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Experience working with a Down syndrome swimmer put Ryan Allen on the path to Tokyo

Posted 2021-09-01

by Jim Morris. 

 

It was a moment that put Ryan Allen on a path that would lead him to Tokyo.

 

When he was in Grade 11 student in Moncton, N.B., Allen was an age group swimmer who worked as a lifeguard and did some swim instructing. His coach at the time asked him if he would be interested spending some extra time on Saturdays working with a new member of the club who had Down syndrome.

 

“Everything started from that,” said Allen, head coach of Moncton’s Club Natation Bleu et Or and a member of the Swimming Canada’s coaching staff attending the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

 

“I trace everything in my life back to that Grade 11 moment and it kicked start everything.”

 

Allen remembers “being blown away” from his experience working with the student. As much as he enjoyed teaching swimming, he realized he liked coaching even more.

 

While attending university in St. John’s, Nfld., Allen got involved with coaching age-group swimmers.

 

“I got to the point of university coaching and thought I’m really enjoying this,” he said.

 

A coaching job opened at a club back in New Brunswick and Allen was hired. In 2013 he began as an assistant coach at the Club de natation Bleu et Or and the next year he attended a camp where he met Janet Dunn, Swimming Canada’s Para-swimming pathway coach. He took over as the club’s head coach two years ago.

 

“Part of me says I just fell into coach,” said Allen. “But it was just the right situation that kind of blossomed into some pretty good stuff.”

 

Along with being a swim coach, Allen teaches Phys Ed for kindergartener to Grade 5.

 

The 30-year-old is the youngest coach on the Paralympic staff.

“I’m here for an extreme learning opportunity,” he said. “But I also know what I can bring. I’ll support everyone and anyone.

 

“We’ve all got the same Maple Leaf on our chest.  What can I do to help the Maple Leaf you have on your chest?”

 

Allen was an apprentice coach at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships and was part of the staff at the 2019 Parapan American Games, but Tokyo will be his first Paralympics.

 

He agreed there can be a fine line sometimes between respecting the knowledge of veteran coaches but also hoping to introduce new ideas and techniques.

 

“A lot of it can link back to the individual athlete’s needs and what’s going to be the right scenario for them,” he said. “Everyone who is here I have good relationships with and that definitely helps.

 

“Sure, I’m the younger, newer guy but at the same time some of other staff it’s their first Paralympics. We’re really peers. I think everyone recognizes and acknowledges what we bring and recognize the opportunity to see some different things.”

 

For the past eight years Allen has coached Danielle Dorris. The 18-year-old will be attending her second Paralympics in Tokyo after qualifying for the 2016 Rio Games at age 13.

 

“The entire time she has been fully integrated in what we call the able-bodied groups,” said Allen. “We’ve learned how to modify. I had her in a lane training and in the next lane was a girl who almost made the Olympic team.

 

“We made it work and it has worked quite well.”

 

Besides Dorris, the five athletes Allen will work with in Tokyo include Tammy Cunnington, 45, who will be attending her second Paralympics, and Camille Berube, 26, who is attending her third Games.

 

Being younger than one swimmer and close in age to another could have been an issue.

 

“There was some hesitancy there,” he said. “I’ve been on trips, I’ve been around the group.

 

“There is a positive relationship. I know that some of it is connected to age, but at the end of the day, once we get past that it doesn’t matter.”

 

When dealing with the different ages in his group, Allen said he may speak differently to a younger swimmer than a veteran, but the message is the same to both.

 

“We’re doing what we need to get the work done,” he said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily huge differences. I think we treat them all like adults.”

Having been part of the staff at past international competitions also gives Allen credibility among the swimmers.

 

“It’s hugely beneficial,” he said. “Everyone knows my face. There’s a familiarity there and that can breed comfort and communication, which lead up to performance.”


Coaching at the Paralympics is another step along the learning curve.

“My view of learning and development is, the minute you walk into a room and think you know it all or you have all the answers, that’s the minute you know nothing,” he said.

 

“I’m confident I do know some stuff, but that doesn’t mean there’s not another viewpoint or a different twist to things.

 

“I think that’s a common thread for successful coaches or professionals in any career. If you are open to adaptability and growth, then you’re going to get nothing but good for yourself.”

 

For Allen, determining success depends on a swimmer’s expectations.

“The wonderful thing about our sport is there’s such a sliding continuum of what success is,” he said. “It’s different to all of us. My view of success is if I’ve done the job to have an individual athlete succeed to what they desire and perceive as success, and meet the potential that individual has.

“I might have 20 athletes in a group . . . and they’re going to pull from this different things. If I can be a contributing factor to an individual’s perception of their success, then that’s a job well done.”

 

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