For the second straight year, Simon Fraser University’s swim program is heading into the crucial part of its schedule without a head coach and a lot of uncertainty.
Long-time coach Liam Donnelly, who’s from Coquitlam, left the team at the beginning of January on what was vaguely described as an administrative leave. That’s left swimmers Andrew Woinoski and Collyn Gagne with a lot of questions. But what they and their teammates would like better is some kind of resolution — preferably the quick return of their coach.
“It’s very unlike Liam, because he’s been dedicated to this team for years,” said Woinoski, a fourth-year athlete from Coquitlam who is red-shirting this season. “The years before I arrived he had never taken a leave, never stopped doing what he’s been doing year-round.”
In fact, Donnelly’s current leave is his third in the past four years. The first lasted five months.
A year after he returned in 2017/’18 Donnelly was again removed, this time for three weeks that coincided with the team’s run-up to nationals and trials. And while the Clan recorded its’ best-ever finish — ninth overall — the team was ranked second and Woinoski said it could have done better.
“The change of coaches was big,” he said.
Woinoski said the swimmers have been told the reasons for Donnelly’s current leave are between the employer and employee, and the coaching duties have been passed to assistant coaches Maxime Marechal-McCoy and Dylan Roguski.
Donnelly began coaching on Burnaby Mountain in 1991 and he became SFU’s head coach the following year. Under his guidance, the team has won 15 collegiate national team titles, 143 individual national titles and 62 NCAA Div. 2 national records.
The lone blemish to Donnelly’s record was in 1997, when he was dismissed and then reinstated after counter sexual harassment claims were made between a student-athlete and the coach. The end result saw Donnelly re-hired and the school’s president resign, as well as an overhaul of the school’s harassment policies.
Woinoski said Donnelly’s leave not only impacts the team’s competitive ability, but also hurts the retention of current swimmers and the recruiting of next year’s freshmen.
“People are looking at other universities now, which is sad to say,” Woinoski said.
Gagne added the team feels unsupported.
“We need our coach,” he said. “We came here for our coach, we stay here for our coach.”
Donnelly, reached by email, declined to comment.
“Thanks for understanding,” he said.
Athletics and recreation senior director Theresa Hanson said in a statement the school cares "deeply about the well-being and collective success of our student-athletes," but reiterated provincial privacy legislation prevents her from saying much more.
As yet, the 36 swimmers that comprise the team haven’t been given a specific date for the return of their coach.
Woinoski said team accomplishments and individual aspirations are suffering.
“[Donnelly’s] a hard worker and he really cares about us,” he said.
Gagne added, “He knows us.”
The school’s decision to put Donnelly on leave also reaches down to the community club level, as it coincides with the reduction of summer pool hours for the private Simon Fraser Aquatics club, where many of SFU’s swimmers maintain their training during the off-season. It’s now being forced to rent time at other local facilities in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Burnaby.