By Jim Morris
VANCOUVER – Winning championships was great. Knowing the student athletes progressed onto successful careers after university was even better for Tom Johnson.
For over 15 years Johnson was head coach of the University of British Columbia Thunderbird swim team. Between 1998 and 2007 the Thunderbirds won 10 consecutive men’s and women’s Canadian Interuniversity Sports championships and produced 42 international swimmers.
This achievement will be recognized at the 2015 UBC Big Block Awards and Sports Hall of Fame Dinner. Johnson, the founder and architect of the modern UBC swim program, and some 125 men and women swimmers will be inducted into UBC Hall of Fame.
Johnson will enter in the builder category. The swimmers, including Olympians Brian Johns and Kelly Stefanyshyn, who will be inducted in the athlete category.
Johnson, the head coach of Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Vancouver, said being recognized by the UBC Hall of Fame is a humbling experience.
“I don’t think you ever start out contemplating that kind of thing as an objective in what you are doing,” said Johnson. “It’s amazing to me that 25 years later I’m still doing what I’m doing at UBC.
“They have been good to me. It’s been a win-win situation. I’m honoured to be included in that group.”
During their “Decade of Dominance” the Thunderbird swim teams won a total 325 CIS medals between 1998 and 2007, including 146 gold. Stefanyshyn led the pack with 31 medals, 18 being gold. Johns, a former short-course world record holder, led the men with 27 medals, 26 of them gold.
“There is a lot of really good swimmers in there and a lot of good moments in there,” Johnson said about era. “They all kind of blend together.
“The overall thing is we were able to develop an environment and a culture inside the program that the kids really bought into and subscribed too and had a lot of fun being part of it. It never seemed like work. It seemed like we were on a pretty good roll. We just kept getting better and better.”
For all the achievements in the pool, it was what some of the swimmers did later that makes Johnson the most proud.
John McArthur, a former men’s team captain, went on to be a Rhodes Scholar and has worked in global efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and promote sustainable economic opportunity. Turlough O’Hare is a two-time Olympian who became a doctor working in anesthesia research at McMaster University. Former Olympian swimmer Tim Peterson graduated from UBC with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“We were building people, not just swimmers,” said Johnson. “Swimming is just the vehicle.
“UBC attracts a certain special kind of person. The kind of person who can combine academics with high-performance sport. The environment lends itself to that kind of common pursuit.”
Johnson became the Thunderbirds coach in 1990. The team won its first national championship in 1998 at Sherbrooke, Que. The men’s team collected 660 points, 223 more than second-place Calgary.
“The first championship is always the most significant,” said Johnson. “On the men’s side, it was the culmination of seven years of work. We were close a couple of times but hadn’t quite got there. We managed to keep attracting a better and better caliber of athlete.”
The streak of dual championships ended in 2007 at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The men accumulated a then-record 787.5 points. The 2012 UBC women broke that mark with 811.5 points.
Included on the roster of those Thunderbird teams were Olympians like Brent Hayden, Jessica Deglau, Mark Versfeld and Marianne Limpert.
The stars brought a shine to the program but Johnson appreciated the work of all the athletes.
“Some of the more satisfying things was having some of the kids who weren’t really the front-running kids swim all five years of their eligibility, get a degree, and actually perform better and better every year and swim their lifetime best time in the fifth year of their swimming program,” he said.
“Those are the things I remember sometimes more than the high-water marks of the individual performances.”
Steve Price, the current Thunderbirds coach, worked with Johnson over the years. He said Johnson had an eye for talent and the ability to coax it to the surface.
“He’s a patient guy,” said Price. “He sees the ability in kids. He has the patience to work with them and develop them over time. It’s one of his greatest attributes. Sometimes it frustrates us because we don’t see it, but he sees it.”
Johnson can also motivate his athletes.
“He’s a great communicator,” said Price. “He communicates well with the swimmers and paints a great picture of what they can be and where they can go. They believe in his faith in them.”
Besides producing great swimmers UBC also developed many exceptional coaches. Besides Price, people like Derrick Schoof, head coach of the Edmonton Keyono Swim Club and Randy Bennett, head coach at Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Victoria worked with Johnson.
“We all lived it and matured under Tom,” said price. “The expectations are quite high.
“I am more than excited to be part of this and to keep this going.”
Johnson said the Thunderbirds success would not have happened without the support of university officials who realized building a successful program would help stem the flow of Canadian swimmers heading to American schools. Having Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre at UBC also allows members of the Thunderbirds to train and develop with members of the national swim team.
“It was a circumstance where the leadership at the university and the athletic department was prepared to entertain something that was different than what had been in place until then,” he said.
“A whole series of circumstances came to pass at exactly the same time. There was an appetite for it not only at the university but in the swimming community in B.C. and in Canada.”
The Big Block Awards and Sports Hall of Fame dinner will be held tonight at the Vancouver Convention Centre.