Canada’s most decorated university swim program has seen 40 athletes grace Olympic, Paralympic stage

“O Canada” plays during the medal ceremony once a Canadian athlete wins gold at the Olympic and Paralympic games.

The anthem has been played 9 times for UBC swimmers, with the Thunderbirds placing 19 times since the 1972 Summer Games.

Back at home, the university’s varsity program is the most decorated swimming program in Canada — both women and men currently dominate in Canada West and U Sports titles with women’s holding 32 and 24 wins respectively, and men’s holding 21 and 19.

Since 1948, 40 students, alumni and coaches have represented UBC and their country across 22 different Games. However, most Thunderbird athletes, whether they have coached or swam for UBC, started their swimming careers from humble beginnings.

Paralympian and world record breaker Walter Wu started with his parents driving him and his sister back and forth from Richmond to the UBC pool to swim.

Eventually, Wu attended UBC from 1990 to 1992 and then went on to become UBC’s most decorated Paralympian with 14 Paralympic medals. In 1996, Wu broke two world records and two Paralympic records and was also the most decorated Canadian that year.

“I didn’t do very well at my first Olympics [in 1992],” said Wu. “But it was an eye opener seeing what the world competes like.”

“When I got to the national and international level, it was mentally a bit different. I didn’t know the people I was competing against,” said Wu. “The international competition piece was a bit of a mystery — you didn’t know exactly what they were doing. I knew what my teammates were doing, but then again, I wasn’t competing with my teammates.”

Tom Johnson, a former UBC swim coach, understood the disadvantages Canadian athletes were facing at that time. From 1978, Johnson had been a constant in Canadian high-performance swimming, starting Olympic coaching at 21 years old. Johnson, along with his twin brother, started developing training and competition programs.

“We started developing programs to expose [athletes] to higher and higher levels of competition so they could actually compete on the world stage and not feel like they were disadvantaged or less prepared than anybody else,” said Johnson.

“There’s just so much going on inside Canadian sport and so many demands being made of those athletes that lack coordination and integration,” he said. “And so that became an issue and we tried to solve that issue by creating options inside Canada.”

Johnson’s goal was to allow athletes to pursue high-end training and education in Canada. Previously, athletes would normally leave Canada to pursue their swimming careers and would often not come back to represent their country. Throughout his career, Johnson coached over 50 athletes in international competitions including 10 Olympic Games, 14 world championships and 11 Commonwealth Games.

Under his leadership from 1989 to 2005, the Thunderbirds won 11 women’s and 8 men’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships with a combined 16 Canada West titles, and through the UBC swimming program, Johnson led 13 athletes to the Olympics.

Johnson helped set up the Swim Canada High Performance Centre at the UBC Aquatic Centre in 1998, which allowed athletes the necessary facilities, training environment and support to develop their sport.

This training and study environment was what led Martha McCabe to join UBC and the swim program in 2007.

“I knew that if I wanted to take my sport to the next level, I needed to get myself around the best possible people I could within that sport,” she said. “At the end of high school, I chose swimming. And UBC had an amazing swim program and still does.”

As a student, McCabe participated in the 2012 Olympic Games and was named 2012 Female Swimmer of the Year at Swimming Canada’s Big Splash Awards.

“I basically just wanted to surround myself with people who were world class in swimming,” she said. “At the time, there were a ton of Olympians training at UBC and swimming. And lastly, for me and my family as well, having a good education was really important.”

“I wanted to make sure that I had all those pieces. And UBC was the one that was going to offer that best for me. It was kind of a no-brainer.”