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Much More Than a Coach - A Tribute to Murray Drudge

Posted 2020-02-26

“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.” – Vince Lombardi

 

When I was growing up in Regina being a swimmer was a source of pride. You held your head high, walked with a swagger and knew you were part of something special. In a typical prairie town where hockey was king is was unusual for a sport like swimming to matter, but it did.

 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Regina Optimist Dolphins (RODS) were the best age group team in Canada. The club’s success and the culture responsible for it was created by a formidable coaching staff led by a young Murray Drudge.

 

“He brought a confidence that was not there before,” recalls Kevin Thorburn, who was the assistant head coach of the RODS at the time. “He made everyone believe that anything was possible and the sky was the limit.”

 

Getting a group of athletes from a city of just over 150,000 people situated no where near a significant body of water to believe they could be the best swimmers in the country was no easy task. The passion that coaching staff had was something that inspired all of us.

 

“When you worked with Kevin and Murray, those guys loved the sport and the vocation of coaching,” says David de Vlieger, who swam with Murray and coached with the Dolphins after his swimming days were over. “They loved the craft they were thinking about it constantly.  It rubbed off on me.”

 

Many of the athletes and coaches that were part of the program have gone on to great success both in and outside of the swimming world.

 

Murray’s passion for the sport, dedication to a goal and love for his team taught us all valuable lessons. Our experience of becoming ‘the mouse that roared’ gave us the willingness to dream big and believe that anything was possible.

 

“There was such a small probability of having what happened happen,” says Thorburn.

 

Photo courtesy Michelle Toro


“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde

 

Some coaches are known as innovators, some as artists, some as tacticians, some as technicians, some as taskmasters Drudge had a little bit of each one in him. His greatest quality as a coach though was his authenticity.

 

“Murray wanted to ultimately be Murray,” explains Thorburn.

 

He was, “Eager, excited, child like at times, he was infectious,” says de Vlieger.

 

“The best memory I have with Murray is just his sheer pureness,” explains Teddy Kalp, who swam with Murray at the North York Aquatic Club (NYAC). “He never beat around the bush, he told it like it is.”

 

The last time I saw him was on deck when visiting Toronto. He was surprised to see me, his smile was huge, his energy was powerful and to me he didn’t look much different then he did 30 years before in Regina.

 

Murray was always someone who saw character before talent. He believed each person could get the most out of what they were given as long as they were willing to put in the work to do it.

 

“He gave people chances. A lot of coaches get more excited about talent then they do about the other important stuff like character and hard work,” recalls 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Michelle Toro (Williams) who swam with Murray from the age 12 to 19. “Murray got more excited about how much character they had than their talent.”

 

“That is what he saw first.”

 

A big part of who he was and one of his greatest strengths was his desire to understand what makes each individual unique.

 

“He wanted to understand how to reach each kid,” says de Vlieger. “He needed to understand the individual behind the athlete not just the athlete.”

 

“That stuck with me both in swimming and frankly with how I deal with things in the rest of my life with that perspective.”

 

“He was really good at being able to know what worked for the individual,” says Sean Baker, who worked with Murray in Regina. “I think he was really able to read the person and get that loyalty and trust. Those guys would go through brick walls for him.”

 

 

A perfect example of how he did this was the individual meetings he had with swimmers at the North York Aquatic Club.

 

“Every couple of months he would have one on one meetings with everyone,” says Toro. “We were in the lifeguard office and all I said was, ‘Murray I don’t understand why I am not getting faster. I am doing everything and I want to have a breakthrough, but it is not happening.’”

 

“He always knew what to say. I let him know that he could take over and do all the talking for me. I remember he said, ‘Just stay the course. It is okay to be disappointed, but never be disheartened. You will have your breakthrough.’”

 

“That summer I made the junior national team for the first time.”

 

Photo courtesy Michelle Toro
 

“Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.” ? John Wooden

 

 

Murray’s greatest legacy will have nothing to do with what people can achieve in the water. His legacy will be one of friendship.

 

“The real sense of Murray was that he wanted to be a good friend,” says Thorburn. “His genuine concern for all his friends.”

 

“He was super competitive, but he was very happy to see everyone do well. He was always going to be there for you. He made sacrifices for people.”

 

Each and every time I saw Murray the first thing he asked about was my mom and her health. That simple inquiry was a gesture that let me know how much he cared and truly meant the world to me.

 

When speaking to anyone about Murray the word friendship is one of the first things out of their mouths, “I saw him as more than a coach, he was my friend and someone I could talk to if I had problems outside of the pool,” says Kalp.

 

“When Murray arrived on deck or came through the door at the office you knew that you were in for a good time and if you listened closely you could learn some valuable lessons,” recalls John Calnan, who swam with Murray and started his coaching career with NYAC. “He could tell stories and pontificate on a wide spectrum of ideas.”

“The topics included, cars, music, travel, life and how to live it, swimming and great performances that he had witnessed in his long career in the pool. Long swim meets would go by in a flash when you had Murray at your side.”

“Murray was my coach, my boss and my close friend.”

To many the bond they created with Murray was more then a friendship, “How do you explain someone who is like a family member?” states Baker. “He had uncompromising loyalty and we had dedication to each other.

 

“He was like a big brother to me.”

 

“I feel like I was like a daughter to him and he was like a father to me,” says Toro. “He basically shaped who I am as a person. He is really the foundation of my personality. It is crazy to think the effect he had in my life.”

 

“He was always so proud of me it goes along with how much he believed in me.”

 

“The worst times of my life and the best times of my life, he was always there. Murray was the one who knew what to say or what not to say.”

 

“We had a connection that you don’t need words for.”

 

Photo courtesy Michelle Toro

 

Murray Drudge died unexpectedly on February 17th in Toronto at the age of 61. No words can be written to express how much those who knew him will miss him or how lucky we were to have had him as part of our lives.

 

“I try to take comfort in the words of Adali Stevenson who once said that “it is not the years in a life that count: it is the life in the years,’’ says Calnan. “Our lives will be emptier for his absence simply because they were made fuller by his presence.”

Copyright © 2020 Canadian Swimming Coaches Association (CSCA).