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National Paralympic coach Vince Mikuska uses painting to fill COVID-19 coaching void

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Photo Credit: Jenna Hauck, Courtesy of The Chilliwack Progress

By Jim Morris

Like many people, Vince Mikuska has not been operating on his usual schedule over the past year or so.

Normally Mikuska, national senior coach for Swimming Canada’s Paralympic Program, would spend about 190 days a year at competitions or visiting athletes and coaches across the country to assist in training. His schedule would be even busier this year with the Tokyo Paralympics scheduled to begin Aug. 24.

But COVID-19 changed all that. While he continues to see swimmers, coaches and Swimming Canada staff virtually, the time saved when not travelling has allowed him to turn his attention to another of his passions, painting. A collection of his work was recently on display at the Chilliwack Arts and Cultural Centre.

The presentation called Shifting Perspectives is Mikuska’s 12th exhibit dating back to 1983 in Winnipeg.

His last show in 2016 incorporated a number of portraits or pieces that had numerous faces. He describes the 44 paintings in this most recent display as “landscape inspired, abstract work.”

“The work I was doing (in 2016) was a little different in approach,” he said. “It was still landscape based, but I think this is maybe a little bit more specific.

“Sometimes I’ll start a painting by just making some gestures on paper or canvas and then I just keep reacting to it. This time I had a little bit more of an idea going in what I wanted to do.”

On the centre’s website, Mikuska explains he tries to challenge what and how he sees.

“Colour, perspective and movement are all important to trying to reimagine my surroundings,” he said. “There are many ways to view the relationships between form, space and environment. I endeavor to re-constitute those relationships by using space and colour to create new forms and new environments.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions only a limited number of people have been able to view the exhibit, but the reaction has been positive.

“People seem to be appreciating my colour, as they usually do,” he said. “Somebody that had seen my work before, they were noticing I had changed my approach, so lots of good feedback.”

The time Mikuska spends in front of a canvas helps format ideas and strategies he can apply to swimming.

“I believe firmly in the fact your mind works on several subconscious levels,” he said. “When you are able to do something and get into what they generally call flow, things start to coalesce in your mind.

“I think that it helps to free up my mind . . .  because those things are being processed subconsciously while I’m doing my painting.”

The Tokyo Paralympics were originally scheduled for 2020 but were delayed because of the global pandemic. Mikuska believes the extra year, and the coping skills needed to adjust to the realities of COVID-19, may actually benefit some of the athletes.

“I think there will be a lot of positive impacts for a lot of swimmers,” he said. “Some of them had another year of training, some of them had another year of being able to mature.

“When people reflect on what they had to go through this year they’ll understand they’ve psychologically gained some strength. This has taken a lot of perseverance and resilience to get through. It’s no fun when you’re doing it, but when you reflect on it, you may find that you’re actually stronger.”

Despite restrictions across the country, most carded swimmers have been able to continue their in-pool training since July. What has been lacking is competition.

“That’s the biggest thing that everybody has been missing is the opportunity to race,” he said. “Lots of people have been doing time trials in their own pool and there’s been some really good results, but they’re athletes. They want to compete That’s a huge loss for them.”

Like other professions, Swimming Canada’s coaching staff have adapted to using teleconferencing and video meetings.

“It’s just not the same as the things that you see or just spontaneously happen when you’re at somebody’s pool,” said Mikuska.

“That’s the fun part of the job, seeing what people are doing and seeing how they’re improving. Just the actual human contact is the biggest part that I’ve missed.”

Mikuska, who has been involved in Para swimming for more than 20 years, took over the head coaching role after Craig McCord stepped down following the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

He was part of the coaching staff in Rio that saw Canadian swimmers win eight medals. 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 served as lead coach at the London 2019 World Para Swimming Championships.

The Tokyo Paralympics will be unlike previous competitions. Friends and family won’t be able to attend and athletes will be restricted in their movements.

Mikuska is confident Canada’s Para swimmers can ignore the distractions and perform when necessary.

“I think our preparation has been pretty good,” he said. “I think they’ll bounce back and come through well. The times they’ve been posting that their coaches have been reporting have been very encouraging. How that’s going to translate and what the environment is going to be like when we get to Tokyo is another matter.”