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An artist who never swam competitively, Vince Mikuska followed a path less travelled to being a swim coach

Posted 2021-09-03

 By Jim Morris. 


Vince Mikuska has followed the path less travelled to being a swim coach.  Mikuska has an art history degree, loves to paint in his spare time, and never was a competitive swimmer.


Being cut from a different cloth gives the 65-year-old Chilliwack, B.C., resident a different view from the pool deck.


“Everybody is heavily influenced by the coach they had most of the time,” said Mikuska. “They are either going to coach like that person or coach a different way because they didn’t like how that person coached.


“I didn’t have that. I had some different ways of looking at things because I had played team sports.”

One influence on Mikuska was a former roommate who was studying education at university.


“We talked a lot about the concept of excellence,” he said. “We talked about the difference between the hierarchy pyramid view of excellence and personal excellent.


“I found the idea of personal excellence very appealing. When you are coaching swimming, you have all these kids of varying levels of commitment and ability and trying to get the best out of them. It was always fun to be involved with people who wanted to be good at something.”

Mikuska is Swimming’s Canada’s Paralympic program national senior coach. Tokyo will be his third Olympics but first as head coach, which means a shift in his focus.


“I don’t have a group of athletes,” he said. “My job is to ensure that the event coaches we have get what they need inside of the daily training environment to ensure that their athletes are going to perform to their best.”

Mikuska has been involved in Para-swimming for more than 20 years. He was a staff coach at the 2000 Sydney and 2016 Rio Paralympics. Mikuska also was a staff coach at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, the 2013 and 2015 IPC World Championships in Montreal and Glasgow, and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.


He took over the head coaching duties when Craig McCord stepped down in 2016 and was the lead coach at the 2019 London World Para Swimming Championships.


In Rio Mikuska coached a group of swimmers that included Katarina Roxon, who won a gold medal in the 100-metre breaststroke in Canadian record time.


Not having athletes to coach in Tokyo will be different.


“Pre-Covid part of my job was to be on the road a lot and visiting programs and seeing how individual coaches and swimmers were doing and giving input,” said Mikuska. “It’s certainly different being in this role but the relationships that I built up with those athletes, some of them I’ve been working with for almost eight years.


“I still keep an eye on them, and we can still converse about what they’re doing, or I can give them a tip on something I know they’ve been working on. There’s still a connection there.”


In Tokyo Mikuska will oversee five coaches. Some have attended past Paralympics or Olympics. For others, this will be their first time stepping onto the Paralympic stage.


“We have some really tremendous experience from both the Paralympic and Olympic streams,” said Mikuska. “It’s a really interesting mix. I’m really excited to work with these people.”


Mikuska coaching journey began when he was attending the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Both his brother and sister were swimmers. Their coach asked Mikuska if he would be interested in being his assistant because he was looking for someone with a sports background.

With nothing better to do Mikuska agreed. A year later that coach left and Mikuska took over the club.


Later Mikuska was working in shop that sold nuts and bolts. He saw an ad in the Winnipeg newspaper looking for a swim coach in Vernon, B.C. The 20-year-old Mikuska wasn’t even sure where Vernon was but applied and got the job.


He spent a year in Vernon, then moved to Edmonton. Mikuska returned to Winnipeg to attend university and didn’t coach for about three years before taking a summer job in Castlegar, B.C.


Mikuska was close to completing his degree, and about three weeks away from getting married, when friends called to say a coaching job was open in Campbell River, B.C.


“They said there’s nobody’s left to coach and we think you’d be good for the job,” he said.


His future wife agreed to the move. After a summer in Castlegar, Mikuska was hired to coach at a club in Surrey, B.C. He spent five years there before moving to Chilliwack, where he coached for 20 years.


Mikuska became involved in Para-swimming in 1995 when Rob Penner, who had cerebral palsy, began swimming with the club in Chilliwack.


“It was interesting to find out what he could and couldn’t do or could do and was not yet able to do,” said Mikuska. “I didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of cerebral palsy. We just kept trying to do thing.


“Since it’s a neurological disease, we thought maybe that we could change some of the neurological patters. That was successful for Bob.”

Penner competed at two Paralympics and won gold as part of the 4x100-m 34-point medley relay in Sydney.


“We had other swimmers come into our program, some of them because Bob was there” said Mikuska. “Some of them just because we were open to having them in the program.”


Mikuska progressed through the ranks. He became the provincial coach and coached the B.C. Para-swimmers at the 2005 Canada Summer Games and was part of the staff at the 2011 Parapan Am Games in Guadalajara.


He was hired by Swimming Canada in 2013.


Mikuska credits John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, for supporting the growth of Canadian Para-swimming.


“John came from countries were Olympic swimming and Paralympic swimming were both accepted on the same level,” said Mikuska. “It was just natural for him to keep promoting Para-swimming.


“It’s grown a lot inside of the organization. We have a great staff now, lot’s more people being able to support it.”


Mikuska is an accomplished artist. There have been 12 exhibitions of his work dating back to 1983 in Winnipeg.


Painting both relaxes and invigorates him.


“Coaching is a hard profession,” he said. “It can really eat you up. It’s good to be able to have something that can take you away from that.


“Coaches who have a hobby or another interest, they can get away for a while. That’s part of who I am so it really does help everything that I do.”


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