Tom Hainey - Embracing Challenge, Change and Self-Awareness

Tom Hainey - Embracing Challenge, Change and Self-Awareness

All right. Good morning folks, and welcome to the on-deck show, a show that looks at people and organizations operating outside the scope of normal to make things better for folks like you and me. This morning, we have the absolute pleasure of speaking with a gentleman by the name of Tom Haney, formerly of the Manta swim club, a steward that lasted 20 years, including today, we have the absolute pleasure of speaking with a gentleman by the name of Tom Haney, formerly of the Manta swim club, a steward that lasted 20 years, including putting a swimmer on the Olympic team who in medalled that the 2016 Olympic games now resides in Atikokan, Ontario back in his hometown, where it all began for him. Tom is a Paralympic athlete himself and has embraced change and challenge his entire life. This is going to be a fantastic conversation. Stay tuned.

The text that follows is an excerpt from our hour long conversation.  The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by vis the Spotify link below

All right. Good morning, Tom,


Good morning, Jason,


I think this is going to be an excellent conversation. So why don't we just get into it?


Yeah. Sure.


One pattern that I found from the time you were young and I'm sure continues today is this pattern of defying, the odds embracing change, you know, rolling with the punches, so to speak, throughout your life. Tell me a bit of why that is for you or why that, how that became first?


That's a common story for many Paralympians or anybody that accomplishes something. Adversity is a big ingredient. I was born with spina bifida in Atikokan, which is a remote community in Northwestern Ontario.

And back in the day, when a doctor made a diagnosis, it was God-like; whatever they said, was going to happen. And once they found out I had spinal bifida, which is a congenital disorder. The doctor told my parents, "your son's probably not going to walk" With that level of spinal bifida where it affects the spine, typically, you don't see the motor skill development that will enable somebody to be able to walk. However, I was the fourth of four kids, three older sisters, and my mother early on saw that the behavior I was exhibiting wasn't a lot different. Yes. I had struggles and things of that sort. So she and my father and my three sisters took the approach of "do it yourself."

You know, typically, what you would want to do is feel a little bit of pity for someone struggling and go to help them. But my parents were strong, resilient immigrants from Scotland, who had gone through the war. They knew hard times and knew, if you're going to survive, you know, particularly in a harsh mining community, you're going to need to figure out how to, you know, be resilient and do things on your own.


So climbing up the stairs, crawling up the stairs, actually, all of the little things that perhaps, maybe today's world, I hope not, but might be just—inclined to help the child out that wasn't my reality nor was pity. So I came home from school, for instance, and kids had picked on me, I stood out like a sore thumb in a small town; there weren't many disabled kids. Once the kids saw that I walked a little funny. All of that kind of went away. I never let it bother me. I did in the beginning, but there was no room. There was no pity. There was no; there was no comfort for that.

It was an attitude of "just deal with it." When you get down to dealing with the physical disability and the idea of How, do you overcome this? What are the things that you need to do? For me, swimming was huge; it was a level playing field at the international level league level. The disability plays a part when competing against able-bodied athletes. But when you were young and coming up, you can work harder than the average, 10, 11, 12, 13 years old and be competitive. As I got older, it got more competitive; when I progressed to the Paralympic group, all of those lessons I had learned growing up just made me a stronger athlete, which is what any Paralympic Olympic champion & world champion knows.






Fantastic answer. Digging in on that a little bit, I mean, but call it the tough love approach. It wasn't without compassion?

Oh, absolutely not. There wasn't a time at all that I ever felt that my parents didn't love me. I got mad to go to my room and be upset and things like that, but. When you get to a certain level of maturity, you're grateful for it, love and guidance. Suppose I hadn't had parents like I had everything that I have and done, I don't think I would have experienced. 

You spent 23 years in Winnipeg like that's a long time to spend in any place when it comes to coaching or how to like, and you got great results there. How did that affect and influence your coaching philosophy and coaching career? 

I took the same approach to coaching initially as I did with my swimming. Which is hard work & hard work; in the beginning, I had a certain level of knowledge; we all do when we leave swimming, you're familiar with certain sets, and I just consumed myself with understanding the physiology of what we did, the physics of what we did and took more of a scientific approach to coaching, but firmly based in the idea that hard work is as best regards and conveying that message to the kids.

We had a motto at Manta: Pride Toughness, Respect, which they carry today, and I'm thrilled to see. We lived it; we embodied it, pride in the work, pride in our teammates' toughness, and respect.

And so as time went by you learn just any good swim coach, what works, what doesn't work.



That's a great piece of advice coming back on track, you talked about swimming being a level playing field. Let's take that idea and extrapolate. What was it like to take your swimming and progress through local domestic levels and international levels up to the Paralympic Games?

Well, interesting story. I'd grown up being told you're really not that different. So competing in a sport like swimming, then SWAD (summers with a disability), didn't exist. My first couple of years, I was competing with able body kids, obviously improving, which is the hook for swimming. That's self-improvement, never mind the ribbons and stuff; that's secondary. Through an official in Thunder Bay, my parents learned about the Northwest Regional Games for the disabled Northwestern, Ontario.

swimmer Victor Davis

My parents approached me and asked if I would you, is this something you'd be interested in? That first resulted in tears, you know, I got upset I had told all my life, I'm not disabled. They wanted me to go to games for disabled athletes, so it took a bit of time, but I went to the first set of games, I won a whole pile of medals, and everything changed. In the same year, we went from there, I went from regionals to provincials, I think in Sarnia, then from Sarnia to Vancouver for nationals. So for my first experience in Paralympic sport, it was pretty extraordinary from going from yea.

You have to remember; I already had a strong work ethic from my parents and my coach here and out of Atikokan, a really tough coach; he didn't look at my disability. His attitude was that if you show up, you do the workout, I could have some swim fins if you want to keep up and kick, but that's the only exception. You can imagine that reinforcement loop and its effectiveness; it's just huge. I went from being nobody to suddenly a national medalist, and then progressing to 1984 paralympic games, where I won four gold and a silver medal. That was my foray into international swimming. After that, we moved into a new classification system; what the classification we have now where disabilities are integrated. When I won four gold and a silver, I was competing against people with spinal cord injuries. That's it, class six, the least disabled of the, of the success of the spinal cord injuries. In 1985 this new system was introduced. We went to Germany, and I was classified as an S10 but based on where I rank internationally. And from there, everything took off, and over time, they recognized my disability was more pronounced; I got bumped down to a class S9 and competed in class nine for the rest of my career. After suffering a near-fatal accident in March, I went to Korea and won four silver then went to Barcelona in 92. I didn't win a medal there, just finalled, it was So a pretty illustrious swimming career.

Then, full circle in 1994, I went to Victoria, and competed for Canada at the Commonwealth games because it was integrated.




I want to go, I want to talk briefly about Your mom. And then the breaking, the barrier swim. Okay. Sorry, go ahead. Your mom passed away in a car accident when you were young. And the summer after to honor her, you swam across Quetico park.


Which was almost a hundred-kilometer swim, including portaging a canoe; the swim was coined "The Breaking the Barrier Swim." Tell me about it, tell me about the name, tell me about why so important?


Quetico park & Tom Hainey

Which was almost a hundred-kilometer swim, including portaging a canoe; the swim was coined "The Breaking the Barrier Swim." Tell me about it, tell me about the name, tell me about why so important?



It was, it was the single most important thing other thanbeing a father that I've experienced in my life.






My mom passed away in 1992. She was coming home from whereshe worked, which is in Quetico park. That's a beautiful provincial park uphere in Northwestern, Ontario, pristine. My mum loves working there, but shealso loved her garden. So on that particular day, May 20th, she was drivinghome, and for reason, we've never been able to find out, her car went off theroad. She wasn't wearing a seatbelt that day, which is odd for my mother. Wethink perhaps it was because she had breast cancer earlier to see whether therewas a cancer tumor, it turned out to be benign.



It was a massive shock to our entire family and thecommunity of 4,500 people at that time.



My mom was well known for her involvement in the communityand because they knew she was a big part of my success. And so right afterward,the Ontario government was pushing an initiative for barrier-free access toplaces like Quetico park, which meant no boats, no motors. Quetico Park ispristine, and people with disabilities usually have a hard time accessing it.The project initiated was a boardwalk idea, and it was fantastic andwell-received. What shocked us was that they came to us and said, "we'dlike to name this after your mom, the Sheila Hanney boardwalk, because of whatshe did for you."






We were honored, you know, and my family was honored.  I walked away from it going. You know that'sdoesn't do justice to what she did for me and what I contributed to thedisabled community in terms of the idea there are no barriers.






I was familiar with Quetico park; it's our backyard,essentially.  I thought about it andresolved a more impactful way to illustrate the effect that she had on me anddo something that no one's ever done before. That was swimming across a brutally difficult Quetico park. It's notjust lakes, creeks, and rivers it was also portaging a canoe. 



So we set about; I had a friend David Maynard he knew thepark very, very well. He pulled in a local outfitter; Bud Dixon, the largestoutfitter in the area, told them the plan. They were blown away by it and said,"that's pretty audacious, Tom. Can you do it?" I had no idea Jason,if I could do this right, I had; I'm not an open water swimmer.






I did huge volumes of training. I just wanted for Herb DeBray.I mean, come on, you know, the guy's famous for 8,000-meter morning practices.And so I could handle the distance in the water.  Once we started to put the logistics together,we brought in a team of people who had joined us on the trip.






We knew that we would do what we called grunt -  guys who were going to go from one campsiteto the next because this was not going to take place over a day. We knew thiswas going to be three or four days; we almost built in five to make sure thatwe could do it because the last thing you want to do is something that big andthen fail.






Before we did it, I spent hours and hours in different lakesaround where we live. And we had an abundance of lakes up here in NorthwesternOntario. I always had a friend or two in a canoe to guide me, and that's whatwe did. So we undertook the swim, and I did a prep swim in one of the lakesthat I would do in that formal swim later on in the summer.






We got the team together. Everybody was excited. Everybody believed in what we were doing. It wasa great thing to honor this special person, not me, my mom. I swam, there wassome adversity. We ran into a storm, I had to be pulled from the water the dayafter the storm, because. I thought I would have hypothermia, they warmed me upby a campsite through some warm Gatorade in me through & some more Vaselineon.






We finished the swim, and it was pretty spectacular; there was a huge crowd at the beach.  It was very, very, very special and the point was made. When you talk about that barrier that provides free access to that boardwalk, it coincides with the conversation about that kid.




But this always about Sheila Hainey, Not Tommy.  To this day, it is the Sheila Hainey Boardwalk

Quetico park Tom Hainey finishing the Breaking the Barrier swim

Brilliant tribute, so that particular swim was five days and just under a hundred kilometers.

How much of that was portaging?


Fortunately I didn't have to Portage the crew that I had with me were pretty clear. I had to haul a pack though. I mean, they weren't that nice. Well, in fact it wasn't that wasn't probably about a kilometer or two in total.

It was tough terrain though These aren't, these aren't boardwalks. Like it was at the other end where we finished was we're in the middle of nowhere. So they were challenging. But the first day was really interesting. We had no idea what to expect and we start, well, the second day we got there on the Wednesday night. And I just, I wanted to make sure I did the whole parks. We started at the Western edge of it, and it was a 10 kilometer swim, not even mean just to, to get to the ranger station where the rest of the team would get together. And that's essentially where we would start. So we accomplished 48km on the Thursday with 4 days left to go. So everybody breathed a bit of a sigh of relief until the Friday when we, the storm hit and the water was frigid and we got it all done. And then we finished up on the Saturday. And there was, like I said, a ton of people on the beach. It was wonderful.



It must've been an emotional moment for you walking up onto the beach.

Yeah, it was. But at that point, Jason, to be honest is kind of the conversations that I have with my mom throughout that, throughout that swim, it wasn't as emotional, as I thought know, it was like, yeah, we did this. Yeah. “Thanks mom”.

You know, and for everybody else, it was, you know, it wasn't a dry eye in the place and there was some pretty, pretty The ceremony itself was pretty special. The whole day was a celebration of my mom.


Coming back to the Paralympics. The Paralympic movement started shortly after World War II as basically a mechanism to get injured soldiers, give them purpose, give them something to do and so on and so forth. It's definitely grown into a worldwide movement at this point. It's embraced by everybody.


What does that mean to you?

Rick Hansen

Well, a lot, because it was fledgling when I first started racing. The biggest name in Paralympic sport was Rick Hansen. Rick and I were roommates in 1984 in England. That's where, like, has you referred to the injured soldiers. 


This was our chance to compete. That's that's basically where it all started.  


It was an honor for me to be able to compete and have thesuccess I did. I went back to England a few times for annual championshipsafter that, and I had wonderful success there. And I remember having thisconversation with Rick, I'm not sure if he'll remember. But I was, I was young,right? I was younger than them and here comes this kid out of nowhere and is astar I'm winning four gold and three world records. It's silver metal, but Rickwas great. And so were all the other guys, Mel Fitzgerald, and a bunch of. Abunch of the guys who'd been doing this for a bit. And Rick shared with me his Man InMontion Tour. He told me he's going to wheel around the world.  I thought, that’s audatious, that'soutrageous and you're in a wheelchair…. a 1984 wheelchair. Not what we havetoday. Now he didn't do it in 1984. And so. But I'd like to think I'd like totake a little bit of pride that those successes and the person that I was, Iwas an athlete that trained like an able-bodied athlete, trained withable-bodied athletes; didn't use the disability.



When I was being classified. One of the measures that theyhad, how much do you train? And when I explained to them nine times a week, youknow, 45, 55,000 meters a week, it was foreign to the people who were classifiedme that they hadn't seen, not in a swimmer and then slowly but surely otherparallel, great Paralympians, particularly the Canadians.  Andrew Halley case in point, Stephanie Dixonstarted to move forward. We were always on the front edge of the Paralympicmovement. We always had wheelchair basketball team. Very good. ArnieBoldt on the track on high jump. Canada's always been very good and theworld has caught up.






And as a result of the world, catching up, you see thisappreciation for athleticism. So now it's no longer just looking at athleteswith a disability competing. You're looking at great performances and you'relooking at athletes competing, you know? And so I, I pushed hard to be alobbyist for the Paralympic movement because it had given me so much you haveto give back, but I wanted to so to see it where it is today is wonderful. Nowthere's so many, so many great Paralympians that came through what I was comingthrough. I shouldn't say that just athletes, that, that just changed the waythe public governments look at, you know, a sport for athletes with adisability.






That's brilliant and superb advice for anybody listening. Sothat fits nicely with, you know you know, I guess my next statement orquestions life has kind of come full circle for you. You're back where youstarted.  Correct me in terms of how tosay the name of the town. I practice it about know several times Atikokan.






So you started swimming there now.






When we spoke back in the PRO conference back few years ago,you talked about starting up the club. So does that mean that you repatriated theclub, you brought it back.



What had happened is that. Over time after I left, not unlike small towns across the country, the program just dissolved. And that was Atikokan  . And I knew I'd come back to coaching and I, and my daughter loves swimming. So we can't do this alone. So let's see what the interest in the community is about.


Atikokan's a small town. So anybody who does anything that's successful is celebrated and remembered and honored. So even though it was sometime later that I came back, The memory of the town knew that this was Tom Hainey, the athlete there's a sign assignment would come into Atikokan the welcomes home of Tom Hainey amongst other athletes who we celebrate.

So it was a little easier to get the ear platform to have a meeting. And we had many parents come out and I went through what the program's gonna look like from its infancy, basically manta light. Right. I was just going to duplicate the entire structure that we had at manta and, but not so.

High-end we're just focusing on getting kids in the water and learning how to swim, essentially. And and once that we started getting the ball rolling, you know, Darren was fantastic. He was really big help. All of the good guys at somewhat. They a big help helped me guide through it. It's a complicated process, starting up your own club, know policies, procedures getting incorporated.

But the energy that I saw in that room, Jason said, okay, There, there is a real potential for this program to get up and running. And we did a mock spring session in 2018 and the interest was there. Kids were there, give them certificates. It was a lot of fun. And then when 2020 came around, We got, we did another version in 2019, and then official suite.


We went through the motions, like we were swimming other than not going to or something other than not going to a swim meet. And we did some mock stuff in our pool when 2020 rolls around and we were told, okay, you're good to go, Tom. Your program has met the criteria you're on official swim team. You know, we had 30 kids registered.


So then of course, locked down and two, three, and now we're going to shut down again. I'm hoping that when we finished all of this, the majority of these kids come back and they get it. You know, we, we show them the ISL, you know, what's what swimming has become nowadays. And they understand who Michael Phelps was.


And they're learning who the Canadian swimming heroes are and becoming students of the sport, which. We both know if you're not a student of the sport and you're only gonna go so far, right. Teaching them to be students and learning and be hunger for that is a part of it is as well.

That was great. I wanted to know if, you know, upon your arrival you made a conscious decision to restart the swim club, which it sounds like you did. You know, definitely sounds like the reputation of that. Tom Hainey and the Hainey family, you know, is, is, is become a legacy.

And you know, like that certainly helps in terms of what you're doing and, you know, like, I, I like how you referenced it, Manta light.

There's a certain call it self security, self, you know, more than self-awareness there. When you talk about inviting people in and you'll helping to build the, you know, the, the greater culture of swimming in the community there and like, that's I mean, it really is the greater good.










If I can sum it up and you mentioned this in various ways throughout our talk it's not about Tom. It's about the kids, it's about the community. And I think that, that that's a thought that can resonate with many people and we get a lot of people can learn from that.

What's it like to be home?



Oh, it's great. It's great. In two ways, let me tell you why the job that I came back from is not the job I have now. This was a complete fluke. And so when this, the job that I have now, which is community services manager, so my coaching is volunteer and I plan that to be till retirement.

I love that. I'm a volunteer. I'm a volunteer coach. You know, it's just, I love that feeling. And so community services manager here. It's a great job. It's, it's crazy at times COVID has really made it come get it, but I manage a golf course, an arena a pool, a seniors active living center and outdoor recreation area, amidst all the programs.


And so knowing what I know from what sport can do for kids, what sport can do for people particularly coming from that high end point of view. It's great. I I'm getting to do a whole bunch of things in other areas that I never dreamed about. This is not something that I thought I would finish my career with, but no headaches with pool time.


I don't know if I got it as a coach, Tom, I I'm upset with it. I, I phoned the community services manager and everything gets sorted out. The coach is always smarter than the the pool manager. But yeah, so, and the resources I have that I just mentioned to you before, when we came on here the success that the club was having in reaching out for financial support.


So we have. A lot less, a lot more means, you know, you I'm buying a ton of equipment for the kids. We're just going to get them a bunch of snorkels and fins and they don't have to go to the pocket for that. The community is supporting it and when we can use snorkels again. Right. But the video system, all the things that I believed in Winnipeg with Manta we're going to do here.

And and that translates to our junior golf program. We're doing things for the junior golf program that. They didn't realize could be done. My cabin's 10 minutes away, Jason, it's beautiful. It's right on the water. I have to finish it. That's a lot to do to finish it.


But you know, any job that you care about is going to be stressful. So this stress of this job is my professionalism, my competitiveness wanting to be good. But going to my cabin, sitting on the way, going for a paddle, you know, it all goes away. And I have, it's a wonderful community, small communities are they support one another.


So yeah, it was a good move. As sad as at times when I look back and miss everybody in Winnipeg embrace what we have here.








What you just described, as you know, it seems like it's areward for, you know, a lifetime of service to the community, so I'm sure itfeels well, you know, and as I said at the beginning, like, This, like, it wasinspiring. It was gave me goosebumps reading and listening to some of the stuffas I was preparing for this.






Given everything you've done, everything you've overcome andwhat you're doing now, do you have any final thoughts for people listening?



Yeah. What I love about our profession, Jason, is what, one,an example of what you're doing today. And thank you for this. Cause this isimportant at this time.






That conversations on the pool deck that we keep sharing ourpersonal troubles and be open to the support, which has been wonderful. Itkeeps sharing ideas that I think that that's what I love the most and miss themost, to be quite honest, this has been fantastic morning chatting with you.






And and I think if, yeah, in everything that I experiencedin the profession, be open to learning and be open to sharing. And I think itmakes the coaching experience or whatever you do that much better. The constantlearning is just builds confidence.



It will be interesting if you're open to do it, to do acheck-in maybe in a year's time from now, because one of the things I'm curiousabout now is, is the impact that you're gonna have on those non-swimmingprograms, like you mentioned, like the junior golf program and stuff like thatand how you might open their eyes to different perspective and how things mightprogress. So certainly an area to an area of the country to keep our eye on andI've really appreciated. This conversation has been really enjoyed it quite abit.






So I enjoyed it as well. It's not so much that we weretalking about me, but just reliving some of the memories that I've had in thepast 20 years. It's, it's nice to go down memory lane. And when you're in afast paced job, like this, you go off and have the chance. So thanks. Thanksfor inviting me on. I think what you're doing is awesome and keep doing it.






And I'm looking forward to seeing more of your podcasts.






Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you again andthank you for your support

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