Wendy is a swimming coach with Special Olympics. Over the years Wendy has attended many competitions with her athletes, most recently the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara where swimmer Naomi Leam won a silver medal.
What was your relationship with your coach (or coaches) like as an athlete? What was their biggest influence on you?
I was in the Jasper Place Swim Club in Edmonton back in the 1970s. Coaching back then had a very different approach to what it is today. I am glad that we have evolved so much from those coaching days. When I looked back at the coaching I received I decided that the negative wording all the time was a drain on both the coach and the swimmer. I decided early in in my coaching career not to use the negative to get a positive response.
What made you want to start coaching?
My oldest son is autistic and we found that group sports were a nightmare for him. He was a natural when it came to water so we ensured he had all the swimming lessons needed. When I found out that there was a Special Olympics chapter in Lethbridge I thought it would be great to have him involved in the swim program. When I inquired, I was told there may not be a program as they needed someone for the head coach, and did I know swimming, and had I been a lifeguard? It was a yes to that and 18 years later I am still coaching the Special Olympic swim team.
What is one piece of advice you would give to new coaches?
My advice to my coaches is to earn the swimmer's trust; they need to know you are there for them. Know the swimmer inside and out, their ups and downs, and what they expect from swimming. Help them achieve their goals and dreams.
What do you enjoy about coaching Special Olympics athletes?
Everything. What isn’t there to enjoy about them?
What was the biggest difference between your experience as an athlete and your experience as a coach?
As there was a huge time gap from when I was an athlete to when I became a coach, one thing I needed to do was reteach myself the strokes. I attended nearly 6 months of stroke improvement courses and camps. I realized you are not just a coach but you must take courses to become a certified coach. After 18 years of coaching, I am still taking courses and improving my coaching skills all the time.
What does it mean to you to coach the next generation of athletes?
One of the things I realized a long time ago is that there are so many opportunities for Special Olympic athletes to compete. Provincially, nationally, and on the international stage. Whatever the swimmers and parents or caregivers decide, that is where we come in as the coaching team, to work together to get them there.
How do you adapt to coaching in the Special Olympics categories?
Some things like nutrition planning, mental training and workouts are the same as coaching other athletes. Underneath these athletes is a heart of gold. Winning isn’t everything to them. Friendship, acceptance, pride, and inclusion are more important to most of them. We celebrate personal bests in the pool versus medals. Bling is nice but knowing how much they improved, what their friends are doing, and seeing fellow athletes after a few years away is, well, lots of hugs to be had. I have dealt with seizures, panic attacks, etc, and me being calm and collected helps them know I have their backs and will make sure nothing happens. Mental training for me has been a life saver coaching Special Olympics athletes.
What is your favorite memory from coaching?
I have so many wonderful memories of the athletes over the years but the one that sticks out the most was in my first year of coaching. We were at provincials and in finals. One swimmer in the final heat had not won a medal yet. The race started as I expected but then the three front swimmers slowed down to let the swimmer who had not medaled catch up to and pass them. He came in first and won a gold medal, where he most likely would have finished last. After the race I asked the swimmers what was going on, and their reply was, "Well, he hadn’t won a medal so we all agreed to let him win so he had a medal." That's the reason I coach these great bunch of athletes.
Thanks Coach Wendy!