It’s an early Sunday morning in the frigid Oakville, Ontario winter. A day off for most in the swim world, but for Sean Baker, Head Coach of the Oakville Aquatic Club (OAK), and his senior group, it’s the start of their weekly training sessions.
Yes, swim training on Sunday. The training schedule is partly inherited and partly by design, and wholly following Coach Baker’s mantra of adaptation. “I may not have chosen it, but it works,” explains Baker. Just like Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, Baker has adapted his approaches to coaching (and everything that goes along with it) to become a big player on the Canadian swim scene, culminating with OAK winning longcourse Senior Nationals this past summer in Montreal.
Winning Canadian Nationals
What does it take to win Senior Nationals? Try 48 second swims, 10 Top 3 finishes and individual point contributions from 17 of the 22 team members. With heavy hitters Evan White and Annie Harrison leading the way on the podium, OAK also relied on podium contributions from Jacqueline Keire, Gamal Assad, and Bryce Kwecien-Delaney.
The usual even-toned Baker gets excited talking about his latest triumph, “I can’t think of the last time a club with no university affiliation won Senior Nationals.”
And that’s probably because Baker had just started volunteer coaching in Kenora, Ontario the last time it occurred. From Kenora, Baker was a swimmer/coach with the University of Manitoba Bisons in Winnipeg, and by 1991, he was assistant coach with the power house age group program in Regina, Saskatchewan (ROD) under Murray Drudge.
In those formative years, Baker had the opportunity to do a one-week mentorship with Paul Bergen in Napa Valley. When asked what he learnt, “everything to do with setting up a club and a program for success. I still keep in contact with him.”
It was a huge turning point for Baker’s development as a coach and he soon landed his first Head Coaching job with the Nanaimo Riptides on Vancouver Island.
Within 3 years, Baker had taken the Nanaimo Riptides, a club of 100 swimmers, to a Top 10 finish at Nationals and a Top 3 finish at provincials. Like some underdog Rocky story the odds were against him. “We had our top group swimming out of 2 lanes,” explains Baker, “while synchronized swimming and public lessons were going on beside us.”
Adapting to the circumstances given to him, Baker challenged the group and built a program that saw breaststroker Lauren Van Oosten win Bronze at Pan Pacs in ’97, sent Chris Sawbridge to the ’98 Commonwealth Games, and Jason Hunter to multiple Canadian teams including Worlds, Pan Ams and Pan Pacs. “It was a special year,” continues Baker, “just the right mix of talent, a group that welcomed challenge, and a desire to win.”
From Nanaimo, Baker signed on with the Hamilton Aquatic Club and re-built a program still trying to find their identity in the post Joanne Malar era. Filled with ideas and recent success in Nanaimo he says the greatest lesson he learnt from those early days is to “balance enthusiasm with the volunteer board members.”
OAK: The 500+ Swimmer Megalith
Now in his fifth season with OAK, Baker feels he’s found the right fit. Under Baker, the club has grown into a megalith organization boasting over 550 swimmers in 9 different pools in 3 different cities within the Golden Horseshoe Region which includes the cities of Oakville, Hamilton and Mississauga.
The logistics of running such a huge organization has it’s scheduling headaches, and after trying to run a dry land program in a public gym (and fighting after work commuters for equipment ) the club invested in an industrial warehouse which now serves as their dry land facility, “The size of our club has prompted change”, says Baker. Affectionately coined “The Bunker” by the swimmers, the warehouse is a short 5 minute drive to the Oakville pool and allows the top groups unrestricted access to all the necessary dry land equipment. It’s one less scheduling piece of the puzzle.
Two Female Olympians Coach the Development Program
What can a new swimmer expect when they join OAK? “They might notice we swim a little less, but expect a lot more quality wise,” Baker explains. With 5 full time assistant coaches running the development program (including former Olympians Laura Nicholls '96, '00 and Melanie McKay '76) quality is instilled at a young age and is the focus throughout the program. And when the swimmers attend the top group Baker doesn’t relent, “there is a time and place for old fashioned work but quality is more relevant. Purposeful practice is what makes training more profitable.”
When asked who we should be looking out for in the next two years from Oakville, Baker hesitates to give names, “anything can happen in the next two years.”
And with Rio 2016 just over two years away we’ll have to wait and see who rises to Baker’s challenge.
Baker’s Dozen: Top Tips for Coaches, Swimmers, and Parents
1. Adapt to new circumstances.
2. Win at all BENEFIT. Winning is great; winning at all costs is bad. Too often we shy away from the word WIN.
3. “Burnout” more often comes from overbearing parents and coaches than it does from practice. I have never seen a swimmer quit while improving.
4. In workout design: balance the “Quantity and Quality” of practice.
5. As a coach, “Trust your Gut” with training and go off script if necessary.
6. Motivate through Challenge. If we want our kids to break records, they need to learn how to do very difficult things early on.
7. Create new challenges. Once the team meets a challenge create a new one. (Latest OAK goal is to have 9 females sub 9:00 for 800 free.)
8. Instill PRIDE in staying with your home grown club. You don’t have to be in Centers to be great. Lauren (Van Oosten) swam her fastest 100breast ever (1:08.66) while training in a crowded 25m pool with no bells and whistles.
9. Keep in communication with the coach of the university program that your swimmers are attending.
10.We all learn from those who came before us. Meld that information into your own style and find what works for you. No coach out there has all the right answers or has the “secret”.
11. Learn lessons from mistakes made in the past or you are doomed to repeat them.
12. The BEST swim parents let their swimmers take the reigns, and support the coach even if their child disagrees.
13. Coaches need time off to recharge. Just like swimmers, coaches need time to taper and to re-energize. It’s the best thing for the swimmers and the coach.