COMPETITIVE SWIMMING IN ORILLIA
Compiled from board minutes, newspaper articles, meet results, material from the YMCA archives and personal interviews.
The Early Years
The Orillia YMCA built a 50 foot pool in 1911 that was the only indoor pool north of Toronto for 40 years. It was used mainly for life-saving classes and recreation.
It wasn’t until after World War I that races were held and times recorded (in 1921 the pool record for 200 yards was 3:31.2). In the late 1920’s the new Y Physical Director, Freddie French, began providing opportunities for boys and girls to train and compete in the pool. He worked tirelessly with the youth and kept lists of records in both junior and senior age groups. The pool records began to drop dramatically after 1928 (200 yard record in 1931 was 2:35.0).
In October of 1931 Freddie French formally established the Orillia YMCA Swimming Club with a board of directors chaired by Pete Stover. Thirty swimmers signed up that year. The requirements to join were to be able to swim 100 yards in 1:55.0 and 50 feet backstroke in 25 seconds. Practices were held once per week.
This inaugurated a decade of progress in speed swimming in Orillia. Regular meets were held with the Peterborough Y, Toronto West End Y, Toronto Central Y and Gus Ryder’s Lakeshore Swim Club. Swimmers such as Jack Lucas, Ken McQuiggan, Jack Lawson, Fred Town and Clayt French soon became competitive with the best swimmers in Ontario ( Fred Town had brought the 200 yard record down to 2:12.0). In 1939 Freddie French said, “Don’t be surprised if Fred Town becomes the first Orillian to make a place on a Canadian Team for the Olympic Games!”
The club had come a long way. However, that year the second world war erupted and the competitive swimming club in Orillia became inactive. For the next 6 years the pool was used mostly for soldiers’ training and recreation. Soon after the war Freddie French moved on and the club was not resumed.
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that competitive swimming made it’s return. A volunteer, Art Houldsworth, resurrected the Orillia Y Swim Club and coached weekly workouts. Fred Town was his assistant. A few of the swimmers approached the times done by their predecessors 20 years before but were far from competitive with the top swimmers in Ontario any more. This swim club lasted but a few years.
INTO THE MODERN AGE
In 1968 Sara Jenkins moved to Orillia. Sara had been a Canadian champion and world record holder in the backstroke and she had competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. With only part-time teaching duties at the high school she had some time on her hands and volunteered to start a competitive swimming program at the Y. By January 1969 the new club had a Board chaired by Martin Cuiper, was registered with the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association for the first time and had a new name, the Couchiching Channel Cats. The name had been selected from suggestions submitted by the swimmers.
The most significant development, however, was the involvement of a new coach for the boys, Garth Winton. The club was divided into a boys and a girls team, each training separately three mornings a week for an hour. Garth was an innovator who brought a modern attitude and modern training techniques to Orillia. He and Sara introduced goggles and kick boards to the club (homemade out of soft flexible foam). They introduced the concept of interval training and modern techniques like butterfly and tumble turns (flip turns). They brought training levels up to what was being done in Toronto, 3 and soon 5 practices a week. Garth had all the senior swimmers keep log books. The results showed quickly as the swimmers progressed from a group of novices to being a competitive team at the Ontario Championships 3 years later!
In 5 years no competitions would be held in yards any more and a 25 meter pool would become standard. Training in a tiny, wavy pool with no starting blocks was a huge impediment for the club and made its success all the more remarkable. It was Garth Winton who put Orillia back on the map of the swimming world.
In the club’s second year Sara Jenkins stepped aside and Garth became the head coach of the whole club. Boys and girls started training together 5 mornings a week with time trials on Friday nights once a month. As the membership grew different training groups were formed with the novices swimming in the evenings and Saturdays. To boost membership in 1969 Garth insisted each swimmer must bring a new member to the club. That’s how Dave Town was signed up, kicking, screaming and dragged there by his older sister, Debbie.
The club’s third year, 1970-71, was the breakout year. Twelve year old Rob Town set Provincial age group records in the 50 and 100 meter freestyle (28.9 and 1:05.0) and Canadian records in the 50 and 100 yard freestyle. Several swimmers qualified for the Ontario Age group championships with Rob Town winning medals and 10 year old Dave Town making finals. By then the club was regularly winning meets from Barrie to Sault Ste. Marie. Always thinking big, Garth took the team to Montreal for the Pointe Claire Invitational where top level competition was found. That year Garth bought an old school bus to transport the swimmers to other pools to train. Once a week it was to Edgar’s 6 lane 50 foot pool and once a week to Midland’s 25 metre pool. The membership was outgrowing the hours available in the Y pool.
The big event of 1971, though, was “Swimming Our Way West”. In August 30 swimmers including a few from other clubs climbed aboard a bus and headed west. In four weeks they made it all the way to Vancouver and back.
They camped in old canvas tents and cooked on outdoor stoves. The club trained with 9 other clubs along the way and swim meets were held in such places as North Bay, Thunder Bay and even the Calgary Stampede (in an outdoor portable pool). In Edmonton they watched the National Swimming Championships. They arrived home exhausted to some nervous parents. As Mary Town says, “We were very trusting back then. It wasn’t easy sending your’ 12 year old away for a month.”
The successes continued the next year. Eight swimmers qualified for the Ontario Age Group Championships,the most the club has ever had. The club’s outstanding swimmer, fifteen year old, Grace Cuiper became theclub’s first National Championship qualifier. She competed at Nationals in the 800 meter freestyle event.
That year the club charged fees for the first time in addition to the CASA membership fee. It enabled Garth to become Ontario’s sixth professional coach. Club fees were $30 and only $5 for beginners. Garth also brought in his first assistant coaches, senior swimmers Grace Cuiper and Wendy Town. Swimmers from Barrie and Muskoka were now commuting to train with the Channel Cats.
With a membership of over 100 swimmers Garth was able to set standards for moving into a faster training group. Qualification standards for the Gold (senior) group were:
Workouts were now 2 hours long, 5 mornings a week for the Gold team. The first ever “Splash-a-thon” was also held, where swimmers solicited sponsors for a 200 length swim.
In 1973 the bubble burst. The parents became suspicious of Garth’s accounting and financial management. All club fees and splash-a-thon money was deposited directly into Garth’s “Swim Your Way Inc.” bank account. At one point most of the parents boycotted a swim meet due to the excessive unexplained costs. By mid-winter the writing was on the wall and Garth left the club to take a coaching position in Sudbury. Many swimmers quit the club and membership dropped to 20 swimmers. In the Spring the parents managed to find a volunteer to run practices to the end of May. A YMCA Life Saving examiner, Karl Dixon, stepped into a very difficult situation and kept the club alive.
THE RETURN TO STABILITY
In the spring of 1973 Karl indicated he would not be continuing as coach in the fall. Two parents volunteered to run the club until a coach was found. Harry Gordon was a Phys. ed. teacher at ODCVI and had a background in sport and coaching. His only swimming background was the YMCA classes he took as a youth. Don Gilcrist, another parent, offered to help Harry.
During that summer the club had a stroke of luck as a swim coach moved to town. Claus Koch had been a top level university swimmer and was now working as an engineer. He took over the head coach position as a volunteer to work with the other two men. The parents formed a new Board of Directors with Mary Town as President and took on a much larger role in running the club given the turmoil of the last year and the volunteer coaches.
Signifying the start of a new era the club decided to change its name. No longer the Couchiching Channel Cats (CCC), it was now to be known as the Orillia Channel Cats (OCC)
There were only 25 swimmers that year but their development was showing promise again under Claus’ tutelage. Claus brought experience and integrity to the club. He had a unique style. His “whoops” could be heard over the loudest cheering crowd. And many of his swimmers never forgot getting bonked on the head with a flutter board for stopping in the middle of a set. His methods worked, though, and the swimmers responded to the stability in the club.
Harry Gordon learned the essentials of swim coaching from Claus. In 1974-75 “Mr. Gordon” began taking over more and more of the head coaching duties. The Cats sent two swimmers to the Ontario Age Group Championships that year, the first since 1972. Fourteen year old, Dave Town finaled in several events winning a silver in the 200IM. Joining him at Provincials was twelve year old, Dave Gordon.
Based on his performance at Ontario’s Dave Town qualified for an Ontario Age Group All-star team. He competed with the team in the North Carolina State Championships in the spring of 1975 finaling in several events.
For the 1975-76 season Harry Gordon took over as head coach when Claus’ work took him to Sarnia. Harry’s 6 year term as head coach was very stable both on the pool deck and behind the scenes. He was a strong and thorough administrator and a popular coach. The Board had many parents who worked hard to build the club back up to its past glories. The presidents of the club, Joan Gordon, Stella Savage, Ray Kiff and Margaret Eccleshall, were supported by many parents. Most notably Ken Hutchison, Mary Town and Dave Timpano among others. Harry recruited no less than 13 assistant coaches over the next six years. The club membership grew from 25 to over 40 members and club fees rose to only $50 for the Gold team. Through all his years as head coach (until 1981) Harry was “a volunteer until a new coach could be found”. His Honourarium never even covered his costs incurred going to swim meets! No wonder the Board didn’t look too hard for a new coach.
Mr. Gordon’s tenure as head coach started with a bang. At the first meet of the year in Windsor Dave Town broke an Ontario Age Group record in the 13/14 100 yard breaststroke (1:07.1). It was the first record for the club since his older brother’s in 1971. Dave followed that up with another Ontario Record four weeks later in the 100 metre freestyle (57.9) at a meet in North York. This performance qualified him for another Ontario All-star team. In December 1975 Dave competed in two meets in Florida with the team and was undefeated. Both of Orillia’s “Daves” (Gordon and Town) were ranked in the TAG (Top Age Group Time) lists in SWIM magazine that year and Dave Town was first in Canada in three 13/14 events.
During this period the inadequate pool became more of a problem. The senior boys were outgrowing it. Many efforts were made to alleviate this problem. In the fall of 1975 Dave Town drove to Etobicoke and trained Friday night and Saturday morning with the Etobicoke club. In 1977 Harry arranged to rent the 25 metre pool at York University on eight Fridays in the winter. Twenty three Channel Cats paid $2 each week for the bus ride down to train there. That summer Dave Town billeted with a family in Etobicoke for two months and trained full time with that club. The next summer both Dave Town and Dave Gordon did the same with the London Y Aquatic Club. In 1978 the Cats began renting the Holiday Inn pool to accommodate the growing number of swimmers.
The Channel Cats consistently remained the fourth or fifth place club in the region in the 1970’s. With the creation of the Ontario Team Championships in the late 70’s the Cats consistently placed in the middle of the pack in the AAA group (Ontario’s smallest 40 clubs).
Individually the “two Dave’s” continued to excel. Dave Town competed at the Division II National Championships in 1977 winning a bronze medal in the 200 back (2:19.7 long course) and again in 1978 winning three silver medals (400IM, 100 back and 200 back). In 1979 Dave Gordon made his first appearance at the Division II Nationals in Montreal. In 1979 eighteen year old Dave Town became Orillia’s second National Championship competitor. He swam the 200 IM (2:12.2), 200 back (2:11.9) and 100 back with a highest placing of 22nd in Canada.
In 1980 Harry Gordon indicated he would not be back after that season. Eight years of 6 am workouts and two swim meets a month had taken their toll and he wanted to do something else with his time. Paul Grudzien, one of the parents and a phys. ed. teacher, became an assistant coach that year and then took over the head coaching reigns in the Fall of 1981. The club had shrunk down to 30 members again, Dave Town had gone to university and Dave Gordon would be joining him next year. While Paul had no swimming background he kept the club viable and worked on developing a strong novice program while the Board searched for a new head coach.
HOW TO RUN A SWIM CLUB WITHOUT A POOL
In the Fall of 1982 the board hired their first paid coach since Garth Winton. Bill Bevan had been a National Team swimmer and was newly graduated from university when he took the job. He arrived with energy and enthusiasm, gave the parents hope for a turnaround in the club’s fortunes. It was not to be.
Four weeks after the season started there was a fire in the Y and the building was condemned. Though it was eventually restored two years later the Channel Cats were never able to use the pool again. The Cats were now a swim club without a pool.
Some hasty negotiations gave the club 90 minutes of pool time four mornings a week in the 15 meter Holiday Inn pool. All the afternoon time was used by the YMCA which was also without a pool. To his credit Bill stayed on as coach for the year working in comical conditions (the older swimmers hit their heads on the bottom of the pool doing flip turns). Membership dropped to 20 members and some of the most promising junior swimmers (Whitney Ross, Kira Leskiw and others) left to train with Muskoka. The parents, led by President Sharon Frew, were determined to keep the club going until the new Y pool was built. That was to be at least three years away.
When Bill Bevan resigned in 1983 the club went back to a volunteer coach. Nineteen year old Marilyn Sova had no swimming experience but was willing to take up the challenge. She got help from her mother Martha and the Muskoka coaches and began taking coaching courses. It was the start of an eight year term for her as head or assistant coach with the Cats. Marilyn brought on Elaine Thompson as an assistant coach, a position she has held continuously over the last 18 years now. Under their direction the club struggled on, anxiously watching the Y Board try to raise money from the community to build a new YMCA.
A NEW BEGINNING
With the new YMCA 25 metre pool set to open in the Fall of 1985 the Cats Board led by President Sharyn Jefferies took a bold step and decided to hire a full time professional coach. They hired Marg McGeachy, an experienced coach at several Ontario clubs, most recently in London. In her head coaching position here she was determined to develop a club with high standards. She was thorough in her approach. In her first act to put her stamp on the club she instituted a subtle name change. Still the Orillia Channel Cats but now known by the acronym “CATS” instead of OCC. A high profile recruiting campaign saw the club start off the year with an all time high of 50 members! This in spite of construction delays which forced the Channel Cats to train in the Holiday Inn pool until January.
Marg introduced a new intensity during workouts. The seniors began 90 minute workouts six mornings a week. The swimmers quickly realized the club had changed and that their training habits had to be more disciplined. And for the first time the club kept training into the summer for long course season. Up to that point the swimming season in Orillia ended in May.
The board faced new realities too. Fund raising took on a new urgency with a full time salary to pay. Swim-a-thon proceeds jumped from $2000 to $5000 that year and then to over $6000 in 1987. The Parents also took on the daunting commitment of running a bingo. The Cats were trying to enter the “big leagues” of the swimming world.
The results in the pool began showing slowly. The club was growing and moved up from 27th to 7th place at the AAAA Ontario Team Championships in 1986.
In the Fall of 1987 Marg started pushing the swimmers to excel even more. Workouts increased to seven a week with the mornings at 5:45 am. The seniors also had two weight room sessions a week. That Fall she sat down with each swimmer and asked them to commit to swimming as their “major sport”. Four of the swimmers could make the commitment: Rob Maynard, Meredith Thompson, Lisa Hill and Kerrilee McLeod.
The results showed that year. Four Cats made Huronia region all-star teams, Rob Maynard, Jennifer Swinimer, Kirsten Jefferies and Lisa Hill. Twelve year old Rhonda Ley and 14 year old Meredith Thompson became Orillia’s first Ontario Age Group Championship qualifiers since 1980. They were followed that summer by 10 year olds Lisa Jacobson and Gray Powell. Rob Maynard became Orillia’s first qualifier for the Youth National Championships.
The big event of 1987, though, was the AAAA Team Champs. The team flew to Thunder Bay with the intent of winning the meet and being one of two teams to move up to the AAA group. The Cats led the meet from the start to the final session on Sunday night. On the last night however, the Cats couldn’t score enough points in the distance events and were squeezed into 3rd place 496 to 476 to the Cats 455 points. There was a happy ending for the Cats, though, when an AAA team opted to drop down opening up a spot for the third place team to move up.
That spring at the club banquet the CATS, in a move to bring some tradition back to the club, announced Dave Town as the first “Official Lifetime Member” of the Channel Cats.
In the Fall of 1987 membership was up to 60 swimmers. Top performances continued. Lisa Hill competed in the Eastern Canadian Championships placing 10th and 12th in the backstrokes. She and Meredith Thompson competed at the Ontario Senior Championship and were the first Cats to make the TAG listings since Dave Gordon in 1979, ranking 44th and 48th in Canada for their ages respectively. Six swimmers competed at the Ontario Age Group Championships: Melissa Knapp, Kerrilee McLeod, Rhonda Ley, Shelagh Thompson, David Rinneard and Meredith Thompson. Ten year old Melissa Knapp brought home two bronze medals and fourteen year old Meredith Thompson placed 5th in the 200m breast.
That summer 7 Cats went to the Age Group Champs including new comers Gray Powell, Megan Smith, Ashley Booth and Jennifer Doige. At their first AAA Team Champs the Cats placed 10th out of 20 teams. The club was becoming noticed in the swimming world.
But turmoil was brewing in the club in spite of its growing successes. Many swimmers complained about the pressure Marg put on them. The club wasn’t a fun place to be for the swimmers and by Spring the membership had dropped below 50. In the Spring of 1988 the Board led by President Ann Shivers made the difficult decision not to renew Marg’s contract.
The club hired a new full time coach in the Fall of 1988. Eric Lee had been a very popular assistant coach with the Muskoka club. He was much more personable and realistic in his demands with the swimmers. Several Orillians who had trained with him in Muskoka returned to the Channel Cats, notably Kira Leskiw and Megan Sullivan. Membership climbed back up to 54 that Fall.
Club performances picked up where they left off in 1988. The team placed 12th at the AAA Ontario Team Champs. Six Cats competed in the Ontario Age Group Champs: Erin, Allison and Megan Sullivan, Ashley Booth, Melissa Knapp and Amy McCann. Fourteen year old Megan Sullivan placed 2nd and 5th in the breaststokes. Five swimmers competed in the Eastern
Canadian Championships: Chris Hamilton, Rob Maynard, Rhonda Ley, Megan Sullivan and Meredith Thompson. Kira Leskew, 19, became the Cats third ever National Qualifier. She raced in six events at the Winter Nationals in Montreal.
In June of 1989 Eric Lee left the club saying he “just wasn’t happy” here after only eight months with the club. Board President Mike Rinneard oversaw the hiring of a new head coach. The Board opted for a known quantity in Marilyn Thomson (nee Sova) who had been an assistant since head coaching the club in the “poolless” years, 1983-5. The commotion around the club with the abrupt departure of the second coach in less than a year caused a drop in membership and the loss of such top swimmers as Lisa Hill, Megan Sullivan, and Allison Sullivan. Coach Sova spent the year bringing some stability back to the club.
A NEW ERA
In the Fall of 1990 the club hired a new head coach. Martin Gurrin had founded the TASK Swim Club in Toronto and then spent two years running the Kenora Swim Club. A very efficient administrator, personable and an experienced coach, he was just what the club needed. As a bonus he brought Dave Town back to the club as an assistant coach. Dave had continued his swimming career at the University of Toronto eventually making the National Swim Team and representing Canada internationally four times. Returning to Orillia to start practice as a chiropractor he was happy to join up with Martin again, whom he had helped in coaching at TASK.
With his integrity and communication skills Martin soon brought a sense of confidence back in the swimmers. His five years with the Cats brought a steady improvement without the emotional turmoil that had been simmering for the last five years.
The club started on a steady climb back to competitiveness. Starting with a 4th place at the AAAA Ontario Team Championships that year (having dropped down to that category) they rose to 4th in the AAA’s in the next four years, their highest placing yet.
Individual successes followed the same pattern. At the Ontario Age Group Championships Mark Shivers (in the 50 free) won a bronze medal in ’91, silver in ’93 and a gold in ’95. Adele Page also won a gold in ’95 in the 11/12 50 free. Both of those swimmers became the first Cats to make an Ontario Age Group Allstar team since Dave Town in 1975 when they competed for theProvince at a meet in Cleveland in 1995. Four Cats raced at the Ontario Senior Championships under Martin’s tutelage: Todd Shivers, Steve Arsenault, Steve Hanzlik and Ashley Booth. Three swimmers competed in the Eastern Canadian Championships: Ashley Booth, Rhonda Ley and Todd Shivers. In ’91 Rhonda placed 8th in the 50 free and in ’93 Todd won the gold in the 50 free. Four swimmers competed at the Junior Nationals in 1993: Mark Shivers, Adele Page, Steve Hanzlik and Shannon DeGroot.
The Cats also made their return to the National championships during Martin’s tenure. Todd Shivers became the Cats 4th ever qualifier placing 58th at the 1994 Winter Nationals and 44th at the Summer Nationals in the 50 free. Kira Leskew also returned from McMaster University to train with Martin in the summer of 1991 and represented the Cats at Nationals again.
Emphasizing out-of-the-pool activities to help ’round’ the athletes Martin brought a new tradition to the CATS, the senior group canoe trip. In four of the next five years Martin took the seniors on a three day trip in August doing team building and learning campcraft and canoe skills.
In January 1995 Martin informed the Board he would not be returning for the next season. “The time feels right to move on,” he said. The club hired a new coach from Nova Scotia, James Whynacht.
James continued the swimmer centred approach to coaching. He had many new ideas and techniques he implemented keeping the training interesting and he worked hard at recruiting new swimmers. During his four years as coach the club grew from 60 to over 70 members.
The club stayed in the top ten at the Ontario AAA Team Championships during his tenure, peaking at 3rd place in 1996. Between ’96 and ’99 three swimmers went to Junior Nationals: Mark Shivers, Adele Page and Steve Hanzlik. Mark won silver in ’96 and gold in ’97, both in the 50 free. In 1996 Mark was the fastest 15 year old 50 freestyler in Canada. That year he and Adele also competed in the Eastern Canadian Champs. Six Cats raced at the Junior Provincials in ’97, the meet which replaced the Ontario Age Group Champs: Jason DeVroom, Dylan Bourgeois, Tineke Whelan, Steve Hanzlik, Adele Page and Leighanne Judson.
In 1996 Meredith Thompson became the club’s 5th Nationals qualifier. She came out of a short retirement to train again (while working as an assistant coach with the club) and surprised herself by making the national standard. Unfortunately she was not able to make the trip to race at Nationals.
In 1997 Mark Shivers became the 6th national qualifier. In February, just after winning Junior Nationals he travelled to Halifax for Nationals and placed 12th in the 50 free. During the next season Mark suffered an acute case of salmonella poisoning and lost 20 pounds slowing his development in his final season with the Cats. He went away to school in 1999 and began training at the National Training Centre in Kitchener and has continued to improve. He has been a finalist at Nationals the last two years and is continuing his training.
For the 2000 Team Championships the Cats moved up to the AA category when a few teams opted to move down. They showed they deserved to be there by placing 11th overall. The next year they dropped to near the bottom of that group and will now compete in AAA team Champs for this year.
Will tendered his resignation after his second year in Orillia opting to retire from coaching and moved home to Winnipeg to help his wife open a fitness club. The Club looked East again for the next head coach hiring Troy Blakney from New Brunswick.
Now, in the Fall of 2001, a new Cats season has started with a new head coach and the ever evolving group of eager swimmers continuing in the tradition of Grace Cuiper, Dave Town, Dave Gordon, Meredith Thompson, Kira Leskew, Todd and Mark Shivers and Adele Page. I wonder what Freddie French would say if he saw what his original Orillia Y Swim Club had developed in to?
Channel Cat Coaches
Head Coach Assistants-
Sara Jenkins 1968
Garth Winton1969-73 Grace Cuiper, Wendy Town
Karl Dixon 1973
Claus Koch 1973-75 Harry Gordon, Don Gilcrist
Harry Gordon 1975-81 Don Gilcrist, Judy Peacock, John MacLean, Sara Jenkins, Sandy Wright, Karrin Wright, Susan Eccleshall, Laurie Welsh, Julie Sneyd, Paul Grudzien, Shelia Swedburg, Martha Ewart, Clare Gordon
Paul Grudzien 1981
Bill Bevan 1981-82
Marilyn Sova 1882-85 Martha Sova, Elaine Thompson
Marg McGeachy 1985-88 Elaine Thompson, Marilyn Thomson (nee Sova), MaryLou Smith
Eric Lee 1988-89 Elaine Thompson, Marilyn Thomson
Marilyn Thomson 1989-90 Elaine Thompson, Marylou Smith, Amy Atkinson
Martin Gurrin 1990-95 Elaine Thompson, Dave Town, JP Couvrette, Rhonda Ley, Kristin Jefferies, Beth Johnston, Mary Johnston, Meredith Thompson
James Whynacht 1995-99 Elaine Thompson, Meredith Thompson-Edwards
Will Gibbs 1999-2001 Elaine Thompson, Meredith Thompson-Edwards
Troy Blakney 2001- 2003 Elaine Thompson, Erin Brownlee, Sandy Henley
Dave Town 2003 – 2005 Elaine Thompson, Meredith Thompson-Edwards
(* This is likely not an exhaustive list but is as complete as possible)
Most Interesting Quote From Board Minutes:
“Although there didn’t seem to be a great deal to discuss at this meeting, there was a beehive of activity going on. Mr. Gordon poured coffee and passed around dessert, Michele marked English essay papers, Dianne did crewel work and Dr. Kiff demonstrated intra-occular surgery now being performed in Orillia..”
— December 13, 1977
The Cross Lake Swim
A demanding aside to the club history was it’s role in running the Cross Lake Swim. For the 20 years between 1970 and 1990 the Cats Board took on the responsibility to organize and execute the annual swim in August. It was first run in 1927 and through the 30’s by the Y and then was revived by the Rotary club in 1958. Soon after Garth Winton arrived in town in 1969 the Channel Cats began organizing it . After 1970 one parent was given the task of registering swimmers, arranging patrol boats and rowboats, collecting awards and sponsors, rounding up volunteers and liaising with the Rotary Day organizers. It was a huge task.
Each year 5 to 15 Channel Cats competed against a handful of local citizens and a contingent of distance swimmers from Camp Ak-o-mak in Parry Sound who used it as their big peak race each summer. Five prominent names stand out for running the swim in these years: Mary and Fred Town, Ken Hutchison, Marilyn Thomson and Vicki Booth. I apologise for leaving out other hard working volunteers but their names were not recorded.
Many Cats swam the 5 kilometer race every year, vying for the Burnett Trophy as first Orillian. Cats coaches Garth Winton and Harry Gordon spent many early mornings in July paddling beside the swimmers as they trained for the big race by swimming from the park dock to Fittons Road and back at dawn. The fastest time recorded by a Channel Cat was Dave Town’s 1.03:17 in 1975. The record time for the swim was 55 minutes.
In 1990 the Cats stepped away from the race due to problems with insurance fees. It was not held again for eight years until a local charity stepped in to run it as a fund raiser starting in 1998.
The Channel Cats and the YMCA
The Channel Cats Swim Club was originally founded as a YMCA program. In its first years under Garth Winton’s direction it took on an independence in policy, staffing and administration but retained a loose affiliation with the Y. This allowed Garth the benefits of the Y name (entering YMCA swim meets which were more common then) but gave him no supervision in the finances other than the Channel Cats Board which was not very active. After his departure the Board took a stronger role in running the club and worked harder at its relations with the Y. The Y, for its part, has always tried to support and work with the club because it serves the youth of the city in a way that compliments the Y’s own programming.
The arrangement up to 1995 was that the club was offered free pool time with the club offering a yearly donation to the Y’s financial campaign. The donation started at $200 in 1970 and rose to $500 by 1982.
In the beginning the club had pool time every morning at 6 am and 3 to 4 hours per week in the afternoon and evenings. The Y had to keep its focus on its own swimming and life saving classes which it scheduled in the after school and after supper slots.
After the construction of the new pool the club was able to negotiate better pool times. Coach Marg McGeachy was able to get prime time hours on several afternoons since the larger pool allowed the Y to consolidate its programs by running several at the same time. She also instituted the first regular weight room workouts too. In response to this increased pool time the club raised its contribution to the Y’s financial campaign to $1000.
Every new coach thereafter approached the Y about more afternoon pool time. Tradeoffs were often offered around Saturday mornings and Sundays and the training hours evolved yearly. In the early 90’s coach Martin Gurrin arranged for the club to use the gym, cardio room and bikes in addition to the weight room.
By 1995 the contribution had risen to $3000, still a fraction of what the pool time would be worth if rented to other outside groups. The Y at that time was, for various reasons, going through some financial challenges and approached the club Board to discuss the situation. It was agreed then that the club would begin paying pool rental fees but starting at a rate heavily subsidized by the Y. The fees were to increase yearly at a rate the club could manage financially.
The relationship between the club and the Y has remained professional and very amicable since that time. The Cats have afternoon pool time every afternoon now and their rental fees, while still significantly less than the normal rate, are significantly higher than what they were (around $11,000 in 2000).
Since the founding of the swim club in 1968 the YMCA movement has evolved away from competition and competitive sports. The relationship between Channel Cats and the YMCA programs now more than ever compliment each other in providing aquatic opportunities to Orillia’s youth.