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Architect of Canadian swimming revival sets sights on world dominance

Pierre Lafontaine has one legacy of resurrection – bringing back life to a Canadian swim scene that was left for dead on the pool deck after winning no medals at the 2004 Olympics.

Now, the man brought back from Australia to revive swimming as the national coach and chief executive officer of Swimming Canada is going for another revival – to make Canada one of the greatest swimming countries in the world.

He aims to keep Canadian swimmers at home (instead of heading for scholarships at U.S. schools) and find corporations to pump money into Canadian swimming.

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To do that, he said as Swimming Canada launched its Vision 2020 program, he will take off the coaching hat after the 2012 Olympic Games in London and concentrate on being a CEO. Swimming Canada is searching now for a top-ranked new national coach to take Lafontaine's duties.

The restoration of swimming has worked so far; it's time to take the next step, he said. His pep talks will be used to coax corporate purse strings open.

"The phase from 2005 to 2012 was a good base. Now it's time to run toward greatness," said Lafontaine at a news conference at the University of Toronto. He said he and athletes will rely on the key words in the program: embrace (excellence), perform and inspire. Canada should be in the hunt for medals in every meet, he said.

"I'm asked if I'll miss being on the pool deck. Probably, it's a bigger thrill to reach down into the system and create a culture where swimming well is what we do well; of using sport to make this country more special than it is now; of creating sport tourism [like Melbourne, Australia]"

Lafontaine has cut his teeth as a coach. After a medal-free 2004 Olympic swim meet in Athens – Canada's first in 50 years – swimming needed an overhaul and Lafontaine was lured back from Australia in 2005, where he'd helped turn that country into a world leader in the sport. (Previously he'd led swimmers from the Phoenix Swim Club in the United States to eight medals at the Sydney Olympics). In 2004 he trained four swimmers from the Australian Institute of Sport to Olympic medals; in 2005 as Canadian head coach, he led the home team to a five-medal burst at the FINA World Aquatics Championships; in 2006 he coached Canada's Commonwealth Games swimmers where Mike Brown won gold. Lafontaine led Brent Hayden to a Pan Pacific gold, and, in 2007, Hayden won Canada's first world championship gold in 20 years. In 2008, Ryan Cochrane of Victoria ended the Olympic medal drought with a freestyle medal. Since the Beijing Olympics, Canadians have had eight world record performances and two silvers at world championships.

Being one the world's top nations is the logical next step, Lafontaine said. "If you're going to dream, dream big," he said. "It's not just about swimming for life, it's about being the best.

"Canada also needs to innovate in swimming," he said, referring to pushing workloads and the scientific study of swimming. "We can't just follow what others do. We need a system as strong as the NCAA, so we keep our best swimmers in Canada.

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"We're eighth in the world now; I want us to move up to seventh, sixth, fifth..."

One of the next generation's swimmers who will benefit from the new regime, freestyler Oliver Straszynski, 15, of Toronto, already is in tune with the new system. He's been swimming for 10 years "And I couldn't imagine giving it up," he said. "I want to swim like [U of T]swimmers do. They go harder than I can think of."

The world record in his best event, the 400 metres, is 3:40.07 by Germany's Paul Biedermann. Straszynski figures the record will be 3:35 by the time he swims in the 2020 Olympics, and that's the time he's working toward. He's already at 4:08, a time that would have put him about 40th in this year's world championship field.

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About the Author
Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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