Meet U of T's Olympic swim coaches
Bryon Macdonald (head coach) and Linda Kiefer (assistant coach) are crucial members of U of T’s Varsity Blues swim team. Macdonald is in his 35th season with the team and Kiefer is in her 23rd. Their program has produced outstanding athletes and this year - as with previous Olympics - some of those athletes are competing at the Games.
Writer Gavin Au-Yeung caught up with the coaches before the Games, to discuss their own swimming experiences, U of T’s renowned swimming program, and what it’s like to coach Canada’s star athletes.
How did you get involved with swimming?
BM: I was diagnosed with Perthes (bone disease at the hip) at the age of five and put in a cast for 18 months. After that, the doctor said swimming would be a good way to regain movement in the joint. I was a natural and luckily for me, my parents found programs with great coaches. At university, I swam internationally for Canada and made the Olympic team in 1972.
LK: I have been swimming all my life, and my family was always around the water - from a pool in the backyard, to a cottage, to taking swimming lessons and then swimming on a local (Newmarket) swim team. I loved the water….Once I came to U of T as a student athlete I swam for the Varsity Blues, and the rest is history.
How did you end up coaching at U of T?
BM: After my own competitive swim career, I didn’t want to leave the sport. I responded to a job opening at York University where I had instant success. Two years later I was offered the position here at U of T (1978).
LK: I coached with a club team in Toronto after my degrees here. I had contact with Byron, and when the University decided to hire a new coach to assist him, he suggested that I apply.
What separates U of T’s swimming program from other Canadian Universities?
LK: The coaches! (Laughs) Seriously, we have two full-time coaches. Byron and I have worked together for over 22 years, and we work well together. We have a lot of support from the University as well…from our Athletic Director, to the Sports Medicine team, Sports Info team, and our sports scientists. We also have a lot of support from Swim Ontario and Swim Canada, and the Canadian Sports centre.
BM: The 50-metre pool played a big part in my decision to coach at the U of T. If it wasn’t built, I may have stayed at York. It took a lot of vision by the athletic department to build the pool because the varsity team only competes in the 25-metre distance. However, you need a 50-metre pool to compete at the top level. Training in better facilities makes you a much better athlete.
How does the U of T Swimming program prepare swimmers?
BM: We work with two groups of people:
The main component is the varsity team; we have 40 swimmers (20 men and 20 women) which is our core training group. People on the team have varying goals, but we take all the swimmers and move them along as a unit.
The second component involves post-grads who stay in the program after their university/varsity experience. They want to make it to the international/Olympic level and we train him harder than Varsity athletes because they aren’t hindered by academics.
Can you tell us about the training regimes for our U of T Olympians this year?
BM: I work with Colin [Russell] personally, and he’ll train about nine times a week – I’d say top athletes have between 8-11 workouts a week. Most of the workouts are swimming, but one or two are in the weight room. Especially for Colin who’s in a power event (100-meter freestyle).
LK: I coach Zsofi [Balazs] who will swim the 10K, yes 10 kilometre race…so it is COMPLETELY different prep (than Colin’s). She performs 10 water workouts a week, two dryland/weight workouts, and three 30-minute running workouts. In her water workouts she’ll swim anywhere from 7K to 10K. She is a distance swimmer.
How will you be involved at the Games this year?
LK: I have been to the Atlanta and Athens (as a personal coach, not on staff), so I’ve coached Olympians before. But this will be the first time I will have accreditation. One of our varsity athletes, Luke Hall, is going to the Olympics again for Swaziland, and he gets to bring a coach. I was asked in March, so I agreed. And then Zsofi qualified June, and I’ll get to coach Zsofi in her final prep for the 10K race. Luke will swim on August 2nd and Zsofi races Aug 9th.
BM: I’ve been heavily involved with the Games for about 40 years (including competing). Also, our program has placed a lot of swimmers on Olympic teams. During the last seven Games I’ve been working for CBC as a commentator calling the swim events. This year, CTV bought the production rights, and so I’ll finally get to go to the Games as an audience member.
How do you measure the success of swimmers?
LK: My greatest satisfaction is not the ultimate performance, but how they get there, and how they end up. I enjoy the psychological part of coaching and the guidance as I watch these athletes develop from immature teenagers to adults. We have been coaching Zsofi since she was 15, newly arrived from Hungary, not speaking any English. And she is now 22…so it has been a long road. When she made the Olympic team it was her dream come true. It was quite fulfilling to watch her reaction knowing everything she has gone through.
BM: Swimming has a wonderful culture; athletes know if they don’t work they don’t win. And it’s not just winning, it’s “personally winning” – you could finish 6th place but have your personal best time, and that’ll be a win. Personal wins are subjective in team sports. You could have a subpar game but still win because of the team. In swimming you control your destiny. If you work hard, you will improve. It’s something the swimmers learn when they’re young and it follows them throughout their career.