On a wet winter night, a group of athletes from Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Vancouver churn through the water at the University of British Columbia Aquatic Centre.
Head coach Tom Johnson patrols the length of the pool, an attentive eye keeping track of strokes and technique. In a voice that never quite reaches a shout he cajoles and encourages but rarely criticizes.
It’s a routine Johnson has performed most every day for the last 45 years. His guidance, persistence and perseverance has helped produce Olympic medallists and world champions. He’s rightly earned the reputation of one of Canada’s top swim coaches and on Thursday Johnson will be inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame.
For a man that has accomplished so much in his career, Johnson is genuinely flattered to be nominated into a hall of fame that already includes such Canadian sports heroes as two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, Olympic champion rower Silken Laumann, NHL star Joe Sakic, baseball player Larry Walker and Rick Hansen, who powered his wheelchair around the world.
“It’s a pretty select group,” said Johnson. “When you look at who else is in that sports hall of fame and the history of sports in B.C. . . . to be recognized in that way is humbling and quite an honor.
“It kind of validates a lot of what I’ve tried to do as a coach and someone who loves sports and tries to make a difference. There are people outside of my world who have looked at it and said, ‘That guy made a difference.’ ”
During his career Johnson has coached at 10 Olympic Games and 14 world championships. He recently attended his 11th Commonwealth Games. He has guided the UBC Thunderbirds to eight men’s and 11 women’s Canadian university championships.
Among the 13 athletes he has sent to the Olympics is Brent Hayden, who was 2007 world champion and won bronze in the 100-metre freestyle at the 2012 Games. Other swimmers Johnson has coached include Brian Johns (a former short-course world record holder); Marianne Limpert (an Olympic and world championship medallist); Mark Versfeld, (a two-time world championship medallist) Jessica Deglau (a two-time Olympian and Pac Pacific Championship medallist) and Kelly Stefanyshyn (a Commonwealth Games and Pan American Games medallist). His current crop at the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Vancouver includes international medallists Emily Overholt, Yuri Kisil, Markus Thormeyer and Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson.
Some coaches are strict disciplinaries with little flexibility. Others are technical gurus. Swimmers who have trained under Johnson said he takes time to understand the individual, then builds a program that fits their personality.
“He was able to adapt himself to the athlete in order to get what he needed to get out of him,” said Hayden. “He is one of those coaches that push you to get more out of you, more than what you actually think you are capable of. Whether it was training or competition, he has this innate ability to figure out how to push you to the next level.
Limpert first dealt with Johnson at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. Her coach Claude St-Jean wasn’t at the Games, so she fell under Johnson’s guidance. After the Olympics Limpert moved from Montreal to Vancouver to train under Johnson.
“He’s very technical,” said Limpert. “He’s very detailed-oriented. He can be really serious but at the same time he reads people well. He also cared about us outside of the pool and wanted to make sure that we were going to be normal, functioning human beings after we stopped swimming.”
Thormeyer, a member of the 2016 Olympic team, broke through with individual bronze in the 100-m backstroke at Commonwealth Games. The 20-year-old said Johnson makes his swimmers feel appreciated.
“I think he does a really good job with building relationships with his athletes,” Thormeyer said.
Johnson believes that sometimes a vital ingredient is lost during the chase for results.
“I really believe that most of these athletes got involved in the sport because it was fun,” he said. “I believe they should be able to have fun every day in the pursuit of excellence but never at the expense of it.”
Johnson and his twin brother Dave, a former Swimming Canada national team head coach, were born in Montreal. Johnson was a 200-m freestyle swimmer who finished seventh at the 1972 Olympic Trials.
“Not really good enough to make the team,” he said.
Johnson attended graduate school at the University of Ottawa but lasted about three months before Dave called to ask Tom to help him coach at the Pointe-Claire Swim Club. By January of 1973 Tom was coaching his own group. He made the decision to move to Vancouver in 1979.
The success Johnson’s athletes have enjoyed in the pool speaks to his abilities as a coach. The pride he takes in what his swimmers have accomplished after leaving the pool speaks about him as a person.
“The life lessons they learn, and they go on and they become successful in life beyond sports, those are some of the more rewarding pieces of what I’ve done and what I feel like I’ve contributed to their lives,” he said.