By Jim Morris
Vince Mikuska has plenty of plans now the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games have ended. Being a coach isn’t on his to-do list.
After being involved in Para swimming for more than 20 years, Mikuska is retiring from his position as Swimming Canada’s senior coach, Paralympic program.
“It’s time to get on with some other things,” said the 65-year-old Chilliwack, B.C., resident. “There are paintings to paint and hikes to hike, a grandchild to look after.”
Mikuska joined Swimming Canada in 2013 after spending 19 years at Chilliwack’s Spartan Swim Club and four years as provincial coach at Swim British Columbia. He took over the Para swimming head coaching duties when Craig McCord stepped down in 2016. Tokyo was his third Paralympics but his first as a head coach.
Canadian swimmers won eight medals in Tokyo.
Mikuska doesn’t have a traditional coaching background. The Winnipeg native has an art history degree from the University of Manitoba, paints in his spare time and never was a competitive swimmer.
“I had some different ways of looking at things,” he said.
Mikuska had planned to retire last year but agreed to stay when COVID-19 forced the postponement of the Tokyo Paralympics.
“I said I would stick around and finish the job and get the team into Tokyo,” he said. “I just thought this was the time to get off the full-time job thing and get to some of the other things I’d like to be doing.”
He didn’t tell the athletes his decision prior to Tokyo so he wouldn’t be a distraction.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, thanked Mikuska for his significant contributions to Para swimming.
“His calm dedication to getting the job done with no drama has been outstanding for our athletes, coaches, management and staff,” said Atkinson. “As well as acknowledging his work I thank him for all he has done and wish him all the best for his retirement and what that holds for him and his family.”
Wayne Lomas, Swimming Canada’s associate director of high performance and Para swimming national coach, praised Mikuska for his wisdom and experience.
“I want to thank Vince for his leadership, his calm professional guidance of our swimmers, our coaches and our system, and for his friendship,” said Lomas. “Vince will be missed, but his legacy at the club, provincial and national levels will leave a positive impact for years to come.”
Mikuska believes he has accomplished the goals he set for himself when taking the head coaching job, including expanded education opportunities for coaches.
“We’ve done a lot more things for coaches over the last four years,” he said. “Whether it was getting them to camps or cooperating with the Canadian Swimming Coaches Association to have apprenticeship opportunities at the World Series events, the Pan Pacific Championships and the world championships.”
Learning to cope with a pandemic opened the door to more online training.
“We were able to do quite a number of sessions,” he said. “We got good feedback.”
Mikuska also worked to change the culture inside the Para swimming team.
“It’s always been kind of tricky to build a team in an individual sport but there were things around the culture of the team I wanted to develop,” he said. “I think we’ve been successful working with our mental performance consultants, just introducing ideas and getting people to understand what bringing their best to the pool meant for the other people on their team.”
Mikuska’s list of highlights include working with Katarina Roxon at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. At her third Games, Roxon won her first ever medal: gold in 100-metre breaststroke SB8 in Canadian record time.
“That was pretty special,” he said.
When the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships were postponed due to an earthquake in Mexico City, Swimming Canada hosted a meet in Toronto. Canadian swimmers responded with many strong results, including a world record by Shelby Newkirk in the 100-m backstroke.
“I think we showed some real resilience on the part of the team,” Mikuska said.
At the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London, Mikuska’s first as head coach, Canada won 15 medals – three more than the 2015 event.
“We exceeded what we thought we were going to do, which was great,” he said.
Mikuska attended the Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016 Paralympics as a staff coach. He also was a staff coach at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, the 2013 and 2015 IPC World Championships in Montreal and Glasgow, and both the Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
His coaching career began when he was attending the University of 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.
Mikuska agreed. When the coach left a year later, he took over the club.
“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,” he said. “It was always fun to be involved with people who wanted to be good at something.”
Mikuska’s involvement with Para swimming began in 1995 when Bob Penner, who had cerebral palsy, began swimming with the club in Chilliwack. Penner competed at two Paralympics and won gold as part of the 4×100-m 34-point medley relay in Sydney.
“I didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of cerebral palsy,” said Mikuska. “We just kept trying to do things.”
Mikuska is an accomplished artist. There have been 12 exhibitions of his work dating back to 1983 in Winnipeg.
He finds painting relaxing and often discovers answers to questions involving swimming.
“I think there’s lot of things that go on in your subconscious, that we figure out lots of things (when) we’re not thinking about what we’re supposed to be thinking about,” he said.
Mikuska will continue to do some education work with Swimming Canada.
“It’ll be projects that have a start and an end,” he said. “I’m not going to get involved with anything ongoing.”
What Mikuska will miss most is the one-on-one contact with swimmers.
“Working with coaches and athletes in their home environment, that is really a lot of fun,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do that because of COVID. That’s really been missing from the job since the pandemic started.”
Making the decision to step down wasn’t hard. Mikuska’s wife retired from her job this year. They will visit their grandchild in Helsinki, Finland at the conclusion of the Paralympic Games.
“I really have been looking forward to this,” he said. “It’s time for us to get on with doing other things that we find enjoyable.”