Coaching Association of Canada

GROUNDBREAKER: Debbie Muir Accorded Her Sport’s Highest International Honour

The extraordinary career of Debbie Muir, one of Canada's great synchronized swimming coaches, was recognized with her induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame on May 22, 2007.

As a member of the team that captured Canada's first synchro silver medal at the inaugural world aquatic championships in 1973, Debbie recognized Canada's potential to be the best synchro nation in the world; fulfilling that potential would drive her coaching career.

Her post-competitive plan was to earn an education degree and enter the teaching profession. Coaching wasn't on her agenda, although she coached with her club, the Calgary Aquabelles, to help pay her bills.

Before long, to her surprise, coaching had become a passion. “I fell in love with the idea of making people better. I found I could help people to be better than I was. I got a real high out of helping talented people, giving them tips to become great, and quickly realized I would rather coach than teach.” Soon appointed as head coach of the Aquabelles, she became a national coach in 1976. In 1979, when federal money became available to pay coaches' salaries, she was able to quit teaching.

Muir's Record at a Glance

  • Olympic Coach, 1984, 1988, 2000
  • World Championship Coach, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1991
  • Coached four Olympians to two gold and two silver medals
  • Over three world championships, won seven of a possible nine gold and two silver medals
  • National team coach, 1976 to 1991

When Synchro Canada formed a national team in 1981, Debbie became national coach and, over the next seven years, everything fell into place. “When you're leading the way and going into territory where you haven't been before, and people have no preconceived ideas of what they can and cannot do, and the right volunteer leaders are in place, you can do anything, and that's what it was like at Synchro Canada. Our outstanding international results fortified the belief that we were doing the right thing, and it was very contagious.”

It was a glorious period for synchro and for Debbie as she built an enviable reputation as an astute, innovative coach. Among her star athletes were 1978 world champions Helen Vanderburg and Michelle Calkins, 1984 Olympic silver medallists Kelly Kryczka, Sharon Hambrook, and Carolyn Waldo, and 1988 Olympic gold medallists Waldo and Michelle Cameron.

By 1991, Debbie decided it was time to move on. “What I had enjoyed so much over the years was the ability to do what I needed to do when I needed to do it, in the interest of being the best in the world. It was, go out there and take risks. Towards the end, that wasn't there any more because of factors like a growing bureaucracy that compromised the quality of training, so I didn't feel as motivated or as passionate. I also felt I had achieved all my goals.”

Several years later, with the 2000 Olympic Games looming, her offer to do training camps with the Australian team led to an invitation to become Australia's full-time national coach. On her first visit she discovered “a mess, a shambles, with girls who were not athletes and who had no idea how to train full time. I felt a little spark; here was the opportunity to change a whole group of people, a whole way of thinking, a way of life, and to be challenged in a different way — and I wanted to see what was making their sport system work.”

Even though synchro was barely on the Australian sport radar, all the tools for success were readily available. “Tell us what you need and we'll get it for you” was the attitude. Debbie learned plenty from her Australian experience, including how to target government money strategically, and returned to Canada proud of what she had accomplished. “When I started with Australia, the team was ranked last in the world and at the Olympics, they were eighth, which moved them to 12th out of 25 countries in world ranking.”

After Sydney, Debbie decided to dip her toe into the corporate world and apply her coaching skills to senior managers. She created a program that demonstrated how to get world-class performances from employees. She created an educational program to help athletes understand the connection between body and mind and its effect on physiology and the ability to achieve goals. And she developed a youth program that introduced using high performance skills in everyday life.

For the past four years, Debbie has been heavily involved in revitalizing the Canadian sport system. She was a key member of the Canadian Sport Review Panel, now Podium Canada and the umbrella body charged with developing strategies to increase Canada's Olympic medal production, and continues to work with key targeted summer sports.

A member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, inducted as a builder in 1995, and the Canadian Olympic Hall of fame, inducted in 1998, also as a builder, Debbie is a budding author. She and Mark Tewksbury are working on a book they are calling “The Great Traits: Fundamentals for Achievers, Leaders, and Legacy Leavers”. “We've worked together for over 15 years and throughout that time, we've had lengthy talks about what made us successful. The book, which is due out in the fall of 2007, describes our learnings.”

Drawing on her coaching background, Debbie serves as the advisor to Dragan Jovanovic, the coach of the national men's water polo team and is the mentor of Xiuli Wang, the long track speed skating coach whose athletes won four medals at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. “I enjoy the opportunity to pass on the lessons I've learned. It is exciting to spend time with coaches who are so passionate about what they are doing and so excellent and to be a small part of helping them to reach even higher levels.”

Profile by Sheila Robertson