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Deryk Snelling remembered as a coach who helped change Canadian swimming

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By Jim Morris

Colleagues and athletes remember Deryk Snelling as someone who transformed swimming, a relentlessly positive person who pushed the envelope when it came to training and performance and became one of Canada’s most successful coaches.

“He was one of the handful that changed the world of swimming from the 1970s on,” said Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada’s former chief executive officer and national team director.

“He was a person of the world. He touched the lives of so many people.”

Snelling, 88, died recently from pneumonia and congestive heart failure at his home on Vancouver Island.

Olympic gold medallist Mark Tewksbury remembers the first time he met Snelling as a 14-year-old at the University of Calgary Swim Club.

“He was just so inspiring and compelling and fascinating and so successful,” said Tewksbury, who won the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with Snelling as his coach.

“He just had that real passion for swimming that was incredible.”

Ken McKinnon, Swimming Canada’s national development coach, coached at the Pointe-Claire Swim Club when Snelling was head coach at the Etobicoke Swim Club.

“Deryk was an absolute professional, somebody you looked up to,” said McKinnon. “He respected the (coaching) role on a daily and minute-by-minute basis.

“You never saw him out on the deck, like I would have been at the age of 19 or 20, in my jeans and Kodiak work boots. He would be decked out in full Etobicoke attire and wear it well.”

Later, when McKinnon became the national junior development coach with Swimming Canada, Snelling would call him to give him some thoughts or offer strategies.

“He was very supportive,” said McKinnon.

During his career Snelling coached 60 swimmers to the Olympics with 21 of them winning medals. A member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Swimming Canada’s Circle of Excellence and a recipient of the Order of Canada, he was head coach of four Canadian Olympic teams, five Commonwealth Games and one world championship.

Swimmers he coached won 10 world championship medals, 27 Pan Pacific medals, 38 Pan American medals and 65 at the Commonwealth Games, plus set seven world records.

Snelling worked as an analyst on television swimming broadcasts and wrote the book “All About Individual Medley.”

Born in Darwin, England, Snelling spent two years in the British Army as a physical training instructor. He coached the Southampton Swimming Club from 1961 to 1967 before coming to Vancouver where he was head coach of the Canadian Dolphin Swim Club for eight years.

Snelling was also the high performance director of the Amateur Swimming Federation of Great Britain from 1996 to 2000.

Lafontaine was Snelling’s assistant coach at the University of Calgary Swim Club from 1984 to 1988. He spent a year living with Snelling’s family, and Snelling was the best man at his wedding.

“I was always trying to outsmart him, but I couldn’t,” said Lafontaine.

“He was always so upbeat and so competitive and was an incredible student of the sport. He wasn’t just a taskmaster, he tried to create an environment where the team was fighting for each other.

“He was a consummate team builder and an educator.”

Snelling always managed to get the most from his swimmers.

“Deryk was really good at figuring out how to motivate people and different people needed different things,” said Tewksbury. “(He) definitely knew how to push me.

“He was myopically focused on swimming, obsessed with swimming, a hugely passionate guy.

“I respected him a lot. His job was to push me and I didn’t always like to be pushed. It was a great and challenging relationship.”

Besides Tewksbury, Tom Ponting, Graham Smith and Jon Cleveland trained under Snelling in Calgary.

McKinnon said Snelling had the ability to explain the complexities of swimming to people.

“He was a master at speaking to groups,” he said. “He could sit down and in a very relaxed manner, speak to the group for five to 15 minutes, get to the point and keep you interested.”

He surrounded himself with good people. He also introduced the idea of psychologists and managers on teams.

“He would push the envelope of support,” said Lafontaine. “He wanted to make sure his swimmers were exposed to the best of the world all the time.”

Lafontaine remembers Snelling taking a team to the Black Sea for three weeks in 1986 to train with the great Russian swimmer Vladimir Salnikov.

“Nobody did that,” he said.

Snelling coached at the same time as other Canadian legends like Cliff Berry, Paul Bergen, Don Talbot and Tom and Dave Johnson.

“They had an incredible rivalry,” said Lafontaine. “It created the Canadian swimming we know today.

“He really made a difference in so many coaches lives. He didn’t make everybody happy, that’s for sure.”

McKinnon said Snelling was easy-going and relaxed off the pool deck.

“He had great stories of his life when he was young growing up in England,” he said. “He relayed to us stories of competing, winning a point with an athlete and getting them to succeed.

“He was not shy to tell you that he knew what he was taking about. I don’t say that in a negative sense. He was a very confident guy.”