The stuffy, chlorine-infused air weighed heavily on the shoulders of Nigel Kemp on the last night of the 1998 Atlantic University Athletic Union (AUAA) Championships. Kemp's 36 dripping-wet Dalhousie Tigers crowded around him as he launched into the time-honoured end-of-season speech.
But this time, Kemp's remarks were far from traditional. After he congratulated his men's and women's squads on a job well done, his speech grew leaden as the words stuck in his throat, and tears filled his eyes. Several swimmers glanced at each other, mildly surprised at the poignancy revealed by a man famous for his non-effusive manner. But, certainly, Kemp's emotion was to be expected.
After 25 years at the helm of Dalhousie men's and women's swimming, the CIAU's longest-serving swim coach was retiring.
"Coaching, like anything else in life, is finite," Kemp stoically admits. "I suppose I'm fortunate to be able to have an element of choice about when I step down."
February's CIAU championships marked the end of an illustrious career for Kemp. But his reserved and demure attitude-a remnant perhaps of his British upbringing-discloses nothing of his many achievements.
Coaching success began almost immediately upon Kemp's arrival in Halifax, N.S., in the fall of 1971. Along with his job at Dalhousie University, where he is an associate professor of physical education and kinesiology as well as swim coach, Kemp coached the local Halifax Trojan Aquatic Club until 1980. It was with the Trojans that he led an adolescent Nancy Garapick to a world record and, subsequently, two bronze medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Garapick later swam for Dalhousie.
In 1975, he was named coach of the year by the Canadian Swimming Coaches Association and in 1989 he was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame.
But Kemp is not one to rest on his laurels. "All of these things seem important at the time," he says. "But any sport is transient." For Kemp, the opportunity to coach his son, Stuart, for the past three years is unquestionably a career highlight.
"I've had a lot of satisfaction in having my own son involved in the program and seeing him progress from someone with no competitive background to qualifying for CIAU championships," says Kemp, his fatherly pride bursting through his reticence.
Stuart's success can be attributed to more than a close relationship with the Tigers' head coach. Kemp Sr. was on the British national team and was a finalist at the 1965 World Student Games in the 400 I.M. "There is a certain genetic component," he admits. But while Stuart's quick improvement would make many parents gush with self-congratulation, Kemp is quick to praise other athletes and the Tigers' training program, rather than his genes.
On the pool deck, Kemp's coaching style matches his often sober demeanor. "It's not the sort of approach with rah rah speeches," he says. And there is almost always a lesson to be learned.
"My reasons are explained to the athlete, why (a certain) approach is being pursued. I want to get them to buy into what it is they're doing," he says. "The process the athletes go through in pursuing their goals is as important as the outcome. The memories you have about the sport and the people you've had the opportunity to meet; those are all very important elements."
"And," Kemp adds, forever the judicious educator, "if, as a consequence, you also develop good time management skills, that's a very positive outcome."
Kemp's idiosyncrasies are perhaps what people will miss most on the pool deck. In two and a half decades of coaching, no swimmer has been immune to his dry, often cryptic wit and his esoteric jokes.
Although Kemp is looking forward to time off from swimming, he says he'll never be too far away from the pool deck.
"The more you understand about the sport, the more addictive it is. I will continue to be involved in coaching education," he says. Then, grinning, "I'm not going cold turkey, although I might get weaned off it eventually!"