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Coaching Pioneer George Gate Steps Down


Jack G. Kelso

International Swimming Hall of Fame Canadian Coach George Gate has retired after an impressive fifty-year tenure in Canadian aquatics. He retired quietly and without fanfare from the Pointe Claire Aquatic Centre earlier this year.

Who is this man? For many of the younger set in Canadian swimming his name does not conjure up awe or inspiration or perhaps even recognition, yet George Gate was instrumental in establishing a myriad of exemplary swim-coaching models that today serve as a cornerstone of our sport. For those of us who have been around a few years, George Gate was a true pioneer in innovative coaching techniques, coaching education, and club administration.

George was born in Carlisle, England, and was a county champion swimmer as a teenager, before joining the British Navy in 1942. He was decorated with the Burma, France, Germany, Atlantic, and Pacific Stars, in recognition of his wartime duty on convoy escorts around the world. He moved to Canada in 1947, and worked for a short time in a logging camp on Vancouver Island. He received serious head and hand injuries while on the job and was sent to Vancouver for treatment. While there, he became attracted to the Crystal Pool, the only indoor pool in the area, where he began to swim for therapy and enjoyment. Percy Norman, the coach of the Vancouver Amateur Swim Club, became interested in him both as a swimmer and as an assistant coach. Norman was one of Canada's top coaches of this period. George began a new job as a mail-order clerk with Simpsons-Sears and assisted with the Crystal Pool operations for a year.

George Gates
Click image for larger photo.

In 1952, he was hired by Pacific Mills, Ltd. to be the pool manager for the town of Ocean Falls, B.C. He started his coaching career in this little coastal community, isolated from the rest of the world by mountains and water, 500 kilometres north of Vancouver. George remained in Ocean Falls as the pool manager and club coach until 1964. During this time he developed many Canadian champions, and the Ocean Falls Amateur Swim Club (with only four young men competing) won the Men's Aggregate Team Trophy four years in a row (1962-1965) at Summer Nationals. The OFASC placed swimmers on virtually every national team from 1951 through to 1973 (except 1958), all of them coached by George. Some of the more noteworthy Ocean Falls swimmers who represented Canada at this time were Allen Gilchrist, Lenora Fisher, Richard Pound (now an IOC Executive Board Member), Sandy Gilchrist, Jack Kelso, and Ralph Hutton. Hutton is still Canada's most decorated international swimmer, winning 24 medals in Olympic, Pan Am, and Commonwealth Games, from 1963 to 1972.

George recognized the need for more innovative coaching techniques, which subsequently led to many state-of-the-art ideas initiated in Ocean Falls. He was the first Canadian coach to realize the importance of streamlined swimming, so he changed the flat-style of freestyle to a rolling, long-axis rotational style, accommodating a more relaxed recovery and a longer, stronger pulling technique. The six-beat kick in freestyle was the dominant kicking sequence at that time, but he decided that for distance swimmers, two and four-beat kicking was a good idea and he subsequently initiated this tempo change. Both Sandy Gilchrist and Ralph Hutton were several times national champions in middle and distance freestyle events due to George's stroke innovations. He also introduced a well-balanced strength training program, and vitamin supplementation.

He had a captive audience in this isolated coastal town, and he was able to completely dictate his methods and teachings to his swimmers. He was often frustrated at the lack of support from the various townspeople and the company executives, but he was given the opportunity to experiment and remain quite independent as the coach. He had the innate ability to recognize talent, to train in a creative and consistent way, and to realize the artistic components of coaching. His coaching style was somewhat militant, as he was a stern disciplinarian, very demanding, and held high expectations. However, he did know when to relax and enjoy the moment. He was always very proud of his swimmers' accomplishments.

In 1964, George was hired by the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association to manage their pool and coach the swim club. He had coached Sandy Gilchrist and Ralph Hutton on to the 1964 Olympic team, representing half of the men's team at the Tokyo Games later that summer.

He had been selected as the assistant coach of the Canadian Commonwealth Games team in 1954, a team which had seven Ocean Falls swimmers on it. He did not receive much national recognition through his earlier coaching years, and did not coach another national team until the 1968 Olympics. He was the men's coach of this team to Mexico City, where his best protégé, Ralph Hutton, won a silver medal in the 400 Freestyle. (This was Canada's first individual Olympic swimming medal since 1920!)

Pointe Claire was George's third pool management and coaching position. He was hired to manage the new indoor, 50-metre pool, in 1966, where he stayed until his retirement earlier this year. He was the director of the facility, the head coach, and finally, the President of the Pointe Claire Swim Club during this historic tenure. His club soon dominated national swim results, and in Canada's swimming golden years (1976-1986) his athletes were among the best in the world. Some of his international stars at this time were: Anne Jardin, Wendy Quirk, Peter Szmidt, John Hawes, Tom Arusoo, and Julie Daigneault. George continued with his strong club program at Pointe Claire placing several swimmers on national teams over the next twenty years. He was named as a coach to the first World Aquatic Championships in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and he also coached the Canadian Maccabian Games teams in 1977 and 1988.

The Pointe Claire Swim Club was George Gate's pride and joy. He created a model club that was the envy of the other clubs in Canada for many years. He was able to run this club as he saw fit, without too much interference from the parents, and with the wisdom of his expertise and knowledge gained through many years of experimentation and international success.

One of the most compelling aspects of George's success was his ability to handle the dual role of pool management and coaching. He was one of a very few coaches who earned his living by managing a pool and then augmenting his salary and his working days by coaching. This presented a unique opportunity for him to be in complete charge of his training/competition program, while maintaining the needs of the community in terms of total pool commitments. This was an ideal situation for a coach—not having to negotiate pool rental time through pool staff was a vital component of his coaching success. Through all of his fifty years of coaching he was always in control of his pool's schedule. This is rarely the case in today's coaching world. How many coaches in Canada today are managing their own facilities? Not very many. George was able to build strong competitive programs around his capacity as an aquatics director, and he was strong-willed enough to be able to convince his immediate superiors on the community boards of his decisions regarding pool use priorities.

One of George's most important legacies is the impressive number of his former swimmers who have gone on to elite coaching levels. He hired coaches at Pointe Claire who were primarily former swimmers from his own program. He was the first to recognize a team-coaching concept, naming coaches for specific responsibilities within the total club structure. The first coaching team that he hired consisted of Dave and Tom Johnson, and Don Packer. Dave is currently Canada's High Performance Services Manager and National Team Head Coach, and Tom is the Head Coach of the premier club in the country, the Pacific Dolphin Swim Club, in Vancouver. A few other well-known coaches from George's “coaching farm system” were Pierre Lafontaine, Tom Arusoo, John Hawes, and his two sons, Richard and Bill (who is currently coaching at PCSC). He has, without a doubt, placed more coaches in programs across Canada than any other coach in the history of the sport.

It is important to note that George was not paid to coach through his earlier years in Ocean Falls. In fact he was often out-of-pocket when he travelled with the team each summer. He did not receive coaching wages until he moved to Montreal. Swim coaches in the 1950s and 1960s were all part-time paid coaches, with many of them holding full-time positions elsewhere. It was not until the early 1970s that full-time paid swim coaches emerged, and George was one of the first to recognize the need for this evolvement.

Here are a few of his current thoughts on Canadian Swimming: his main concern over these immediate past few years has been the lack of success at the international level. Canadian swimming was ranked in the top five nations of the world during the 1970s and early 1980s, but it has fallen on hard times in comparison to the rest of the world's swimming powers. He always believed that Canada could produce world champions, and now wonders what has happened to that reality.

George continues to stress the need for coaching education, and he thinks that this is an area that is not being properly performed. Coaches should be given the opportunity to attend more international coaching clinics to gain new insight into an ever-changing and demanding sport. He also points out that swim coaching is, and always will be, a combination of science and art. Science has been given too much emphasis lately, leaving out the creative, artistic component that is so important for success.

No doubt we have not heard the last of this meritorious swimming coach. The hope is that he will set down his thoughts on paper one day, and we can all benefit from his wisdom and expertise. He has been a most unique and highly motivated coach, one whom many of us have greatly appreciated during his “term in office.” He will be missed at the Pointe Claire Aquatic Centre after all of his years there.

George Gate has always been a gentleman, a man of humour and camaraderie, and a dreamer and achiever of performance excellence. We all wish him the best of good health and good cheer for a long and entertaining retirement.

Jack Kelso, Ph.D. UBC School of Human Kinetics swam under George Gate at Ocean Falls in the late 1950-60s. He recently completed a major work on the History of the Aquatics Spots in Canada, which is still unpublished. He is retiring from UBC this June.

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