By the numbers alone, David Fry would easily rank among the most outstanding varsity coaches in Dalhousie history.
In his 16 years as head coach of the Tigers swim teams, his squads have brought home 30 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship banners. An impressive run by anyone's standards. Add to that over 20 podium finishes at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championships, four Dalhousie coach of the year honours, 20 AUS coach of the year awards (10 for each swim team), two CIS coach of the year titles, and you have a record that's legendary.
“I had a great run, largely because had great athletes to work with,” says Mr. Fry, who announced last month that he will be retiring at the end of this season.
“For me, the most gratifying thing is to see the growth in the program. Every year, the level of excellence is bumped up a notch. After a while, that becomes part of the culture, and the athletes just expect themselves to perform at a certain level. What you see around you is often what inspires you.”
He adds that what has inspired many of his swimmers is knowing that for all those AUS championships, the top goal—a CIS title—is still something Dal has yet to claim.
“Winning at the conference level is great, and it’s been a wonderful thing to win so many championships, and we’ve been as high as third in the men and fourth in the women [nationally] in the modern day. But we’ve never won – never been in the top two. So we still have work to do.”
He corrects himself, realizing that his work is coming to an end. “Well, I don’t,” he laughs. “But the team does. And the athletes buy into that: somebody’s got to finish first, so why not us?”
A storied career
It was a similar line of thought—“why not me?”—that got Mr. Fry into coaching in the first place. He swam for Acadia as an undergrad, with four different coaches of varying skill levels in four years. “The university’s commitment to swimming was less than stellar…[the coaches] were all great people, but I began to realize that, hey, I could do this.”
After completing his BEd at Queen’s, he began developing a two-lane career: teacher and swim coach. He coached for the Dartmouth Crusaders off and on for 12 years while also working as a teacher in the city. The days were long—14, 16 hours—but worth it. “I was young and wanted to do it, so I found a way to make it happen.”
During that time, he was also a regular assistant with the Tigers, and led the teams on two occasions (81-82 and 92-93) when coach Nigel Kemp was on sabbatical. In 1998, he was named as Mr. Kemp’s replacement, and cut back his teaching load to 50 per cent. (He continued to work as a resource teacher at Clayton Park Junior High until just two years ago.)
Immediately, his easy-going-but-direct rapport struck a chord with Tigers swimmers. Indeed, it’s remarkable how warm and inviting Mr. Fry comes across in conversation, while still remaining refreshingly direct.
“The one thing I demand of athletes is that we both be on the same page,” he says. “If our goals don’t match up, we have to get them to align. I don’t believe in dictating what I believe the athlete needs to do; we’ve got to find that common ground…they communicate to me where they want to go with their career, and I try my hardest to get them there.”
Building a championship team
You might think that it’s the body that makes a great swimmer, but Mr. Fry explains that it’s attitude that’s been key to Dalhousie winning so many championships during his tenure.
“I’ve had tall people, short people, broad people, thin people all be successful swimmers,” he says. “But they’ve got to constantly be looking for personal improvement, be hungry to get better.
“And they’ve got to learn to deal with stress, because a swimming race—for someone who’s never experienced high-level athletics—can be rather intimidating. You’re standing on the starting block. There’s nobody there to help you: your coach can’t do it with you; your team can’t do it with you. You’ve got to dive in the water and do it yourself.”
What does Mr. Fry say that he’s proudest of during his time at Dal?
“Certainly, the run we’ve had at the AUS level has been great. And coaching several athletes to the top of the podium, individually, at the CIS level was very rewarding.
“But it’s also about those athletes who aren’t the ‘stars,’ but who take a lot of pride in how far they’ve come from where they started. It’s so great to be part of that, and to know how well-balanced are swimmers are as people: they have some time for fun, and most of them are solid students – which our high number of Academic All-Canadians reflects.”
As he looks ahead to the next stage of his life, he says that in addition to working with the swimmers, he’s going to miss the sense of drive and accomplishment that comes from working with athletes day-to-day. But as for the pool, he doesn’t expect it to leave his life entirely.
“I’m retiring as the Dal head coach, but I hope to never retire from the sport…just find something where it can be two or three practices a week instead of 11 or 12, be it with the Dal team if I feel that I can be helpful, or elsewhere in the city.”
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