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Disciplinarian and innovator helped change course of Canadian swimming

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By Jim Morris

When retired Olympic swimmer Bill Sawchuk learned about the death last week of his one-time coach Don Talbot, he began texting friends and former teammates.

The reactions he received varied.

“Some people were very, very sad,” said Sawchuk. “Some people were, ‘I learned a lot from him.’ ”

Talbot died Tuesday in his native Australia at the age of 87. A member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame who built Australia into a powerhouse, Talbot also spent several years coaching in Canada where his vision and tenacity helped put Canadian swimmers and coaches on the international stage.

“Don Talbot’s influence on coaches and coaching and many national federations can’t be overestimated,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s director of high performance and national coach. “He had probably more impact on how every swim team in the world operates today than anybody.

“Today so many things that happen in the world of swimming are because of the impact that Don Talbot had. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”

Former national team head coach Dave Johnson called Talbot “one of the greatest major Games team coaches in the history of swimming” who changed how coaches and athletes prepared for competitions.

“He brought sort of a no-nonsense structure to the preparation model,” said Johnson, who first met Talbot at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. “He was a disciplinarian without doubt, and really was all about maximizing (athletes’) opportunities to prepare to win and making you focus on the various aspects of preparation that you needed to embrace if you were really going to be a serious player.

“That transferred over into coaching where we were very much brought into a realm of using sport science and structured preparation strategies around race tactics and the mental skills around high performance swimming.”

Talbot was born in Barnsley, New South Wales, Australia and began his coaching career in 1956. He was head coach of the Australian men’s team from 1964 to 1972 and helped Australia when 14 medals over three Olympics.

After the Munich Olympics Talbot moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., to study for a degree in psychology at Lakehead University. He became coach of the newly formed Thunderbolts Swim Club and within a few years swimmers from the small club were gaining international attention.

The Thunderbolts sent eight swimmers to the Montreal 1976 Olympics, including Sawchuk, Andy Ritchie and Joanne Baker. Other swimmers who would train with the Thunderbolts were Graham and Becky Smith.

Talbot was head coach of the Canadian swim team at the 1976 Olympics plus Commonwealth Games in 1974 and 1978 in Edmonton.

He spent two years as head coach at the Nashville Aquatic Club in the United States, where he coached future hall of famer Tracy Caulkins, before returning to Australia where he was the inaugural director for the Australian Institute of Sport.

Talbot returned to Canada in 1983 where he was hired by the Fédération de natation du Québec. He became Swimming Canada’s head coach after the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. They parted ways several months before the 1988 Olympics in a dispute over qualification standards.

In 1989 Talbot took over the Australian National Team, a role he held for 12 years.

Talbot has been praised as a brilliant tactician and innovator. His swimmers also say he was demanding, a taskmaster and a strict disciplinarian.

“He kept you on your toes,” said Sawchuk, who also qualified for the Moscow 1980 Games that Canada boycotted. “You went to workouts with butterflies in your belly because you knew every workout had the potential to be worse than a swim meet.”

Talbot “was never a friend, but he was my coach,” said Sawchuk. “I hated him, and I loved him every day, both in the same day.”

Cheryl Gibson, a silver medallist in Montreal, never was coached by Talbot, but remembers how he prepared the Olympic team.

“I know from other people who swam with him that you he was very demanding, very assertive, in your face,” said Gibson, president of Swimming Canada’s board of directors. “I could remember him pointing his finger. You couldn’t miss what his message was.

“I would not call him the warm and fuzzy type of coach. I think for people who swam with him, there was a bit of a fear factor, and that’s part of what motivated them to do whatever he required them to do.”

Ken McKinnon was a young coach with the Pointe-Claire Swim Club when he first met Talbot.

“The principles I learned during that time frame, I use them today daily when I’m discussing stuff with coaches,” said McKinnon, Swimming Canada’s national development coach.

Talbot had the ability to take complex strategies and make them simple.

“He had a real steel trap of a mind,” said McKinnon. “He could see things very clearly that others couldn’t. He could simplify it.”

Johnson said Talbot could spot the potential in swimmers that other coaches might miss.

“He could take swimmers who were on the periphery of maybe being ready to perform on the Olympic stage and, in a relatively short period of time, focus them on how to optimize their performances and get into that belief system that they could win at that level,” he said.

Gibson said Talbot brought his passion for success into the board room.

“He could always speak passionately about what he truly believed was what needed to be done to achieve the results that everybody wanted to achieve,” she said. “His knowledge about swimming and what it was going to take to achieve goals was his strongest attribute.”

Talbot’s drive to succeed was ahead of his time. He campaigned for tougher qualifying standards and focusing on podium performances before programs like Own the Podium were developed.

“He was way ahead of that,” said Sawchuk. “He put Canadian swimming on its ear when he came here.”

“In his own words, Canadians wanted to go to the Olympics so they could say they went to the Olympics. You need to go to the Olympics to win a medal and the medal you should be after is gold. It’s not always feasible, but that’s the way it should be.”