There are people that leave an indelible mark on the trajectory of our lives. The lessons they impart may vary, but they all help shape who we become. This story is about one such man and how he made his athletes a family.
I lost my childhood coach and mentor suddenly and it gave me pause to reflect. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost 20 years, and yet hearing that he had passed felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. It led me on a journey of reflection and self discovery about the far reaching influence one person can have on those in their care.
As a teacher, I have a passion for helping those who do not feel that they belong find their personal greatness. In academics or physical activity: the goal is the same. Thinking about my coach, and the way he trained us as a whole person, made me realise that many of these attributes are a reflection of him.
Growing up, I was an angry and scared little girl. I didn’t fit into social circles and wasn’t naturally gifted enough in any area to be noticed. I struggled with childhood trauma, anxiety, and had difficulty making lasting friendships. I was always picked last for every team. I didn’t feel that I belonged. Enter Robert. (pronounce RO – BARE)
Robert was a wiry French-Canadian competitive swim coach, who would run up and down a pool deck in southern Ontario cheering on his swimmers using a unique “woohoo” and arm swing that would fill the air. It was so distinct that we could hear it above the water with every stroke we took. I have clear memories of him yelling and gesticulating (à la française), to go faster and try harder – his moustache quivering, while standing in his short soccer shorts and a polo. You saw him every time you took a breath in practice, your eyes drawn to him like a magnet. He would run non-stop back and forth while shaking his head and chewing on a pen. I even remember some flutter boards sailing over the top of the water in his agitation. He was, without question, larger than life. A self-made man of humble beginnings, he applied both his head and heart to his swimmers.
Looking back now, I can’t do anything but laugh; It was the 90s and 2000s at its finest. Our team grew up together like a dysfunctional family with hundreds of moving parts. We didn’t always get along, but thanks to him, we had each other’s back. We learned to be self-sufficient, to prioritise, and to even cook our own meals. Robert taught us to take care of each other, to look beneath the surface (excuse the pun), to search for challenges and be alright with failure. As I began coaching myself, I recognized his skill to adapt his programming through analysis and instinct for the avant-garde strength that it is. He taught us visualisation and mindfulness, the importance of multisport and even nutrition…all in a time before any of this was popular.
Robert could be described as the quintessential coach in every sense of the word – understanding what motivates and holds us back. His gruelling practices were always delivered with life lessons of respect and dignity. There was no bullying or hazing allowed. Instead of belittling you, Robert spoke to you in such a way as to get the best out of you. He was sensitive to our personal lives and also to the type of athlete we would become. He didn’t strive for us to be the best swimmers, but to be the best version of ourselves. He recognized the slow burn athlete that would excel as an adult, as well as the star nationalist. His predictions on our potential have yet to be proven wrong.
Once I graduated, I lost track of Robert. Our team fractured and dissipated, all of us going our separate ways. I will always regret not reaching out to him to tell him of his impact. The closest I will come is this blog post.
Hearing the news of our coach’s passing hit all of his swimmers, both past and present, very hard. A group of the veterans, myself included, decided that we needed to attend the funeral. We piled into an oversized RAM and drove down to Ottawa. The 5-hour drive seemed to fly by as we talked about life experiences and reminisced about old times and friends. We started out awkwardly, but finished the drive realising we are, and will always be, family.
In a crowd of over 100 people, we listened with quiet wistfulness to the eulogy by a swimmer 10 years our junior. The anecdotes and stories were like seeing glimpses into the past. His unique coaching style and tendency to ask questions, instead of lecture, were repeated with every subsequent generation of athlete. All of us experienced the same brand of warm ups, life lessons, fears of the “office talk” and the inevitability of getting kicked off the team (only to be brought back in.) It was clear that he meant so much to countless young lives, and that OUR family was bigger than we realised.
I share this story with you so that you can know the impact that you have on those YOU serve. Robert led so many of his athletes further than they ever thought possible. Thanks to his care they achieved in areas outside of the pool too. His unwavering influence is what lives on in all of us today. Although we, the athletes, may have moved on, he is forever written on our hearts – binding us together as a family.
– You will be missed coach Bob.
Special thanks to Martin Russocki, James Roscoe, Jeff & Scott Sumner, Gina Giorgetti &
David Lefevbre for the help with writing this tribute.
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