Coquitlam’s Liam Donnelly has retired as head coach of the varsity swimming and diving team at Simon Fraser University.
He’d worked with SFU’s swim program for 30 years, first signing on as an assistant in 1991 then became head coach the following year.
Donnelly guided SFU teams to 15 NAIA national team titles, 374 national individual titles and 62 NAIA national championship records. He coached three NCAA individual champions, 42 All-Americans, 12 Scholar All-Americans and several of his swimmers went on to represent Canada at the world championships, World University Games and the Pan American Games. Three have set Canadian records.
But Donnelly’s tenure at SFU’s pool hasn’t always gone swimmingly.
In 1997, he was fired and then reinstated after counter claims of sexual harassment were made between the coach and a student-athlete. The controversy sparked the resignation of SFU’s president as well as an overhaul of the school’s harassment policies.
Last year, several swimmers spoke out about uncertainty and disarray in the program after their coach was put on what the school called “administrative leave” at the beginning of January, just as the athletes were beginning their preparation for conference and national championships. It was Donnelly’s third such absence from the program in four years, including a five-month hiatus in 2017/’18.
Coquitlam senior Andrew Woinoski, who sat out last season, said the absences were “very unlike Liam,” who “never stopped doing what he’s been doing year-round.” He added the upheaval with the SFU’s head coach was also impacting the team’s ability to retain its best swimmers as well as attract new recruits.
Another swimmer, Collyn Gagne, said, “We came here for our coach, we stay here for our coach.”
SFU’s athletics and recreation senior director, Theresa Hanson, said Donnelly’s rocky recent history was a personnel issue that’s protected by provincial privacy legislation.
In a press release announcing his retirement, Donnelly thanked the athletes, colleagues, support staff, administrators and volunteers he’s worked with.
“We have created an amazing team with a remarkable record and a legacy of commitment,” he said.
— With files from Dan Olson