By Shayna Lewis
From the time she willingly jumped into a reservoir at age two, Virginia Smith never lost her love for water.
“When it came to a decision on if I should coach, well, I never considered not coaching,” she said with a laugh.
Smith’s eagerness and excitement manifested into a remarkable, 44-year volunteer coaching career with the Yarmouth Y Whitecaps (YYW). Swimming Canada recognized the longtime coach, lovingly known as “Ginny” among her peers, as the Volunteer Contribution Award laureate for 2018. The annual accolade honours volunteers who have had long-term impacts on their swimming community.
“Ginny has been such an important part of swimming in Nova Scotia,” said Bette El-Hawary, Executive Director of Swim Nova Scotia. “She has a wealth of knowledge and always shared her passion for swimming with so many swimmers across the province.
“She was a trailblazer for women in coaching and provided great leadership to many of our upcoming female coaches.”
Smith was beyond flattered to hear news of her award.
“I’m very appreciative, it’s really quite humbling,” remarked the Argyle resident. “There are many, many fine coaches who have contributed to the field of coaching without compensation.
“One thing I’ve always believed – and still believe – is that professional coaching is important and I never want to undermine that.”
Smith grew up as a swimmer, with coaching and lifeguarding experience, prior to immigrating to Canada from the United States in the early 1970s. After settling in rural Nova Scotia, she began coaching with YYW in the 1972-73 season under Hugh Sproule. He invited Smith to take over as head coach the following year, which she fulfilled in a volunteer role.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of kids and teams, but the Whitecaps were always my team,” she gushed.
Smith had a local couple take over between 1976-77 while she pursued her Bachelor of Education degree at Dalhousie University. Her academic training melded with her pool deck responsibilities, and helped shape her psychological approach to coaching.
“I had a perspective on my relationship with kids, youth, and also with parents,” she explained, due to her own roles as a parent, teacher, and coach. “I already had a professional career by 1977, and I knew that [a coaching] wage could never make a difference in the long-run, and ultimately it could discourage families from joining if the fees were too high.
“I kept the philosophy that when youngsters were showing an interest in coaching and being coached, I could show an interest in them.”
Smith earned her Senior Coaching (Level 3) certification and taught coaching courses during the 1980s. Her expertise led her to four Canada Games staff teams, not to mention her service on several tours and Atlantic teams. Among her mentors are Nigel Kemp, coach of two-time Olympic bronze medallist Nancy Garapick, as well as the late David Fry, former head coach at Dalhousie University.
One of Smith’s key beliefs, especially for younger athletes, has been encouraging swimmers to be involved in other activities, such as soccer and basketball.
“If kids manage their time well, they could do other things, and I’ve always maintained that,” she explained.
This philosophy showed no sign of deterring her athletes from swimming.
“In her many years with YYW, [Smith] has been able to increase their membership and contribute to Swim Nova Scotia’s success at the provincial, regional and national level,” expressed El-Hawary. “She has had several swimmers compete at these levels.
“She has been an asset to this small team in the Southern Region of Nova Scotia and to Swim Nova Scotia.”
Smith emphasized gratitude for families faced with living in a small community in which hockey is the primary sport of choice.
“I’ve really appreciated the people I’ve worked with along the way, especially parents,” she said. “It’s a statement in itself to see who has stayed with it and value the memories of swimming.”
For the majority of her travels and expenses, unless she received a grant or was selected to attend a coaching course, Smith paid out of her own pocket. There were times she purchased equipment including fins, paddles, backstroke ledges, and underwater headphones that allowed coaches to talk to their swimmers; in her eyes, it was a no-brainer
Even competing in a 25-metre pool was a big deal, especially in her earlier coaching years when 20-yard pools were more common.
“Atlantic Canada teams need to be supported, and many people can’t get out of the province easily,” Smith explained. “One day, I hope to see a new 50-metre facility in Nova Scotia so that we can have a fair shot in the bigger competitions.
“[Swim Nova Scotia] has always been strong,” she said. “I hope for a continuance of that – to organize swimming in a way that continues to help it thrive.”
Following her retirement in the summer of 2018, Smith has enjoyed spending time with her husband of over 50 years, Andy, being involved in environmental organizations and still plans to continue aiding in the development of swimming education.
“Sport is just one of many areas where people can volunteer,” she said. “I just hope I’ve represented the sport of swimming well.”