Tom Hainey is enjoying helping the next generation of swimmers reach their goals of competing on a bigger stage.
The former Paralympian, who won nine medals in a trio of Paralympics, moved to Winnipeg in 1997 to coach the Manta Swim Club but found he needed to step back from elite level coaching twenty years later in 2017 due to being burned out.
Returning home to Atikokan, he revived the Nakokita Swim Club, which last year fielded swimmers in a competition for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Hainey feels his experience in Manitoba helped him avoid a similar fate in his hometown.
“I now know how to avoid what might come as this program evolves. I’m not going to get to the point where I’m in an uncomfortable environment (with parents) because the education piece with them is happening on an ongoing basis,” Hainey said.
“Whether it’s a question from a parent that’s not okay to ask, or a parent coming over to talk to a swimmer on a pool deck. We’re a professionally run organization by a chartered professional coach, you have to trust me. If you can’t trust me then you won’t be welcomed on the pool deck and the parents get it.”
Hainey also mentions that great coaches, no matter which sport it is, have to exercise humility and admit to their own shortcomings.
He recalls the first time he stood up in front of parents and made his pitch to re-launch the club, which had been defunct for nearly two decades.
“This is going to be as hard as you think it’s going to be,” Hainey answered, when he was asked what advice he would give to his former self. “[My] modesty I think helped, probably surprised a few people to hear me say that, but it certainly got more parents involved to say ‘look what you’ve done so far last year being an unofficial club my kids really liked it, this is new, we would like to see this go on and how can we help.”
The parents have taken the lead with things like booking hotel rooms on the road, and looking after apparel needs, which means that Hainey can focus on coaching, and making the athletes faster.
Hainey also says he has learned when to rest an athlete or push them to do well.
The Nakokita Swim Club fielded a team for a competition in Thunder Bay last May, and trains five days a week, including weekends.
“Our swimmers are getting better with their confidence to race alongside a (Thunder Bay) Thunderbolt, or a Cyclone from Fort Frances or a swimmer from Dryden,” Hainey said. “Our program is progressing a lot quicker than others for a number of reasons. I am a more experienced coach than others in the region, and thanks to the parents, I can devote more time to training the athletes, and focus on the physiology side of the sport.”
Hainey does recognize the challenges and advantages of having a swimming program in the Canoe Capital of Canada.
“The culture of swimming died in this town. At one time (the sport) was a robust and swimming was a real thing. Kids were recognized in high school for their accomplishments because swimmers were going places,” reflected Hainey.
“The (Atikokan Progress) would report on a gold medal in Toronto or a strong showing at this event in Vancouver or kids making it to a national level. When (the first incarnation of the program) fell apart a year or so after I left, it just disappeared. The Atikokan High School does a great job with our athletes getting to them to the next level. It isn’t just participation based, they know what they are doing with these athletes, they are able to get these kids to that next level.”
A big advantage in Atikokan is pool space.
“We’re a small community, there isn’t a lot of programming that we can offer that we would be used, so other clubs are challenged to find where they can fit kids in. The other advantage with us is weekend training; our kids train five days a week, which is foreign to this community. Every day they come to the pool expecting hard work. They want to be in the centre lane and be beside the best Thunderbolt.”