YARMOUTH, N.S. – As her last meet as coach of the Yarmouth Y Whitecaps swim team was coming up, Ginny Smith was asked how she expected to feel at the end of that final competition. What would it be like saying goodbye to something that has been a huge part of her life for over 45 years?
“I think I’ll be lucky not to cry,” she said. “Everybody on deck is going to know I’m retiring and I’m going to find that very challenging.”
The meet was held July 5-8 in Halifax.
How many trips to the city – among other places – did Smith make in four-and-a-half decades of coaching? Too many to count. And while she says she has great memories of travelling with the swimmers, she won’t miss the grind of being on the road for all those weekend meets, arriving home exhausted.
It’s the swimmers themselves she will miss the most, Smith said.
“I love to see them excel and I love to see the beauty of their strokes evolve over time,” she said. “Then to develop that personal relationship.”
Think about it, she said. All those kids who took up competitive swimming at an early age and stuck with it, Smith would coach them for a decade or so. That’s a long time, long enough for her to get to know the swimmers pretty well.
“They get to know me too. They know how they can get away with things,” she said, laughing.
Smith was not a paid coach. It was as a volunteer that she devoted so much of her time and energy to the Whitecaps.
Originally from Colorado, Smith lived and studied in different places in the U.S. and Canada before coming to Yarmouth County in the early 1970s with her husband, Andy. She quickly became involved in the Whitecaps. Smith recalls approaching Hugh Sproule, CEO of the Yarmouth Y back then, who was coaching the local swim team at the time.
“I went in and introduced myself to Hugh and he said ‘well, why don’t you come and help me’ (with the team) and the next year he said ‘well, why don’t you take it over?’”
Smith remembers teams from all over Atlantic Canada coming to Yarmouth to compete.
“I remember one meet called the inter-Y meet,” she said. “We had people sleeping in the gym. We had people all over the pool. The gym was not the gym we have now. It was pre-1982, so it was the old (facility). We had people from Maine.”
Yarmouth would get a new YMCA in the early 1980s and Smith recalls taking her swimmers to Church Point to use the pool there while the Yarmouth facility was shut down due to construction.
And for decades, of course, there were all those longer road trips for weekend meets, followed by late Sunday nights when Smith would write up results from the latest competition for the local media.
All that travelling was tiring enough in the best of conditions, but it could be considerably more stressful when the weather was bad. Citing one particular trip, Smith said, “There was nowhere to stop and nowhere to call and we didn’t have cellphones, so I’d follow the big trucks because it was so dangerous to drive and I was just thankful I got home. I don’t miss that.”
As she reflected on her coaching years, Smith said it was great to see her swimmers make their mark in the sport – many of them becoming standout competitors – and she hopes every kid who takes up swimming makes it a lifelong activity, just as she did.
It’s also gratifying, she said, so see former athletes of hers applying what they learned as swimmers – things like self-discipline and a good work ethic – to their adult lives and careers.
Smith also is grateful to those former competitors who returned to the Whitecaps to lend a hand in a coaching capacity.
“I wish I could remember all of them that helped me coach,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I’ve never been in need. There’s always been somebody, and even the coaches that are replacing me now were all swimmers that I had, that I coached.”
Then there are the parents, with whom Smith says she had a great relationship.
“I love the parents,” she said. “The parents have always been very, very supportive. I’ve had so many people – parents – who’ve been on the (Whitecap executive) board who’ve done extraordinary things.”
Former Whitecaps, colleagues, share some thoughts on Ginny Smith
In her four-and-a-half decades as a swim coach in Yarmouth, Ginny Smith got to know – and had an impact on – many people. We invited a few of them to talk a bit about Smith.
Bobby Lou Reardon (Former Whitecap swimmer and longtime coach with the team. Reardon is a vice-principal at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School.)
“I have known Gin since I was 10 or 11 years old. I have been with her since she came to the Yarmouth Y Whitecaps, both as a swimmer and, for the last 31 years, as a fellow coach (during which time I have still trained under her coaching). Besides being a lifelong swim coach, Gin has been another mother, a mentor, a continual support, a colleague in both the school system and on the pool deck, one of my dearest friends and a positive influence in my life.
“Gin coaches swimmers, but what she really does is shape their lives. She supports them in a myriad of ways, models respect, compassion and open-mindedness, and in doing so she instils good ethics, great qualities of citizenship and social responsibility and helps them make healthy choices/decisions as they mature. Gin has always cared about the whole individual and not just the swimmer in each of us.
“She has touched thousands of lives. In every way and on every day, Gin shares her wisdom, life experiences, community mindedness, care/concern for the environment and healthy food and life choices with all of her swimmers. None of us can measure all the ways or degree to which Ginny Smith shaped our lives. Other than my parents, I am most grateful to Gin, who has and continues to be the largest influence in my life.”
Michael Gorman (Gorman competed for the Whitecaps and later spent five years coaching the team with Smith. Gorman is a former Vanguard reporter and a journalist with the CBC in Nova Scotia.)
“Her selflessness is pretty unparalleled, I'd say. She's done what she's done every day for no reason other than passion for the sport and passion for helping kids become the best people they could become - and not just as swimmers.
“Ginny has always been about developing the total person. If someone wanted to reach great competitive heights, she could help them get there (and did), but if they just wanted to be fit or cross-train for another sport or simply have a positive social environment in which to hang out, she facilitated all of that too. She had as much time for the fastest kid on the team as she did for someone who was new and just learning their way through the sport.
“It's difficult to imagine a more ideal coach. I'm not sure the community fully appreciates the contribution she's made through the decades to the development of young people.”
Jennifer Hood (A former Whitecap swimmer and now a Whitecap coach, Hood is aquatics supervisor for the YMCA of Yarmouth.)
“She has taught me so much about coaching and dealing with people over the years it is really hard to put into words. I go to her for advice, mentoring about swimming, a listening ear as well as shoulder to cry on at times. She played many roles as a coach for so long and no one could ever know how much she has meant to the Whitecaps over the years.
“She is certainly irreplaceable in every sense of the word. As a parent of one of her swimmers, I thank her for all her patience and guidance. As a coach, I only hope I can be half the coach she is and will try very hard to live up to the high standards she has set. We will miss her very much around the YMCA. It won’t be the same not seeing her walk in with her five bags of coaching gear every night.”
Steve Indig (Indig competed for the Whitecaps. He became a lawyer and lives in the Toronto area, where he works for the Sport Law & Strategy Group.)
“I feel completely blessed to have had such a compassionate, committed and caring coach who enabled me to grow as a person and as an athlete.
“I will never forget our opportunity to attend national championships in Victoria, B.C. and see her walking down a busy street with a kayak on her head between heats and finals as she needed not only to coach me but ensure she was able to complete her daily physical activity.
“Ginny’s dedication to the sport of swimming, coaching, and to her athletes is second to none. I am sure she will never realize the impact she has had on me as an athlete, coach, father and professional. I thank her on my behalf and on behalf of the thousands of athletes who likely have the same thing to say about her.”
From Bette El-Hawary (executive director, Swim Nova Scotia):
“Ginny has been such an important part of swimming in Nova Scotia and will be greatly missed. I have many great memories as a young swimmer having the opportunity to work with Ginny, and now as an adult working with her in various capacities. She is a wealth of knowledge and shared her passion for swimming with so many swimmers across the province.”