SWIMNEWS ONLINE: January 1997 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

Dave Johnson's job as Canadian Head Coach involves improving all aspects of high performance swimming in Canada. He handles the logistics of national carded athletes, and prepares the action plan for competing in all major international events.

Johnson, who has been on every Canadian Olympic Team since 1976 as a club coach with swimmers on the national team, says that he is now "at last able to act unencumbered by political bias within the club coaching structure, and to concentrate on putting Canada first in the equation."

Johnson says, " There were times when the country's leading coaches were in charge of a lot of the preparation plans for national team endeavours, and we were not really allowing them to do what they do best, which is to coach. My aim is to really let the coaches coach."

National Training Centres

Johnson said, "In these days of shrinking dollars, Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Association, and the Coaching Association of Canada, were asked to suggest how Canada could remain competitive in world sport, while still making best use of available dollars and resources.

"Most leading swimming countries have some form of national centre in place, and out of their position paper came the suggestion to encourage various sports to develop national sport centres.

"Soon after taking up my post, I was advised that facilities and funding were available to develop high-level training centres for swimming.

"I had to consider whether we should become involved in this concept, and whether such a program was really needed, and, if so, how would we be able to best take advantage of it?

"The first swimming centre was the three-year pilot project conducted at the University of Calgary. Its pilot status has ended, and it is now an ongoing program.

"Calgary was the site of the Winter Olympics, and the training centre program will continue to be built on the legacy of facilities and dollars left in various communities after hosting major games." (The Calgary Olympic Development Association was one of the funding partners of the Calgary Centre, in conjunction with Sport Canada, the COA, and the University of Calgary.)

Johnson added, "A second centre is presently operating on the West Coast at the Victoria Commonwealth Centre for Sport Development, housed in the Saanich Commonwealth Pool."

Dave Johnson, Canada's National High Performance Coach
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Cecil Colwin

High Performance Club Programs

"The way I saw it was, first of all, to reaffirm the necessity of the high performance club program. It had been on the books, but it had been de-tuned and there was no funding left in that program.

"But now Swimming Canada's strategic plan includes the funding of a high performance club program, and a national club grant of $176,000 a year is currently provided for this purpose."

Johnson says that, traditionally, top Canadian swimmmers have had three options: they could either stay at home, go to school in the Canadian university system, or attend school in the United States.

Johnson says that most successful Canadian university programs are linked to strong club swimming in their respective communities. "I felt that one of the needs inside the program is to provide an opportunity for athletes who are not necessarily linked to communities that have a high performance club."

Johnson said that he was referring mainly to youngsters from such parts of the country as Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Manitoba, and small town Canada.

"These youngsters should have an alternative to joining either a high performance club, or going to school in the United States. And so, I've tried to frame an opportunity around the national training centres.

"There is another aspect to consider: In most clubs the parents have the huge responsibility of fundraising, and they work on a user-pay basis. As a result it becomes extremely difficult to bring in outsiders who don't have parental funding support, and to ask top clubs to underwrite and support these outsiders in their efforts to reach high performance levels.

"Equally, on the coaching side, it's extremely expensive to allow their coaches the sufficient time and resources to coach an outsider, and also to pursue the high performance game. In reality, their job is to develop the club's own priorities, and to service the needs of their club's own swimmers."

Johnson said that, while some of the bigger clubs are helping swimmers from outside groups to come into high performance programs, "it's becoming more and more difficult, but this has existed for over 20 years, and it will continue to exist.

"Swimmers used to go to train with Don Talbot in Thunder Bay, and at Pointe Claire, and with Deryk Snelling in Vancouver. One of the realities is that we are not trying to de-tune the club model at all. In fact, we want to have the club programs, and the centre programs, working parallel to each other."

Plans for Future Centres

"Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Association are moving forward rapidly to implement national sport centres. The catch-all phrase is that they are `athlete centred, coach driven, and administratively supported.' This is a nice catch-all phrase. I have no idea where it came from, but I like it; I think it gives the right balance and right tone into the program.

"They are moving with a centre in Victoria and in Calgary. Winnipeg will have a centre at a slightly lower level, because the number of athletes in that particular metropolitan area is quite small, but they are going to have the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1999, and so this city will also benefit to some extent.

"In Montreal, they are considering basing the centre around the various facilities erected for the 1976 Olympic Games. One of the big voids is the Toronto area, because there's nothing currently in place there, other than a concept that one is needed in Toronto.

"We've designed a business plan for the operation of these centres that can be used around the country because it has enough flexibility to be used at both provincial and national levels."

Asked if the business plan was based on a broadened concept of running a typical big club, Johnson said "Yes, to a certain extent, but I would like to suggest to you that, loosely speaking, we've had national training centres for quite some time in Canada, and what I'm really trying to do is to just build the bridges between the term National Training Centres, and how they can work for swimming."

Financial Incentives for Coaches

Asked if there was a danger of good coaches leaving the sport for lack of motivation, especially in the case of a small team where a coach may continually lose good swimmers who show the potential to become great, Johnson said that "there is a question around that, and one of the things that I've done is to provide an ongoing financial incentive for coaches who send a swimmer on to the centre.

"If they send an athlete up to the centre, and this athlete performs in the international arena, under the coaches' incentive program, there is some fund sharing with that coach."

I suggested that surely a coach would want more than financial incentive, and that the coach would want the satisfaction of knowing that one is acknowledged as a competent professional, capable of producing high level athletes.

Johnson agreed. "That's correct. There are some situations, however, where in a given environmental situation, irrespective of the intent of the coach, the program simply is not able to cater to the needs of the athlete. For instance, the athlete needs to go out and compete internationally, and the coach is a one-man, or a two-man show, and rather than sending the athlete to an international event for experience, the athlete accompanies the rest of the team to the local age group meet, and the athlete gets demotivated on that basis."

PLACE Montreal, Quebec
RESIDENCE Ottawa, Ontario
OCCUPATION Coach of High Performance Services
Swimming Natation Canada
CLUB COACHING Edmonton Keyano SC 1978 - 93
Pointe Claire SC 1972 - 78
Olympics 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996
World Championships 1978, 1982, 1991, 1994
World Short Course 1993, 1995
Commonwealth Games 1978, 1982, 1990, 1994
Pan Pacific Championships 1995
CSCA Coach of the Year 1980, 1989
Member of Pan Am Games swim team 1971

Building Bridges to the Clubs

"And so that's the other side of the coin," said Johnson. "What we're trying to do is to build bridges back to the club that has provided good athletes. One of the things I didn't mention was that we put the coaches, who have sent athletes to the centres, into what is called `the national coaching pool.' "

I asked Johnson about the big clubs. Are they going to participate in the training centres? Will their swimmers go to the training centres, and stay there permanently? Will their leading swimmers be lost to the big clubs?

Johnson said "Some of the athletes will definitely want to make a change, for whatever reasons. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest, as we used to say all the time."

Asked if it was possible that there were some senior athletes who, having made it to the Olympics, would not want to return home to train with age groupers, and that they might prefer to be with their contemporaries, Johnson said "This is a huge element of this program. So what I think we need to be able to understand...I had a club coach come to me and say: `Well, the day that I have to send my kids to a national training centre is the day that I'm going to retire from coaching, and I'm going to close the doors.' And I said to him: `Look, you're already sending these kids to the United States, what's the difference?' "

I mentioned that, in some totalitarian countries, like the former East Germany, and the former Soviet Union, the coaches were told "You will coach where you are told to coach. You've got to be prepared to coach at any level." In a free enterprise system, you can't say this to coaches. However, America is an example of a country where coaches and swimmers are reconciled to the fact, or accept the fact that, during their careers, swimmers will be coached by at least three or four different people.

Johnson said "I think that there is a reality side of the equation, and it is that not every single little club in our country can necessarily service all the needs of international-class swimmers."

Resource Centres

"One element that must not be forgotten is that much of the information developed at the University of Calgary by Dr Dave Smith and his team, has spread into the field in the last few years, and been used as a template for training program designs and models. The information has been disseminated to the betterment of swimming in this country.

"Training centres should also be regarded as an available resource, which a swimmer can attend like Marianne Limpert did. She swam in the centre, derived huge advantage, went on a very steep learning curve, and then decided to return to her home program for final preparation for the Games. There was a sharing between a number of parties in helping her achieve her success."

International Reciprocity

I asked what the policy would be regarding inviting foreign athletes to train at the centres over long periods of time. For example, Alexander Popov, a great athlete, and his coach, Gennadi Touretski, a great coach, train at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. This situation is said to have caused considerable controversy. While many assert that their presence and influence has resulted in an improvement in Australian sprint swimming, the opinions expressed by opponents of the scheme, fairly or unfairly, question why Australian taxpayers should pay for foreigners to use the facility on a permanent basis.

According to Johnson, "We actually have a standard policy in place. It's funny; the story came out of Toronto last year that this was sort of like a raping of the system or something, but the principle is that, if the athlete is a finalist at the world level, has a positive training influence, and can contribute to the training program, we will invite the athlete to train for a period of time."

I asked "In other words, reciprocity? If you allow Australians to train at a Canadian centre, then, reciprocally, they would accommodate our people at their venue, and so on...and there would be reciprocity between centres around the world?"

Johnson said "I think it heightens the learning effect tremendously, right? I'm not sure whether you are familiar with this but, in Australia, at the A.I.S., they have the visiting athlete scholarship program. I think that this is the type of thing that we need to set up.

"In one particular case," said Johnson, " a young lady from Denmark, Britte Westegaard, paid all her own expenses. We didn't give her anything. We made her pay $150 a month. She paid all her own training expenses, travel expenses, sports science expenses, etc.

"The important thing is that if you want to go and train in Colorado Springs, or at the Australian Institute of Sport, or whatever, you have to be able to offer reciprocal invitations.

"We have a policy in place around the National Training Centre, and when Deryk Snelling and I had these discussions, a year ago, around bringing some international athletes to the National Training Centre in Calgary, the criterion was based on such questions as: `Is this swimmer ranked in the top eight in the world in his or her event? Can they contribute in a positive way to the national training group?

"And, if they do come to this centre, it will be on a fee-per-service basis, which is exactly what we did with Britta Westegaard. We looked at the needs of the group in the water, and we tried to augment them, as much as possible, with the talents of various top athletes who ask to come to the centre.

"We also invited a Canadian athlete to the centre for a week, by the way, to do some training. We also have an `outreach program' for high school age swimmers, and their coaches, who would like to come, but, last year we didn't operate this plan, because Deryk was away a lot preparing for the Olympics; but these are all parts of the program.

"Of course, it's also a very important point that, if we want to be able to access the Australian Institute of Sport, or some other centre...in China, if they clean up their act, and get their act together, or the United States,etc.,...this reciprocity type of agreement is something that we must be prepared to consider, and that actually can benefit you in kind. It's clear that elevating the training environment can have big benefits."

Integration with Local Communities

"Just before I lose the thought: one of the other aspects of the centres is that in the early stages of the Calgary model, the idea was to focus solely on the high performing athletes. But there needs to be a vertical integration into the local swimming community.

"One of the realities of what's happening now is that we're in negotiations with U.B.C. for a centre at the University of British Columbia. We've been negotiating, on and off, with Victoria. And we're in negotiations with Montreal.

"If we can get these various areas set up, it will be advantageous to the sport of swimming, and in the end, what will happen is that even the club coaches, who say they won't be a part of this plan, will have to raise their sights in order to stay competitive.

"The final point is that, when the centre program evolves, there will be situations where we may have two, maybe three or even four coaches in a particular centre, going back in some ways, to the Pointe Claire club's program that we used in the early 70s, where we had three coaches, each with a separate group, and I believe that had a lot of merit."


Towards an Integrated Model

"The direction that I've been given by Harold Cliff and the executive of Swimming Canada is: `Put something in place that will work.' So, understanding the disparate nature of Canada, my role to begin with was to establish something in Calgary that would take care of the short-term needs of the last two years.

"Now we're looking at a more integrated model, and we are going to move down that road to see where we end up, as we move towards the 21st Century."

Dave Johnson made a strong, positive, and even impressive pitch in favour of the centres. But, by its very nature, and for various reasons, the centre program seems destined to be a controversial issue until it produces the results necessary to vindicate its existence.

There will be those who will remain unconvinced, or perhaps not entirely convinced, and will wait to see what happens. Others will hold to the view that, if you're living in the past, you are not with the present, let alone in the future; so "Let's try something new."

People Make Plans Work

One thing is certain: for such a venture to succeed, a human dynamic must exist within such a system. People make plans work, and if the people entrusted to the various tasks are unable or unwilling to successfully perform them, then all the plans in the world are worthless, no matter how much inspiration and good intent exists at the outset.

Johnson said "I am well aware that there some risks in putting these models into place, but equally aware that the status quo is not satisfactory to me at this stage of the game.

"One of the things that we've tried to do is learn from everybody who has had these types of models in place. One of the realities that is quite a unique feature of the broad mosaic of Canadian sport, and more specifically to swimming, is that we're really trying to build partnerships that will provide cross-pollination to the community itself.

"The point really isn't to be able to appeal to bring everybody into a central location. That's the last thing we want to do. We do not want to upset profit centres. In fact, our program is built around looking at individual circumstances and situations, and trying to make them more profitable.

"What we are trying to do is to provide the opportunities for athletes in this country to look at various alternatives, and consider that coming to a national training centre is a way that they can continue their international swimming career path.

"Even in the short period of time that we have had this national centre program in place is that someone like Marianne Limpert, for instance, who came to the national centre, and learned a lot, got a lot of information about herself, and how to prepare, and then made a personal decision to move back to her club program, turned into a very profitable situation for the athlete.

"The primary thing that we are trying to focus on is `What is in the athlete's best interests?' And whatever we provide out there has got to consider that as a priority, and also consider the performance side of the equation as a priority.

"I think that, when we do this, we have to get away from the `ownership' issue which was part of the discussion around the motivational elements for the coach, and so forth, and get down to the real issue, which is `Are we, as a nation, performing to our fullest potential?' "

Strategic Plan

"The strategic plan of Swimming Canada calls for the development of a strategy that is going to support in parallel the club system, and the opportunity to establish national training centre groups."

Asked whether he thought the new centre training scheme would produce the expected results, Johnson said: "Well, I think that the experience with centres in Australia, and also in America, at Colorado Springs, shows they have actually had very good success.

"I mean I don't have the stats right in front of me, but the general tone has been that they have provided some leadership to the country's swimming program. There certainly has been a benchmark to aim for, and, in respect to Canada, I think it has actually elevated the standard that club programs and coaches operate at, trying to keep up with the performance levels of the National Sport Centre.

"We know, for instance, that in a 24-month window, the final outcome, which was Myden's podium performances and a couple of national records out of Chris Renaud, were commendable, but the overall aspect of that entire program was not at the level that we wanted it to be at. But, if I have to make a decision about `Do we go forward, or not go forward?' I think this is the dilemma that confronts Australia, America, and so forth.

"You need these kinds of elements in your program to establish benchmarks for people to lift themselves to, and, furthermore, you need the opportunities for kids to come to the centres and take advantage of the types of programming and sport science opportunities, etc., that exist.

Because, in the end, the sport is forever evolving, and you need to be in a situation where you come to the clear recognition that the clubs cannot provide the types of services that the high performance athlete needs, even if you just take the sports science element that a centre can provide. And you need that kind of opportunity out there if you're really going to play in this game."

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