It’s come full circle for Paralympic medalist swimmer Tom Hainey.
Hainey, who was born in Atikokan, got his start in the pool with the city’s Nakokita Swim Club in the late 1970s. He revived the club a few years ago after it had been missing for about two decades. , and is now coaching a new group of swimmers when they first meet.
“We have a phrase: swimming keeps kids clean,” Hainey said. “What they get out of it is a very, very structured life. They tend to be better students, there’s not a lot of room in their life to go sideways.”
“They get that structure and the parents have peace of mind.”
He speaks from experience – his own swimming career was very successful.
Hainey said he was born with a disability, and his parents and coach were approached by a Thunder Bay official who asked if he would be interested in competing for athletes with a disability.
“Initially, I said no, because I didn’t consider myself a disabled athlete,” he said. “Once I got past that, I started competing in the Paralympic movement.”
Hainey competed at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games, winning four gold and five silver medals, and also competed at world championships.
“A natural evolution of athletes is that they turn to coaching, which I did part-time during my studies, and I fell in love with coaching as I was in swimming,” said- he declared.
After graduating, Hainey took over the original Nakokita club, but then received an offer to coach with the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg in 1997. He accepted and spent 20 years with that club.
Then Hainey realized he needed a change.
“I left training in Winnipeg because I didn’t think it was fair for the athletes that I asked them to come to the pool so much time, put so much energy into their training, and I didn’t I wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “I had come to a point in my career where I wasn’t super excited, and I didn’t think that was fair.”
So Hainey and his family packed up and headed back to Atikokan, where he became the town’s director of community services.
At the time, the Nakokita club had been gone for almost 20 years. Hainey soon began to miss being on the pool deck, so he began working on reviving the club.
“It took a little while,” he said. “I started a few camps, if you will, and gave the kids exposure to what competitive non-competitive swimming was and the formality of everything.”
“COVID really stalled the whole process, we would have been a lot further along than we are now without COVID. It really had an impact on the fledgling program and it also had an impact on many other small programs in Ontario.
But last September, it all became official, with Swim Ontario officially recognizing the new Nakokita Swim Club.
This weekend the swimmers are in the pool for their first meet, at the Canada Games Complex in Thunder Bay for the Thunderbolts 50th Anniversary Grand Prix.
“I’m not nervous anymore”
Two of the Nakokita swimmers competing this weekend are 15-year-old Nathan Bowes and 14-year-old McKenna Davis.
The two contested their first races on Friday morning and admitted they were nervous before entering the pool.
“I had an old costume that I was trying to work with because I couldn’t get another one,” Bowes said. “It was too big.”
“I finally got one, and it’s amazing,” he said, adding that he broke Nakokita’s club record in the 50-metre breaststroke.
“I’m not nervous anymore. I know people and it’s fun.”
Davis said she was happy to see the relaunch of the Nakokita club, as there aren’t many options for organized sports in Atikokan.
“I have clubfoot,” Davis said. “It was supposed to help me with my clubfoot. So I started swimming, originally, for that.”
As for the races themselves, Davis also said she was nervous, but practiced a bit at a camp held before the competition.
“I was classified for the para community because of my clubfoot,” she said. “I had a little experience, but not a lot.”
“We did a little race to try and beat your personal best at the end of camp.”
Hainey said he would have preferred to introduce the team to swim meets at a smaller event. The Grand Prix lasts three days and includes 250 swimmers from across the northwest, as well as Ottawa, Winnipeg and Minneapolis.
“We’ve been doing race rehearsals since we decided we were going to come to this meet,” Hainey said. “I tried to give them an idea of what the atmosphere will be like.
“Normally I would have taken them to a little get-together in Dryden for the day. To me, it’s like they’re thrown straight into the – pardon the expression – deep down here.”
“Fortunately, they can swim.”
Successful start for Nakokita
For Bowes, the weekend started well.
“I had some doubts a few months ago, and I was a little doubtful about continuing to swim,” Bowes said. “But now with this? I love every second of it, and I love how it makes me feel.”
Davis also said she plans to stick with the sport.
“You’re just very focused on your swimming and trying to beat your own time, and not really on the people around you or on first place,” she said. “Well, for us, at least.”
“Other people might be a different story.”
For Hainey, the Nakokita club restart has reignited his passion for swimming and training.
“Seeing the kids and the excitement and the enthusiasm, and the improvement they’re making every day, became a motivation that I hadn’t had in a long, long time,” he said. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”
“I love coaching,” he said. “It’s a fantastic hobby now instead of a career.”
“And these kids I’m coaching right now are wonderful, absolutely wonderful kids.”
North7:59Atikokan swim team revives thanks to swimmer-turned-coach Tom Hainey