By Nathan White
He loved cars, music and history, but more than those things, Murray Drudge loved swimming.
Even more than the sport itself, he loved the people behind it. That’s why so many are mourning the sudden, shocking loss of the beloved coach who left this world last Monday at age 61.
“The outpouring of memories, thanks for what he did and impact he had on people’s lives, my phone is going off every few minutes,” Oakville Aquatic Club Head Coach Sean Baker, one of Drudge’s closest friends, said Tuesday.
Drudge coached swimmers to personal bests, provincial and national records, national titles, world championships and Olympic Games. One – Michelle Toro (nee Williams) – even earned an Olympic medal. But Drudge will be remembered more for his character than any of his swimmers’ achievements in the pool.
“He came from a basis of trying to celebrate people, old-fashioned values. He had a mantra: pride, discipline, loyalty,” Baker recalled.
“Passion, pride, discipline and loyalty were the foundations of Murray’s coaching mantra but he also had the mentoring skills beyond most and imparted so much to both his athletes and his coaches,” added Swim Ontario CEO Dean Boles. “The whole principle is that everything we’re trying to instil into the kids are going to be transferable characteristics and habits that will make them successful in life. Out of that process you will inevitably have good swimmers.”
Baker was one of the first to receive the news from Drudge’s wife Rosie. He was among several who struggled with talking about Drudge in the past tense, remembering a recent speech his friend and mentor gave at an Ontario coaches’ conference in October.
“It was about the legacy he wanted to leave to coaches and his swimmers,” Baker said. “Little did he know his legacy is so far-reaching. I don’t think he would even understand. It was remarkable. I think it’s a really great reflection of what you’ve done as a coach: not only the people you’ve influenced but the coaches who came up under you who went on to do great things reflecting your mould.”
Drudge’s coaching legacy dates back to Regina in the early 1990s, where he was head coach of the Regina Optimist Dolphins with a staff including Baker, and now Etobicoke Swimming head coach Kevin Thorburn in their younger years.
Baker recalled one story in particular that showed Drudge’s character.
“We were in Regina and competing to be Top 3 or 4 at (senior) nationals. For Regina that was a big deal. We had won youth championships and were really moving. We made a mistake in our girls relay at nationals and our girls swam out of order but the officials missed it. Murray went right over to the officials about five minutes after the race and said, ‘I’ve got to let you know that we swam out of order and we need to be honest about it,’ coming back to those core values of good people first. Our relay was disqualified,” Baker said. “He held himself to a pretty high standard, and was a great example for us coaches.”
“He really was very ethical that way, at his core a very decent person,” Thorburn said.
Drudge was born in Winnipeg to Bahamian parents. After spending much of his childhood in the Bahamas, his family returned to Canada when he was a teenager. He cut his coaching teeth under International Swimming Hall of Famer Paul Bergen at Etobicoke before moving to Regina for his first head coaching job. Drudge, Baker and Thorburn all ended up in the Greater Toronto Area, with Drudge running North York Aquatic Club for 25 years before leaving last year. Baker and Thorburn head two of the largest clubs in the country.
“Murray always said we take the best of the people who came before us and add our own little changes or our own little spice in the mixture,” Baker said.
Some of those Drudge influenced continued on in the sport as coaches, but countless others have gone on to succeed in life. One example is David de Vlieger, who swam for Drudge, began coaching with him while he was a university student, and later went on to become president of Swimming Canada. He credits Drudge with kindling a lifelong love for the sport that has seen him ascend to secretary-treasurer of UANA, the Pan Am aquatics organization.
“The way he coached and the way he spoke about us, he said you have to know the story behind every athlete and get to know each and every athlete. They’re not widgets, so take the time to know everybody. That always stuck with me. Don’t just run a program you churn them through, they have to be kids, and if there’s 30 people (in your group) you have to understand who’s the real person behind the athlete.”
De Vlieger remembers “coaches’ night” every Tuesday at the Keg in Regina, where Drudge would discuss the sport and their athletes with “curiosity and joy.”
“It was just a great time,” Thorburn added. “He brought everybody together as a team on a social level and made the team gel so everybody performed to the best of their ability.”
“It was infectious,” de Vlieger said. “Obviously there were times that were frustrating but he wanted to figure out how to make this swimmer faster, how to make them better, how to get at this kid or that kid or what it was that was holding them back.”
De Vlieger also has Drudge to thank for introducing him to sushi, and letting him drive his bright yellow Toyota MR2 when de Vlieger housesat for him for a month in the 1990s. While he was allowed to touch the car, Drudge was less enthusiastic about letting him touch his prized stereo and vinyl collection.
Drudge was such an authority on music that Swimming Canada National Development Coach Ken McKinnon was consulting him on the best stereo to set up to improve the sound quality of streaming music. The pair knew each other for decades, and Drudge was part of McKinnon’s staff at the FINA World Junior Championships last year in Budapest. When they ran into each other at the Ontario Junior International in December, McKinnon took advantage of his audio expertise.
“I was picking his brain on text for about two weeks about picking a music system and wanting quality. He took me to his music store on the Saturday during OJI, introduced me to a salesman and we picked out a starter kit with an integrated amplifier you run from your laptop, your streaming service or your hard drive. It breaks down mp3s and expands them and turns them into really really high quality,” McKinnon said. “We always had fun together. He was a unique character and he was not a jock in any way. He was an interesting guy to talk to, he loved history, could talk about World War II battles, music and life outside the pool and we connected on all those other levels.”
Drudge also had a quirky sense of humour. He might throw an empty Tim Hortons cup into a swimmer’s lane to get their attention, lose track of time telling a story about history in between sets, or badger a swimmer or fellow coach into listening to a Van Morrison CD or mixed tape.
Drudge’s sense of humour came out in his special relationship with Michelle Toro, arguably his most successful swimmer from NYAC, although the list also includes Julia Wilkinson, Kyle Smerdon and Stephanie Richardson among others.
Toro laughed telling stories such as the time she had lectured him about his impractical Corvette. Drudge would often drive her to and from practice, and one time he floored it full speed down a hill in Toronto.
“I freaked out and was so mad at him, that was not my type of fun,” she said. “I guess he wanted to convince me the car was a good idea but it was parked in a garage all winter.”
Toro’s memories include teaching Drudge to text and use Instagram. Another time he told her he’d pay her $100 if she broke a certain time – she thought it was a joke but he followed through when she did.
Other times waves of tears came on as she remembered Drudge as a “second father.”
“He had an enormous impact on my life and who I am as a person. He was the first person to really believe in me, and he never, ever, ever gave up on me,” said Toro, a late bloomer who helped Canada to bronze in the women’s 4×100-m freestyle relay at the Rio 2016 Olympics. “I can’t put into words how much I owe him and how big an influence he had on my life. He’s one of those people who shape who you are. He’s a part of my foundation.”
Coaches’ nights were usually over sushi in recent years at NYAC, recalls Eddie Toro, Michelle’s brother-in-law who succeeded Drudge as head coach last year. Eddie knew Drudge for 17 years, stretching back to his days as an age group swimmer.
“We connected right away. I loved him as a coach, he inspired the crap out of me, he knew how to push me and I thought the world of him as a coach,” said Toro, who delivered the news to NYAC swimmers Tuesday evening.
“I really appreciated he had the rule of trusting people and to believe that people will rise up. If you show them that you trust them, they won’t fail you. He told everybody to start trusting people at 10 out of 10 on the trust scale. If something happens, you bring them down but I really liked that approach.
“The will to believe in someone, we need a little bit more of that in the world today.”
Toro said the club has more than 500 athletes now, from humble beginnings of 63 when Drudge started in the 1990s.
After leaving NYAC last year, Drudge offered his services as a volunteer coach alongside Head Coach Ben Titley at the High Performance Centre – Ontario. The pair have shared a pool deck countless times since the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre opened in 2014. The role allowed him to continue working with NYAC product Joshua Liendo, who made his senior FINA World Championships debut in 2019 and collected three medals at the world junior championships.
“He was enjoying it the most he probably had in the last 20 years,” said Titley, who had to deliver the news Tuesday morning to the HPC-O group, which includes such swimmers as Olympic medallists Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck.
“He brought so much enthusiasm to the poolside. He’d been involved in coaching for 40 years but he just loved seeing how fast the kids would swim every day. He was excited by what he was doing, what he was going to do, and always had a good word to say.”
While there’s no question his loss will be sorely felt, Drudge made such an impact on Canadian swimming that he will never truly be gone.
“Everybody that worked with him learned from him. There’s a little bit of Murray in whatever I do, whatever Sean does, or anybody else who worked with him,” Thorburn said. “He allowed me to see how really close a staff could be and really work together to a common goal and just have a lot of fun while doing it, but doing it seriously.”
“We lost a really, really big presence on deck,” Eddie Toro said. “We lost a great one.”
Tributes have continued to pour in over the past few days as the Canadian swimming community comes to terms with Drudge’s passing:
Swimming Canada High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson reacted to the loss:
Murray has this season been assisting on deck coaching with the High Performance Centre in Ontario and he will be sincerely missed by all. He was a much loved and respected coach, and will be remembered for the work he did, that impacted positively, with so many swimmers, coaches and clubs across Canada, as well as many national teams over the years.
Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi expressed condolences on behalf of the organization:
Swimming Canada is shocked and saddened to hear this news about a longtime member of the Canadian swimming coach community. We send our thoughts and heartfelt condolences to Murray’s family and friends, and all those in Canadian swimming who are mourning this great loss.
Adam Vaughn, Spadina-Fort York MP, made a statement in the House of Commons
Every morning under cloak of darkness, thousands of kids across Canada jump into swimming pools with dreams of Olympic glory. They drive to make a personal best, to perfect the turn or start or ultimately reach the podium as the product of incredible individual will and might, but it’s never done alone.
There are coaches across Canada on deck literally walking alongside these young athletes as they drive forward. Great coaches don’t just create champions, they help create leaders. They build strong futures for these kids and help them grow as they compete.
Murray Drudge’s sudden passing has broken hearts and shocked the swim community, but the dreams he’s given shape to, the dreams of Olympic gold, and the scholarship opportunities that live on through these athletes he has trained are his legacy. These are Murray’s legacy, these are his personal bests.
Michelle Toro’s mother, Emsie Williams, put together an album of photos and videos:
Swim Ontario shared Drudge’s final coaching presentation, Developing a Swimmer from Age Group to World Class: https://www.swimontario.com/uploads/Organization/Conference/2019/DevelopingSwimmersMurrayDrudge.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1pptYIwNL-qYNOJLSlfpFrWnOJyJ_GSXzY-DZsqAMsC6YPLLDPo-tIkgc
Lance Cansdale, President of Canadian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association, mourned the loss:
With a sudden and unexpected passing, the Canadian swim coaching community is mourning the passing of longtime member Murray Drudge. As a teacher, mentor and leader, Murray was a stalwart on the deck at all levels of Canadian swimming and proudly represented Canada internationally multiple times and over multiple decades. On behalf of the entire CSCTA membership, I would offer our heartfelt condolences to Murray’s family and the many in our sport who Murray coached and influenced.
Former HPC-O swimmer Kierra Smith posted on social media:
Murray was always the first to make sure that we were doing okay outside the pool. You know, in our real life. For me, there was no parking at my apartment so I was lucky to be able to park my car in Murray and Rosie’s driveway. Doesn’t sound like much but I had a problem and Murray decided to solve it. The day I came to Toronto after being home for Christmas I asked if I could come pick it up. Murray offered to pick me up from the train station. When I got there, he had my car started, a mountain of snow brushed off, and he made up a lunch box with chicken soup and homemade samosas. It was one of 1000 thoughtful behind the scenes thinks that Murray would do. He was my coach, my friend and confident. We all need someone we can tell anything to regardless of how messy, compromising, embarrassing etc. who won’t even blink and Murray was that guy for me. Ya, it’s a tough day
View this post on Instagram
A tough day today. This morning we all heard news that put the world on pause. In the car on the way home from the pool this morning I received the news that Murray Drudge had passed away. I pulled over and tried to process something that isn’t processable. The swimming world lost a great person today. Murray and I met back in 2010 on a junior team trip to Great Britain. We reconnected in 2018 when I moved to Ontario and he became one of my coaches. The impact he made was beyond the water. The swimming world is filled with hundreds of positive male role models who fly under the radar unnoticed. Murray was one of those guys. Murray was always the first to make sure that we were doing okay outside the pool. You know, in our real life. For me, there was no parking at my apartment so I was lucky to be able to park my car in Murray and Rosie’s driveway. Doesn’t sound like much but I had a problem and Murray decided to solve it. The day I came to Toronto after being home for Christmas I asked if I could come pick it up. Murray offered to pick me up from the train station. When I got there, he had my car started, a mountain of snow brushed off, and he made up a lunch box with chicken soup and homemade samosas. It was one of 1000 thoughtful behind the scenes things that Murray would do. He was my coach, my friend and confident. We all need someone we can tell anything to regardless of how messy, compromising, embarrassing etc. who won’t even blink and Murray was that guy for me. Ya, it’s a tough day. The swimming world lost a great one. Hold your loved ones a little tighter today and take as long as you need.
Current HPC-O swimmer Taylor Ruck also posted:
Murray was truly a light in this world. Every day he came to practice he would make everyone smile and laugh with his stories and happy character. I only met Murray less than a year ago, but I know his impact on my swimming and myself is immeasurable. I know his impact is like this for so many others as well. Praying for him and his loved ones always; rest in peace Coach Murray.