Sink or Swim

Pierre Lafontaine’s bid to revive Swimming Canada

When I was fourteen, I only cared about one thing: making the Nova Scotia swim team for the Canada Games, a nationwide mini-Olympics held every four years for young athletes on the rise. For eight months, our coach drilled us with punishing sets in the pool (and pep talks out of it), all in the service of the Games trials. Once, after practice, he presented me with a red bathing cap with the name of one of his former national team swimmers on it and told me, “You’ll be even better than she was.” On the first night of competition that May, he hired limousines to chauffeur us to the pool, several kilometres across the Halifax harbour. We were stars, he said. That weekend, I won both my backstroke events with ease. Granted, this was not especially rare or difficult; the Nova Scotia swimming community was small and insular, and the competition rarely fierce. But I posted times that put me in the top three in my age group nationally and was a strong medal contender going into the Canada Games.

The top two swimmers from each province in each event were in Saskatoon three months later, and I recognized many of them from the pages of Swim magazine. We traded pins in the athletes’ village, but I felt queasy. The girls—the ones from Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and Alberta whom I was up against—appeared much taller in person, their uniforms more expensive than mine, and they seemed to laugh so effortlessly, without a care. Not me.

Just before my race, my coach patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and told me to get in there and fight. I nodded but couldn’t smile back. When the gun went off, I threw myself from the blocks, kicked hard underwater, and then glanced over at the girl in the next lane; just ten metres into the race, and she was already ahead. Then and there, the thought that occurred to me was as simple as it was defeatist: “I don’t want this badly enough.” As if following an inviolable order, my muscles tightened. I fell back and never recovered, and didn’t make the final. Despite our high hopes, none of my Nova Scotia teammates won a medal.

On the morning of August 15, 2004, Canadians awoke to news reports about a “catastrophe” that had befallen our compatriots overseas. The stories referred not to army losses or a deadly earthquake, but to our national swim team in Athens. On the first day of competition at the Summer Olympics, the pinnacle of amateur sport, none of the Canadian swimmers made it past the preliminary heats in their events. By meet’s end, only two would make it to the finals, and for the first time in forty years we didn’t win a single medal. Worse, our swimmers looked dazed and bewildered after their races, and some even appeared to give up during them.

To casual fans, the national swim team’s collapse at Athens was precipitous. Since 1968—when, for instance, Elaine Tanner won three Olympic medals—competitive swimming had been one of Canada’s most successful summer sports. Expectations were high, and for good reason: in the years leading up to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the federal government poured money into amateur sports, and swimming was among the best funded. In Montreal, Canadian swimmers won eight medals—out of eleven for the entire team—and would have won more had the East German women been caught using steroids and denied theirs. By the late 1970s, the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association (now Swimming Canada) had started its own grant program, awarding money to clubs based on individual and team performances. We were achieving and rewarding excellence.

The extra funding, early adoption of professional coaching standards, and intense competition among swim clubs continued to pay off. In 1982, Canada placed fourth at the World Swimming Championships, and in 1984 our swimmers won ten medals at the (albeit boycotted) Olympics in Los Angeles. For their world record performances, Alex Baumann and Victor Davis became heroes to young Canadians—as iconic to some of us as their professional counterparts in hockey, skiing, and baseball. When national swim coaches announced that their goal for the team was to be number one by the early 1990s, people took them seriously.

But as the rest of the world got better, our team started to slip. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Canadian swimmers won just two relay medals. Even breaststroker Allison Higson, who had set a world record at Canada’s Olympic trials, was shut out in the individual events. Months later, head coach Dave Johnson, who was fired from Swimming Canada after the Athens Olympics, wrote an essay in Swim about what had happened. “We have a coping problem at international events,” he argued. “There were a lot of youngsters getting very nervous and who didn’t know how to deal with pressure.” That Canadian swimmers folded when away from home became a common criticism over the next fifteen years.

Athens didn’t present a new problem, then; it was just the latest and most publicly aired one. And it’s systemic. What has happened to the national swim team at international meets since the 1980s is a version of what happened with my Canada Games teammates in Saskatoon. Pitted against apparently stronger, richer rivals, do Canadian athletes shrink? Do we, as Johnson suggests, buckle under pressure? More problematic, do we suffer from some sort of national inferiority complex?

During the 2004 Olympics, Murray Stephens, an American coach who owns the club that reared six-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps, called Canada’s approach to swimming “socialist.” (It must be said that the East German swim program is one of history’s most successful, drug use notwithstanding.) What he meant, he later told me, was that when athletes and coaches depend on government handouts for survival (as they do in Canada), they won’t take risks or develop the necessary internal motivation and confidence to win. “The more you get from the outside, the less you work for it,” he said. “Mother bird can only help little bird so much.”

Stephens’ remarks allude to more than sport financing. As Canadians, we value participation, sharing, and welfare for all, but we seem conflicted about excellence, national pride—perhaps even winning itself. In elite competitive sport, there can be no such conflict, and even at the Olympics there is no “welfare for all.” The athletes must want to fight in order to win, and then they actually need to fight. To get to the podium, Canadian athletes might need to shake off their own culture. But if so, how?

“The energy in this room is fantastic,” says Pierre Lafontaine, standing on a podium and smiling at several hundred swim coaches in Salon D of the Toronto Marriott Airport Hotel last September. “I’m not sure we’ve seen that in a long time.” Lafontaine, a Quebecer who left to coach in the US and Australia—both renowned swimming powers—was hired as Swimming Canada’s ceo within a year of the Athens debacle. Here, he’s presiding over the first national conference for swim coaches in over a decade. Most of those in the audience have already seen him in action, because since taking the job he’s spent most of his time travelling across Canada and around the world, pitching his ideas, which all boil down to one idea: everyone needs to work harder.

Lafontaine leads by example. At a Montreal swim meet last summer—one of a series he launched in which the top three swimmers in each event win prize money—he never stopped moving. “I sit down, I fall asleep,” he says. I watched him cheer on the top swimmers, shake their hands, and offer pithy critiques after their races, and consult individually with coaches on deck. “If you make them part of decisions, it will be harder for them to bitch,” he says. At fifty-one years old, he is affable and smiles easily, but he has an unyielding sense of duty. And he is tough. When a national team member who’d skipped out on a meeting walked by, Lafontaine took him aside, demanding that he apologize to his coaches and managers. “Are you a member of the team or above the team? ” he said several times, tugging on the swimmer’s arm.

“Swimmers want to be so good,” Lafontaine says, but he insists that coaches must do more to raise their expectations, “to help kids dream” about winning so that they someday might. Coaches, he says, need to motivate for athletes to train more. They also need to celebrate small victories, like rewarding the swimmer who can do the most chin-ups or finishes races the hardest. For his part, Lafontaine has found money for more than a hundred Canadian kids to travel internationally each year to compete, and he helped design domestic meets that draw international athletes to Canada. Last fall, he and Speedo Canada made a deal; the company will pay swimmers $50,000, $10,000, or $5,000—in addition to money offered by the Canadian Olympic Committee—for winning gold, silver, or bronze at Beijing.

Lafontaine’s enthusiasm and openness have eliminated much of the ill will and bad habits left over from the old regime. Swimmers and coaches seem more at ease on the pool deck, though not too at ease; he has forbidden coaches from sitting down during big meets, and to keep them more engaged he’s actually taken away tables and chairs. “They used to stand around bitching,” a coach told me about his peers. “Now they’re coaching.”

It’s made a difference. In March 2007 at the world championships, sprint freestyler Brent Hayden won gold, the men’s relay squad won bronze, and six other individuals made the finals. Then, in July, Canadian swimmers pocketed seventeen medals at the Pan American Games. “A US coach said to me that it’s the first time in a number of years that [Canadians] were racing. Every kid on the block was pretty competitive,” says Paul Bergen, coach of Canada’s last world record holder, Allison Higson. (Bringing Bergen back to Canada’s program after years of working in the US and Mexico was another Lafontaine coup.) At the Olympic trials in April, the eight men who made the finals in the 100-metre freestyle all swam under fifty seconds—a first in Canadian history. Only a handful of other countries can boast such depth.

Still, Lafontaine believes he is fighting an entrenched culture, one he insists must change if Canadian swimmers are to reach their potential. At the Pan American Games, after a swimmer placed a close second in his heat, squeaking into the final, Lafontaine told him, “If you know you’re that close to a guy, you go in, and you beat him. Don’t just finish the race to make sure you get a spot. Stop being a Canadian, and just beat people.”

In the Toronto conference room, Lafontaine introduces Alex Baumann, hired in 2006 by the Canadian Olympic Committee to run Road to Excellence, a program designed to put more Summer athletes on international podiums. (The Winter counterpart, Own the Podium, was launched in 2004 to prepare for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.) Like Lafontaine, Baumann moved back to Canada after years of working in Australia, and believes there are lessons to be learned from its program. Canada, he says, needs talent scouting, more sports facilities in general, and four well-funded national sports centres (in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec) to serve elite athletes.

Such initiatives require money—lots of it—and Baumann wants the lion’s share to come from government. While the last federal budget committed $24 million over the next two years and $24 million a year after that, this is less than the coc had asked for, and too late to help our athletes in Beijing. Baumann’s Road to Excellence may recommend targeting funds to those sports with the best chances for medals at future Olympics—track, canoeing, rowing, diving, and swimming—which, he concedes, may be an unpopular idea. Just the same, and perhaps tipping his hand, Baumann tells the coaches, “Ultimately, we have to sell high performance as a benefit to society. We tend to make decisions based on consensus. We’re very politically correct in Canada, because we’re scared of offending people. And frankly we didn’t have that in Australia: they call a spade a bloody shovel.”

Referring to Ben Johnson’s confession of steroid use and loss of his Olympic gold after the Seoul Games, Baumann suggests that Canadians have had little appetite for athletes’ trying to win at all costs, because doing so could mean cheating. “Winning” became “a dirty word,” he says, and “it took a long time to recover.” The swimmers aren’t entirely there yet, although Lafontaine’s enthusiasm and a wealth of international medals have helped enormously. “We’re not expected to win medals, and we take that to heart,” Olympic swimmer Keith Beavers told me at a meet last November. “Now we’ve seen what Brent [Hayden] did, and we can see us doing it, too. We haven’t had a world champion in twenty years.” Lafontaine acknowledges that Canadian swimmers have few medal chances in Beijing. But, he says, “they’re a really happy bunch.” And happy is something. It’s a start.

Katharine Dunn