July 23, 2020
“Those in our club, understand that swimming does more than help them get from one end of the pool to the other. It’s about self-improvement, staying focussed on the journey and getting better than yesterday and last year.” - Alan Swanston
By David Grossman
While he may not view it that way, Alan Swanston is a builder and a magician.
Both, in his case, have to do with the sport of swimming.
Now, retiring after more than 40 years as a coach, Swanston can, at the very least, nod, smile and fully appreciate what a remarkable job he has accomplished as the architect and producer of what was an unknown swim club. Now, it’s a Canadian treasure.
Swanston is the mastermind in the success of the Newmarket Stingrays, a club that grew from about 35 swimmers to more than 200 ranging from ages five to 18, novice to Olympian. While it is true that Newmarket, the northern part of the Greater Toronto Region, has surged in population, Swanston has been the magnet for a club he has coached for 34 years.
A former competitive, and extremely successful, swimmer in his youthful years, Swanston has always thrived on challenges. Even back to his younger years, his club coach in 1975 coaxed him in to doing something different. While he actually thought about quitting the sport, instead with spark and stimulation, Swanston fostered the moment.
That, many believe, may have been the start of amazing things to come.
From Rockwood, a community east of Guelph, Swanston lived and spent his early years growing up on a farm. Swanston was fascinated with machinery, fixing things and wanting to build on his ideas. He remembers a grade five teacher suggesting that he would be a good teacher – but, at the time, that was far from his mind.
He took swim lessons, went to Centennial High School, and while in grade 10, was spotted as a kid with potential by a coach with the Guelph Marlins Swim Club.
Swanston recalls getting “the swim bug” not just after his experiences in a river, but it was moreso in his family backyard pool. Then, at age 12, it was hard to forget losing in races to kids a few years younger. It wasn’t until his 17th birthday, that Swanston won something he called “big”. It was a medal, his first, in the 50 freestyle at the Ontario championship.
“That was something special, still have it, too,” he said. “I had a great deal of fun swimming, meeting people and enjoy the competition.”
Swanston continued his studies and earned a degree in economics at the University of Waterloo. It was there when he was on several teams that won Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union (CIAU) championships. In fact, Swanston still owns the university record of the 400-freestyle set in 1981.
As a focussed student at Waterloo, and on the National swim team, Swanston somehow found the extra energy and time to help coach at the Region of Waterloo Swim Club.
“Didn’t get much sleep back then, but I remember developing this passion to coach,” said Swanston. “I wanted to be innovative and build a swim club. I knew that anything one does has its ups and downs, but great things outweigh the bad. It has been quite an adventure and I think people are recognizing that the (Newmarket Stingrays) is a great swim club.”
Influential, with strengths in leadership, knowledge of the sport, Swanston has been strong on technique and insistent on the dynamics of swimmers learning all strokes.
When he moved to Newmarket, the community had the Quaker Pool. Now, long gone, the Stingrays benefit from three pools, and even have opportunities to benefit from the Pan Am pool in Markham.
Inducted into the University of Waterloo and Newmarket Sports Hall of Fame, Swanston has a multitude of stories about his days of coaching. Still, he insists “the real coach is inside the swimmer”.
“We have a recipe for success here, there is no improvement through avoiding things,” said Swanston, whose wife, Avril, does the administrative work for the club and their two sons, Matthew and Jeffrey, were also National swim team members. “Those in our club, understand that swimming does more than help them get from one end of the pool to the other. It’s about self-improvement, staying focussed on the journey and getting better than yesterday and last year.”
There was quite a sting when he announced his intention to retire.
“I’m quite happy with what we built and there’s more to come,” he said. “But, it’s time to retire. I’ve had lung issues, the heat in the pools, the chlorine, long days and, to be honest, I’m tired. Forty-five years, overall as a swimmer and coach, it’s time for a break, my first vacation. Emotionally, it’s hard to leave – but I might be back some day to help part time.”
And a few closing words from a coach who has made a huge impact on many swimmers, officials and volunteers.
“You have to have a certain amount of talent,” Swanston said. “A certain amount of will. You have to manage your time well to get your homework done. The best, for years, get to the highest level.”
David Grossman is a veteran award-winning Journalist, Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.