ATIKOKAN – One of Atikokan’s sports legends has helped put the team he swam for as a child back on the map, reviving the Nakokita Swim Club, which recently fielded swimmers in a competition for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Tom Hainey accompanied a dozen Nakokita swimmers to the Thunderbolts’ 50th Anniversary Grand Prix over the weekend, the club’s first competition since he helped reboot it.
The event gathered 250 swimmers from Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Minneapolis, as well as across the region, for three days of competition at the Canada Games Complex.
For Hainey, just seeing Nakokita swimmers compete was a victory – not that he’s about to rest on his laurels.
A previous incarnation of the team was a fixture of Hainey’s childhood. Born with spina bifida, he quickly found he could hold his own in the pool when he joined at age 11.
“For me, it started in Atikokan with the original Nakokita Swim Club,” he said. “I was born with a disability, and swimming seemed to be the only avenue where I had somewhat of a level playing field with the other athletes.”
Within a year, he was approached to compete in regional competitions, launching a career that took him to the heights of competitive swimming, racking up four golds and five silvers at the 1984 and 1988, and 1992 Paralympics.
After a stint coaching with Nakokita, he was recruited in 1997 as head coach of Winnipeg’s Manta Swim Club, where he worked with athletes including 2016 Rio medalist Chantal Van Landeghem.
“It would be like going from coaching high school football to the NFL – it was terrifying,” he said. “But it led to 20 years of coaching, all sorts of successes in the sport, working with great athletes and great families.”After years coaching at the elite level, Hainey said he was burned out. He stepped back from coaching in 2017, leaving the Manta mid-season to return to Atikokan, taking a job as the town’s manager of community services.
“I was at a point in my coaching career where I wasn’t fresh,” he said. “At the level I was coaching at, with the kids coming to the pool nine times a week, I couldn’t give them what they were putting in.”
Hainey’s break from the pool wasn’t destined to last long. He soon determined to revive the Nakokita club, which had been defunct for nearly two decades, seeing a need for more opportunities for area kids.
The new Nakokita Swim Club was officially recognized by Swim Ontario last fall.
Many of the roughly 30 youth who signed up are beginners. Hainey coaches a group of about a dozen who are swimming competitively.
He’s relished the role, saying coaching offers a particular thrill you can’t find anywhere else.
“When you’re working with these kids… and they do a best time or whatever, you get to share in that,” he said. “It’s addicting – the kids are just so excited, they’ve put so much effort into it. It’s this incredibly powerful, rewarding loop – train, success, train, success.”If Hainey is no longer preparing athletes for major competitions, building a swim team from the ground up has stretched his coaching skills in different directions.“The challenge is, I immediately want to go back to what I know, and that’s nine practices a week and ‘we do it this way and that way,’” he said. “It’s like, no, Tom – I’ve got to make it so they want to come to one practice, never mind three or four.”
“But at the same time, I don’t want it to be a waste of time. We’re not coming to play games – I have no interest in that. This is not a recreation program, this is what the infancy of a high-performance program looks like.”
For Hainey, the role is a chance to repay a “massive debt of gratitude” to the town where he was raised.
“The community gave me everything – it got me to an international level of swimming, which led to a fabulous coaching career,” he said. “It almost brings me to tears the amount of support I had as an athlete. The town was insanely supportive of me, and they’re supportive of the swim program now.”
That extends to offering some financial aid to club swimmers, something Hainey described as crucial to his own swimming career.
“It’s mandated in the DNA of this program that there’s going to be financial supports for every kid, through KidSport, but also through our fundraising,” he said. “We will not have a situation where kids can’t swim… I know first-hand without it, I would have missed out on everything.”
“The town provided financial support when [there were] certain competitions I wasn’t able to go to – you know, my parents raised four kids.”
The chance to swim in their first major competition on the weekend served as a reward for swimmers after a season hobbled by COVID-19, he said.
“They raced and, as we say in the sport, it was clean – no disqualifications. So there were 14 races, 14 personal best times, and 14 big smiles. What I hope is this is going to incentivize wanting to come to the pool again and again, and we can take it to the next level.”