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Nick Thierry, Friend & Mentor, Passes Away

Oct 2, 2012

No sadder note has SwimNews ever sounded. Nick Thierry, the founder and publisher of SwimNews, passed away today in a Toronto Hospital. His funeral will be held in the city on Thursday, October 4 (details can be found at the foot of the page).

The thoughts and prayers of all who knew Nick and appreciated him for the man he was and for his unique and outstanding contribution to world swimming, are with him, his family and those closest to him.

Nick Thierry kept the record of the sport alive for four decades as the keeper of the world rankings and bastion of swimming statistics. His guardianship has been treasured by swimmers, coaches, sports scientists, journalists, sports institutions and swimming federations since he first started to register and chronicle all meets that produced performances worthy of a place in the top 300 across all events for men and women in each passing year for more than 30 years. 

Born in Hungary on December 2, 1938, Nick spent the first eight years of his life in Budapest. In 1948 his family moved to Havana, Cuba, where his father had been transferred while for Wagon-Lits, the international sleeping car company.  Nick swam competitively for three years while in Havana and another three years in Toronto, Canada, while studying at the University of Toronto. He obtained a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1964 and for the next four years worked in an architect's office. That works was partly responsible for Nick's overriding philosophy in life: keep it simple.

Beyond the subject he studied for, Nick had a life-long affair with swimming. In 1961, at the University of Toronto, he served as assistant swimming coach and for the next 21 years, he coached at Toronto and surrounding teams, placing swimmers on the Canadian Olympic teams of 1964, 1968 and 1972.  He was Canadian head coach of two international tours as well as for the 1970 Commonwealth Games team which competed in Edinburgh, Scotland.  

Among his charges was Angela Coughlan, Commonwealth 100m freestyle champion at those 1970 Games. Two years earlier, she took bronze on the 4x100m freestyle relay at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Nick coached 1977 Canadian 100m breaststroke National Champion Judy Garay, daughter of Valerie Gyenge, the Hungarian 1952 Olympic 400m freestyle champion.

In the late 1960s, Nick befriended fellow countryman and Hall of Fame coach Stefan Hunyadfi (when Hunyadfi coached in Ft. Wayne, Indiana) and learned a great deal from him, especially on the intracacies of breaststroke. Hunyadfi coached 1968 Olympic breaststroke champion Sharon Wichman (USA). 

Nick's biggest influence as a coach was from Hall of Famer Howard Firby (CAN).  Even though they coached rival teams, they traveled together to many competitions including driving to Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics. Hall of Fame coach Peter Daland (USA) had an impact on Nick, particularly in Peter's research on world rankings from the 1920s and 1930s. 

From 1961 to 1985, Nick, a native English speaker who was fluent in Hungarian, French and Spanish, served in administrative capacities on Swim Ontario's Board of Directors, the Canadian Swimming Coaches Association (chairman, secretary) and the Swim Canada National Board of Directors.

It was while coaching that Nick first saw the need to keep swimming statistics.  "It was a very effective training tool for my swimmers," her said when inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 2005.  "The need to know what was going on worldwide was growing in the sport."  

He organised the formation of Swim Canada, Canada's monthly magazine publication. That later became SwimNews, the magazine taking on an online presence from the mid-1990s in partnership with Marco Chiesa, photographer, business associate and friend. Marco was the last to hold Nick's hand before he passed away this morning.

If the publication attracted thousands of subscribers from around the world, the online site grew from pioneering status to a portal that attracted several million hits during the eights days of swimming at the Olympic Games in London alone this year. Since 1974, the magazine has carried domestic Canadian and international news, profiles of athletes and coaches and expert articles on the technical aspects and innovations in the sport. 

Nick was publisher, editor, writer and, above all in later years, guardian to a team of writers in whom he saw promise and encouraged to use their skills in the interests of keeping a true record of the sport of swimming. If his encouragement and support in the role of "second father" set sail many a fine media career, then his generosity was second to none: the calls (and sometimes demands) for help with rankings, statistics, biographies and more often came thick and fast - and "Sure, I'll send it straight through" was the standard reply. 

Among masterpieces he penned was the January 1988 article "Never a Wasted Stroke," announcing world record holder and Olympic champion Alex Baumann's retirement. He also penned an excellent overview and explanation in a feature entitled "Victor Davis on Breaststroke"; it was published in 1989, just four months before Victor's tragic death.  

It was Nick's quest to locate and print every available meet and race time that lead to the formation of the International Swimming Statisticians Association (ISSA) in 1986 at the FINA World Championships held in Madrid, Spain.  Beginning in 1992, statistics in SwimNews were supplemented by printing monthly FINA world rankings and yearly short and long course FINA annuals.  Originally, record keeping was done manually with Nick personally hand typing each line of statistics.  With the introduction of the fax machine, records and dates could instantly be transmitted and received for publication.  Then with the PC and computer software programs, data became instantly transmitted and printable on demand.  

In the past two years, Nick invested in the development of a database that contains 40 years of swimming rankings and statistics. That immense work is part of the legacy left by Nick Thierry. In the past year, FINA informed him that the federation no longer wished to publish the rankings annuals. If that news was met with concern by journalists who rely on accurate rankings that are updated in real time to report on the sport at live events, then the loss of the start lists - complete with biographical details of swimmers, their coaches, rankings, results and record progressions - that Nick often compiled for major meets until recent years has dealt a serious blow to coverage of the sport, the quality of information distributed in the past Olympic cycle at its weakest in more than 20 years.

The swimming community owes Nick a huge debt of gratitude. His Hall of Fame citation included the following: "Sorting through the seemingly endless volumes of numbers and times, Nick makes order out of chaos and assures every swimmer that his or her time will be accurately placed in the pecking order of performances.  Nick's no-nonsense approach to his work, his coolness under pressure and his unique style and perseverance, in a very unassuming way, have contributed to his success as publisher/editor of SwimNews and as swimming's top record keeper.  Nick was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2001 as Honor Contributor for his contribution to the sport.

"When swimmers swim head to head in elite international competition, their foremost goal is to beat the opposition. Once the race is over and they glance up to the scoreboard to see their finish place, their next thought is, "My time, did I do a personal best? Was it a record?" This is where Nick Thierry takes over.  Sorting through the seemingly endless volumes of numbers and times, Nick makes order out of chaos and assures every swimmer that his or her time will be accurately placed in the pecking order of performances. Nick's no-nonsense approach to his work, his coolness under pressure and his quest for success are what every coach strives to instill in their own athletes. As a former coach himself, Nick's unique style and perseverance, in a very unassuming way, have contributed to his success as swimming's top record keeper and publisher/editor of swimming's highly recognized publication, SwimNews."

Beginning back in 1958 as a writer for Bob Kiphuth's newly formed Swimming World magazine and then for Al Schoenfield when Al became editor and publisher of Swimming World, Nick saw the need for good communication. He has never wavered in that mission and beyond receiving the Al Shoenfield Media Aaward from ISHOF, he has been honoured by Canadian authorities, the American Swimming Coaches Association and the equivalent world body WSCA.

A champion of reports and reporters who have often been a thorn in the side of authorities ranging from the criminal to those who simply called it wrong and were forced under the weight of pressure from coaches, media, swimmers and others to change course the wrong side of the storm, Nick was a fan of quality not quantity and deplored expansion for the sake of expansion when it came to the debate over calendar chaos in the sport.

When he fell ill he had been doing what he did almost every day: updating the world rankings with results from around the world and preparing the next edition of the magazine.

Truth and keeping an accurate record, the history book of swimming set straight, was paramount for Nick. He loved simplicity, common sense, a no-nonsense approach to all things. He took that approach to life well beyond the pool, once leading a campaign to get rid of what was described by media as the "the craziest street sign in Canada", right on the street corner where Nick lived.

Workers had affixed not one sign but four, each with multiple instructions, among them parking/no parking rules mind-melting in their complexity. The signs specify four time periods, most of them starting or ending on the quarter hour, during which drivers could not park, and three time periods when they may - though only for 15 minutes - within a permitted window that varies from 45 minutes in the morning to two hours at lunchtime and half an hour in the afternoon.

"When I looked at it, I said, 'Wow, this is complete gibberish'," said Nick. "It's so confusing, it's ludicrous." He had it worked out in no time, of course: "Basically you're not allowed to park there during the week." In a deep kind of Charles de Gaulle voice, he told the local paper: "It's the old saying: 'Decisions will be made, unencumbered by thought.' I worry about the tendency of humans to make things ever more complicated rather than simpler."

Nick loved the classics, in literature and music, his collection of classical composers fit to challenge the volume of his swim rankings. A fine chef, he loved to entertain friends at his home in Toronto and was a mine of knowledge in the kitchen and the concert hall as well as the pool. An accomplished painter, his water colours lived proudly alongside his collection of fine art.

If his work on rankings, records, results and biographies will be sorely missed, it is for a man of many more talents who those closest to him will mourn.

Nick Thierry, we miss you already - and always will. No words can suitably express what you have done for the sport of swimming. Your contribution has been immense. Today is the saddest day in the history of SwimNews. 

With love and affection from all those who worked with you and will long appreciate the unique role you have played in our lives.

A visitation will be held on Wednesday, October 3 at Rosar-Morrison Funeral Home, Toronto, from 5-9pm. The funeral home is located on Sherbourne just south of Wellesley. 

For those wishing to send messages of condolence or flowers: 

  • Rosar-Morrison Funeral Home & Chapel 
  • 467 Sherbourne Street Toronto 
  • www.rosar-morrison.com 

A funeral mass will be held on Thursday, October 4, at 10am at St. Paul's Basilica, 83 Power St., one block east of Parliament and Queen St. in downtown Toronto. A reception will be held in the church hall immediately following the mass. 

The team at SwimNews

Service will be temporarily suspended during a period of mourning for Nick and in his honour.