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Janet Dunn brings long history of involvement in Para-swimming to coaching role

Posted 2021-08-31

By Jim Morris (Special to the CSCA)

Of the 19 Para-swimmers representing Canada at the Paralympic Games none list Janet Dunn as their coach. That doesn’t mean Dunn hasn’t played a role in their development or assisted their coach in the search for a medal in Tokyo.

“It’s up to me to feel proud that I was part of the athlete’s journey,” said Dunn. “Of the 19 swimmers, I don’t think there’s one swimmer that I didn’t know when they started.

“I can name lots of athletes that you could Google that I was involved with. I chose to do a path that I hope will have a better, bigger benefit. That my stone can skip further before it slides into the pond and not be remembered.”

Dunn’s official title with Swimming Canada is Para-swimming performance pathway coach and national classification lead.

Unlike the other coaches on the Tokyo staff, Dunn doesn’t have a dedicated group of swimmers. Instead, she’s the person who can answer questions about classification, knows how to ensure a swimmer’s stroke is legal, or can explain the best techniques to deal with different impairments.

“I would say my primary role on this team is the transfer of knowledge in every aspect,” said the Victoria resident. “Knowing how to correct. I have coached most of the impairments on this team in a past life.

“I don’t ever teach coaches how to coach. I show them how what they’re doing with their Para-swimmers will make all of their swimmers better.”

For over 40 years Dunn has worked with athletes with an impairment. She helped integrate swimmers with a disability into national and provincial associations. She also helped developed the classification system used today.

Dunn’s dedication to sport was recognized in 2013 when she was inducted into the Canadian Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame as a builder.

Dunn said some coaches might simply consider her the “classifier lady.”

“Sometimes, no kidding, they hurt my feelings because I have to dig into my own self-worth,” she said. “But if you don’t know the rules for Para-swimming, you  cannot determine how the strokes will look.

“If you have a breaststroker, I can help you get the most efficient kick that’s legal, propulsive, streamlined. I don’t know how that’s not coaching.”

Prior to joining the Swimming Canada, Dunn coached in Victoria and helped Brianne Nelson win two medals at the 2012 London Paralympics.

“It was really hard to take the job at Swimming Canada,” said Dunn. “I took the job because I wanted to make a bigger difference across a bigger field of play with coach education.

“We need to be able to have coaches know more so that they can do a better job. That’s why I’m here.”

Dunn was born in Saskatchewan and attended the University of Alberta in Edmonton. A pediatric rehabilitation physiotherapist, Dunn’s involvement in Para-sports began when she was still a student and became friends with Debbie Steadward.

Steadward’s brother Bob helped organize the first Canadian wheelchair sport national championships in 1968, later coached Canada in wheelchair basketball at the Summer Paralympics and in 1989 became the first president of the International Paralympic Committee.

“She asked me to come out and volunteer,” said Dunn. “And then I just kept volunteering and seeing the need. I always had a physio job so I could afford coaching.”
In her early days Dunn coached several sports involving different impairments. She remembers a 14-year-old track athlete asking her if he could compete at the 1976 Paralympics.

“I told him he could if he did the work,” she said. “I was so young and naïve. I had no idea the international body which could get you there was less than two years old.

“There was no national structure, let alone any provincial structure. I am full of energy. That is kind of how I went down a path to be a builder, because in order to coach him to the Paralympics, he had to have a structure.”

Eventually Dunn decided to focus on swimming. The first swim meet integrating Olympic and Paralympic swimmers was held in Winnipeg in 1994.

“Swimming was where I kind of felt more comfortable,” she said.

Dunn is the only woman among the six coaches on the Tokyo team. She believes a woman brings a difference perspective to coaching.

“I would say women tend to be more holistic,” she said. “In the household women will know what’s happening in every room in the house. Men will concentrate on what’s happening in the room they’re in.

“So, planning a yearly training program, I work with a coach. I’m going to not just look at key meets. I’m going to make sure the coach understands what is the criteria for carding for Para-swimmers. Do they have a classification risk event  that year? Have you thought about what travel on airplane is going to be like? What kind of vehicles to you rent?”

At past events Dunn has been given the title of technical manager or athlete support.

 “I think I am a coach,” she said. “In the end, you step over whatever disrespect is given. Just do what is needed.

“I’ve always done what was needed. You’re the silent partner. They (athletes) are counting on you. You are part of their journey, but it’s all about them. We’re that person in the background supporting them.”


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