Johnson: Swimmers trying to stay afloat after national governing body yanks funding from local facility
National Swim Centre at University of Calgary will be no more at end of March, but locals are digging in, not going anywhere
University of Calgary Dinos swimmer Russell Wood, seen swimming the butterfly during the Canada West swimming championships in January, is among the athletes affected by Swim Canada’s decision to shutter the high performance centre in Calgary.
Photograph by: Colleen De Neve Colleen De Neve, Calgary Herald
Staying afloat is something swimmers are good at.
“We’ve got a whole group of kids that I believe, if they want to do it, can go top eight in the world,” University of Calgary Dinos coach Mike Blondal is saying. “Cascade’s got some great simmers. We’ve got six kids who could be on this next (Rio) Olympic team. There’s so much going on in swimming right now in Calgary. It’s such an opportunity. And they’re walking away. Amazing.
“So how do we keep the good kids here. The Centres are going to recruit the best talent out of this city like you wouldn’t believe, they’re going to suck it out of here as fast as possible.
“I’m not willing to let that happen.”
As of the end of March, the National Swim Centre at the university’s aquatic centre is no more, shorn of funding, part of a downsizing that also includes the Centre in Montreal. The situation parallels that of the National Track and Field Centre here, de-funded last Dec. 31st, leaving coach Les Gramantik and his athletes at loose ends and in need of creative financial options.
“Swim Canada is feeling pressure to go from five centres to three,” explains Blondal. “They’re Own the Podium-funded. They have to have one in Toronto, there’s no option because of all the redevelopment. They were told that. Then there are two in B.C., in Victoria and in Vancouver. What, 32 kilometres apart? Now explain that to me.
“They call that ‘strategic’ not ‘political’, by the way.
“The reason, apparently, is ‘performance.’ Well, Mike Brown got a fourth two Olympics ago and Amanda Reason got a fourth at the last Olympics and we’re told our performance isn’t good enough. And I’m like ‘Are you serious?’ Sure we’d all like a medal, but fourth isn’t shabby.
“Whatever . . . our Centre’s gone and quite frankly it might be an opportunity to do something more nimble, more productive, but it’s going to take resources.”
So Mike Blondal’s back knocking on well-polished doors.
This dilemma isn’t new. Eight years ago, the local swim community faced an identical crisis. In a scale-back, the Centre was jettisoned then, too. So Blondal went downtown, raised the money to open the Calgary Swim Academy, kept National Centre coach Jan Bidrman on board and set up the Calgary Foundation for Swimming Excel lence that runs the annual Making Waves dinner.
The Centre here was subsequently revived. And now readies for a second closure.
“I guess we’re just going to have bring the funding back to the level it was in 2006,” reckons Blondal. “My plan is to have a Centre running here, fully. Jan will be part of it. I don’t think I could pull that one off again. That was a feat of magic. Ideally there’s enough people who’ll help us put this thing together to the level we’re at. We had guys downtown who used to be good swimmers who had the means to help out a fair bit.
“I don’t know if they had much of a choice this time, but it’s still depressing. From 2006, after we saved it, put it back together, then to come back six or seven years later and pull the rug out from underneath us again . . . And this time we lost the support of Swim Alberta and the National Sports Centre, as well.”
For the athletes, those most affected by the loss of funding — roughly $300,000 in financial backing and services — the news of Swim Canada’s pullout was naturally deflating.
“Of course my first reaction was disappointment,” says 19-year-old Calgary-born backstroker Russell Wood, one of the nation’s rising stars. “I’ve personally had a lot of success in the one year I’ve been here: I made the world team. Coming back for a second season to find out we don’t even have a Centre is kind of upsetting. This is where I chose to make my swimming career and then to have all this funding pulled out . . .
“I mean, Mike and Jan are being great about it. There will be another Centre of some sort. It’s a question of going out and finding the funding. I’m totally happy where I am, in Calgary. Being a swimmer, training nine and a half times a week, we don’t have time to work a job while going to school.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. We have a great group here. We have some standout swimmers here that I’d like to share Olympic memories with.”
For Bidrman, who’s been attached to the National Centre here — the first in Canada, by the way — from the beginning, 1997, the sense of deja vu is ever present.
“I really believe,” he says, “that there’ll be something here to allow the best swimmers to make choices and put the focus on their swimming. I really believe that. It happened in 2006. Mike Blondal is truly amazing in the way he made that happen.
“Alberta clubs have always been strong. Out of the Top 10 clubs in Canada, top programs, Alberta traditionally has three to four. At the Canada Games last summer, Alberta finished second behind Ontario, and you can’t compare the numbers, population-wise. So we’re doing really well nationally, meaning cutting funding from Alberta is going to impact Canadian swimming.
“But they’ve made this decision. In the past, people were always saying ‘Swimming Canada cannot make any decisions.’ Well, now they’ve made a decision.”
A contentious one, to be sure.
Already the wheels are in motion to establish another alternative to the nationally-funded Centre, a proposal drafted to maintain an international training group here. Nothing is yet finalized, no pen put to paper contractually, but discussions with the university’s kinesiology department were held last week on moving forward on their own.
“However,” promises Mike Blondal, “we’re gonna do it. We’re not going to change our goals in life for the kids that are here. Whatever it takes, we’re going after international swimming and we’re going after top eight performances in the world.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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