OTTAWA – John Atkinson had many highlights in his 12-year career with British Swimming.
Among the memorable perks: sitting with Prince Harry during a morning heat session at the 2012 Paralympics in London. The Prince wasn’t just there for a photo op. Atkinson, who was National Performance Director (Paralympic) for the U.K. team, says he took a keen interest in the team.
“Whether it was the athletes, coaches or staff, he spent time with each one of them. 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,” Atkinson says.
Atkinson’s para-swimmers went on to win 39 medals on home soil. His time at British Swimming also included eight years with the Olympic program, culminating in six medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now the 45-year-old native of Chorley, in Lancashire, England, is taking on a new challenge as Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director. He plans to apply the same philosophy he used throughout his time in Britain.
“If we can get people improving we’ll be successful and that will equate to medals,” Atkinson says when asked how he measures success.
Swimming Canada’s Vision 2020 strategic plan makes world-leading performance the top priority for Canada. Canada’s goal is to rank among the top eight medal-producing nations at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and top six in 2020. For Atkinson, it’s all about the process. If everyone is striving to improve, the medals will take care of themselves.
“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,” Atkinson explains. “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). 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.”
Swimming Canada Interim CEO Ken Radford is looking forward to having Atkinson on board.
“This is going to be an exciting time for Swimming Canada and we’re keen to have John join our leadership team,” Radford says. “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.”
Atkinson swam competitively until age 18 when he took up coaching to pursue “an unfinished desire” to be involved in the sport at the highest levels. His resume includes, among other things, six years working in Australia, and a stop on the Channel Island of Jersey. That’s where he met his wife of 19 years, Victoria, an environmental scientist originally from Australia. They have two children: son Alex is 12, daughter Stephanie is nine.
His home club – Wigan – had six swimmers on the Olympic team in 1984. He learned by watching them what it takes to be successful on the world stage.
“Athletes have got to have a commitment to what their goals and ambitions are,” he says. “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.”
Atkinson will be based at Swimming Canada’s national office in Ottawa, but he expects to rack up plenty of frequent flyer miles.
“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. 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 is anxious to see Canada’s top swimmers in the water. He believes in learning from every person and situation and he plans to maintain open communication with athletes, coaches and staff from coast to coast.
“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.”