, all mentored by their late father, Frank Sr., who was a legend of sorts back in the 70s and 80s.

“Steve was like a leader with our team or any team really,” says Beaupre, the holder of several international medals and one of Canada’s best young boxers in the 1980s. “When we boxed, he was the leader of our team, the one that did it. To me, I always looked up to him. He was like a big brother and you couldn’t help but like him and want to be like him.

“He had such a work ethic. He always wanted to be the best. I think that’s the one thing he passed onto me. You have to work hard, train hard and that’s what he did because he always wanted to stay at that level.”

That sentiment was echoed by Casola, who, unlike Nolan, relied heavily on his hands of stone to craft out a fierce reputation of his own.

“They always said Steve was the class-act artist for amateur boxing,” Casola said. “When he threw his combos, his punches were always so sharp and they came at you in two or three combinations. He was always well respected and unfortunately Canada boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Russia or Steve would have been there. He paved the way for the younger guys and at that point in my career, I was one of the younger guys.”

After working so hard to earn a berth on Canada’s Olympic team only to have it squashed by the boycott, Nolan always had a difficult time watching the Games on TV.

“The Olympics are on right now,” his wife says. “He was captain of the Olympic Boxing team in 1980 and because of the boycott and the fact he didn’t get to go, he could never watch the Olympics on TV.”

Just how good was Nolan inside the ring? How about real good. He did it all during an illustrious amateur career and made his presence known early. In 1973, at the age of 13, he won a silver medal at the Canadian Junior Olympics. The following year he won gold at the same event and then, in 1976, he won a gold at the Ontario Winter Games in Sudbury and followed that up with a gold at the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association Intermediate championships.

That was just the beginning for Nolan. He made his presence known on the international scene in ’76, capturing the North American Bantamweight title and later that year won Sault Ste. Marie’s H.P. Broughton Award as the Sault’s sportsperson of the year.

Then, from 1977-1983, Nolan continued his ascent on the boxing ladder, racking up one impressive win after another as he competed in the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia and the Pan Am Games in Caracas Venezuela. He also won a silver medal at the Canadian senior championships in 1984 and 1985 before turning pro, where he sported a 3-2 record before finally calling it quits.

“He was a good technical fighter,” recalls Beaupre. “He wasn’t like a knockout puncher, but you knew you were in a fight when you fought Steve Nolan. 

“We sparred lots and he was so helpful to me. He was quick, and that helped me when I fought internationally because I got used to the speed at that level. He was just a good technical fighter and he knew how to figure out his opponents.”

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Bill Montague

About the Author: Bill Montague

Bill Montague is a graduate of the University of Windsor and is a veteran sports writer and sports/news editor
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