John Atkinson, the Brit taking the helm of Canadian swimming as High Performance Director, has placed improvement from trials to world titles as a priority this year at the start of the next chapter in the country's Vision 2020 plan.
Canada’s goal is to rank among the top eight in medals at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and then make the top six at the 2020 Games. Canada finished equal 15th on the medals in the elite pool and out on the marathon course at London 2012 alongside hosts Britain, each with a silver and two bronze medals apiece.
As the London 2012 host nation knows well, the journey is often long and hard: a record 23 finalists, 3 medals from two swimmers in the pool. Atkinson, whose last job in Britain was to lead his home paralympic swim team to 39 medals, worked as right-hand man to Bill Sweetenham after a spree in Australia.
The 45-year-old from Chorley, Lancashire, emphasises process and while the medals count they will not be counted before they're won nor will they be held up as "the target".
He explains: "If we can get people improving we’ll be successful and that will equate to medals. We know what the targets are. But I wouldn’t go into the team and talk about winning a specific number medals. Of course that’s what we’ll strive to do, but how we get there is not by saying ‘You’re going to win X number of medals’ and create stress.
“Whatever a swimmer does this year at trials in Victoria (April 3-6), to me we have to talk to them and their coaches about how we will then improve at World Championships in Barcelona (July 19-Aug. 4)," he added in a release from Swim Canada today. "I don’t talk about how we’re going to win any number of medals, I talk about how we can improve. How the team works, acts and responds is important, therefore a goal would be to become the most professional nation at the World Championships and the most professional national team in Canada."
Atkinson was a swimmer at the time the Wigan club near Manchester sent swimmers like medallist June Croft to the Olympic Games. He says: “Athletes have got to have a commitment to what their goals and ambitions are. If an athlete identifies their goals, along with their coach we can work out what they need to do to achieve them. There may be setbacks along the way but sometimes coaches and athletes have got to find a way to make it happen. If they’re committed and honest they will stand a good chance in aspiring to reach their goals."
Recalling his time at the top in Britain, Atkinson cited among perks the day Prince Harry spent a morning heat session with the home paralympics squad. The visit was no photo op.
"Whether it was the athletes, coaches or staff, he spent time with each one of them," says Atkinson. "He was an absolute pleasure to have with our team that morning. It was something that the swimmers really did get a lot out of and had a big impact on the team spirit on what we were doing in London."
On Atkinson's arrival, Swimming Canada Interim CEO Ken Radford said: “This is going to be an exciting time for Swimming Canada and we’re keen to have John join our leadership team. He has a track record as a decisive leader and a reputation for a structured approach and accountability throughout the system. We have every confidence he’ll provide us with solid leadership that will benefit our coaches and athletes as he tackles the challenges ahead.”
A former swimmer, Atkinson is married to Victoria, an environmental scientist from Australia, and the couple have two youngsters, son Alex, 12, and daughter Stephanie, 9.
Atkinson will be based at Swimming Canada’s national office in Ottawa but will by flying around the big country. “My plan is that I will get out to see each of the (five National Swim Centre) coaches initially and start to get a feel for what they’re doing, how they work and how those centres operate,” he says. “It’s just about gathering information initially, then the main focus will be to build the team towards the World Championships in Barcelona whilst also establishing plans for the quad to Rio.”
He will also work closely with National Junior Coach Ken McKinnon. Swim Canada notes: "The pair met at a coaching conference in 2006 and hit it off immediately."
“His work with the coaches and the advice he offered was always positive and practical. We’ve stayed in touch ever since,” McKinnon says. “I’m looking forward to working closely with him to further develop swimming in Canada."
Atkinson, doubtless with a nod to problems in Britain, is keen to the channel of communication with swimmers open. “Everybody’s allowed an opinion, whether that be coaches, athletes or myself. In an open, supportive environment, I think that can work towards people achieving high performance,” he says. “You have to work on making it happen. That’s part of my plan where I’m getting out, seeing the centre coaches initially and after trials I’ll get out to see more people. That builds the trust and bond with coaches, athletes, team members, support staff. It builds that working relationship so when you’re together on Day 8 of the World Championships or the Olympic Games, people have that trust in each other and you can build that team.
“That comes in time. It doesn’t just happen but it will come over a period of time and I think it’s very important.”