It was sad news to hear the passing of Deryk Snelling. I was one of lucky swimmers who called him ‘Coach’. Deryk had a timelessness about him, so it is sad in an unbelievable sort of way, but an inevitable eventuality, we all sadly reach.
I would like to share some of my experiences with Deryk to maybe give you a flavour of his ability to inspire a team and hopefully share how he is known as a distinguished coach. He was an amazing ringmaster at getting a training group together, then allowing its organic development, continually improving it until it was a powerhouse.
My place on the pecking-order in Calgary was somewhat low on the totem when I arrived in 1983, since some swimmers already had Olympic medals, but I was happy to observe and climb my way up, eventually earning my Olympic ring. It gave me a unique perspective to observe and absorb.
As a wide-eyed teen I had huge respect for Deryk. His track record enticed me to his program. His coaching team in Calgary included Dr Monika Schloder who is a warm generous coach who helped the fledglings adapt to life away from home and also Graham Smith who was a gruff, tobacco chewing, fastback mustang driving cowboy, who seemed like he was in a constant bad mood but strangely caring, in a nickname-for-everyone sort of way.
Some of Deryk’s senior swimmers at the inaugural Western Canada Games spoke to me about what being on their team was like and I was more convinced by swimmers talking to me than coaches. Deryk had a long track record and a team of young and old swimmers who all seemed to gel together. I was looking for a team, not just a coach. Deryk knew how to build a team.
That ‘senior’ status was a respected role within the team dynamic that Deryk encouraged. The team that Deryk developed had a leadership hierarchy within the ranks. He engendered a family of swimmers who worked together, travelled together and who won together.
The ‘Team Talk’ started every season and was the mental glue he poured from day one. His talks were legendary. During the season, from time to time, he’d very often get his swimmers together to have a ‘team meeting’ and boost our morale. In this regard he coached intuitively. Every national finals (and heats) he would lay out the evenings races. We were primed before we even got to the pool.
Deryk lived in Olympic cycles. Saying he ate, slept and breathed Olympism would not be an exaggeration. In his own swimming career he had been denied a spot on the British team, by team selectors, despite owning the British record in 200m breaststroke, so I think this inspired in him to dominate the sport in Canada. The team talks in the lead up to ‘84, ‘88 and ‘92 were pivotal in my career and I’m sure there are swimmers who could attest to this in ‘72, ‘76, ‘80s talks. He made us all want to get on the team and experience representing Canada!
Those talks were highlighted with an audiovisual counterpoint of some herculean Olympic event. It was always a goosebump moment. Deryk had a impressive library and found something to get us thinking.
Training through huge sets after those team talks made it seem possible; we were in it together.
His military background wasn’t lost on me and, for me, wasn’t too far from home. I grew up with an understanding that a job well done was one done thoroughly. Deryk insisted on it too. We were all striving for an Olympic berth (many striving for more than just a spot on the team) and cutting corners was discouraged. He had a way of getting the most out of everyone.
For example, arriving in Calgary , just freshly an 18yr old, I was not yet a convert to early mornings. First year university students generally are not. In Uni residences, I got up for morning training and students were still up from the night’s revelry. Deryk was aware of this and in his typical old-school style, to discourage late arrivals to training, …as I meekly arrived on deck as the warm up finished… (I had no excuse since the residences were literally across the road from the pool), he loudly asked if I was late because I was ‘up all night masterbating’. This caused me a red face and no reply, since I wasn’t sure, and a big laugh from the team. Deryk was like that and I wasn’t late ever again.
Looking back at those years is not bittersweet. I relish those days training with my friends and learning from a master. Winning or not winning, our team-mates were behind us. Deryk created a team spirit that cheered for everyone, not just our superstars. We cheered till the last race was done. We made up cheers constantly and some I still hear on deck today.
Deryk made training a team event and often put more thought into relays than anything else.
He created that sportsmanship and comradeship that was infectious. I will miss him. I will miss his mentoring, his exceptionally sharp eye for talent and for his love of sunny weather. He had a predilection for sunshine and he tanned quickly in team-issue speedos. He was his own man, never happier than on poolside in scorching hot mid-day Hawaiian heat, in Speedos with a stopwatch in hand.
Goodbye Deryk, you were the closest thing to a father I had after my own father. Thank you for everything you did for me and for instilling in me an ability to arrive to morning training on time. ❤️