Born: September 18, 1924
1956-1967 – Founding coach of the Vancouver Dolphins Swim Club
Canada owes much of its swimming excellence to Howard Firby. In a brilliant coaching career that spanned from 1947 to 1980, Firby changed the face of Canada’s international swimming reputation and became one of the world’s top authorities on swimming techniques.
Firby was born to Canadian parents in Alabama and raised in Saskatchewan. Though he was active on the track and in the pool in high school, Firby had his athletic career cut short after he contracted polio while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
During the nine months he spent recovering in the hospital, Firby studied kinetics and anatomy, preparing himself to learn how to walk again. Upon his release, he moved to Vancouver and enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art in 1947. That same year, he became assistant coach at the Amateur Swim Club.
Firby’s understanding of kinetics and anatomy, combined with a knowledge of aerodynamics which he gained while serving in the RCAF, gave him a unique perspective on swimming techniques. An artist by profession, Firby was also keenly observant of the visual aspects of swimming. He installed a blackboard by the side of the pool and used his drawing skills to demonstrate every dimension of the ideal strokes that would maximize the performance of the athlete. Entering the water with such excellent and efficient technique, many of Firby’s swimmers went on to rank among the best athletes in the country.
In 1956, Firby founded the Vancouver Dolphins Swim Club. What started out as a tiny team of seven swimmers became a powerhouse that won the Canadian team title six times between 1961 and 1967, set more than 300 Canadian senior records, and won more than 100 events in Canadian championships.
Firby also led Canadian swimmers to international glory as head coach at the 1958 British Empire Games, the 1964 Olympics, and the 1966 Commonwealth Games. He coached such swimming greats as Mary Stewart, who was the 100m butterfly champion of Canada, USA, Britain, and the British Commonwealth, and Elaine “Mighty Mouse” Tanner, who won four Commonwealth, two Pan-American, and two Olympic gold medals. In his 30 years of coaching, Firby saw his swimmers win gold medals in all strokes and set eleven world records.
In 1970, Firby left his coaching post to become technical advisor and director of the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association. Over the next two years he visited more than 200 clubs across the country to give lectures on swimming and coaching techniques.
In 1975, he published Howard Firby on Swimming, a swimming and coaching guide that combines his technical wisdom with his own brilliant illustrations.
Despite these numerous achievements, coaching was mainly a hobby for Firby. He worked as a freelance commercial artist and only had a brief professional coaching stint from 1967 to 1969 at the Pan-Am pool in Winnipeg. Yet Firby remains one of the nation’s most significant swimming figures and one of the sport’s most influential coaches.