Returning to the pool for the first time since the COVID cancelled season, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s swim team is in prime position to compete for the USports national Swimming Championship.
The Varsity Blues’ team culture comes from longtime coaches Byron MacDonald and Linda Kiefer, who let the women know with a speech the first day of every season how much they value their commitment to athletics and the team.
“It’s an important point…I’ve been doing it now for 30 years but and I felt when I first started doing it, there wasn’t the acceptance of woman in sports on a huge scale…they weren’t getting as much back from it necessarily in terms of peer support or family support in some cases,” said MacDonald.
“I think it’s way better now than it was then, but I also feel that it’s something that guys take for granted and they shouldn’t, they should realize that it’s a little bit tougher for women in today’s world.”
The 71-year-old MacDonald has been the coach of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s team since 1978-79, and assumed head coaching duties of the women’s team in 1983-84.
MacDonald has a wide array of international experience, coaching over 70 swimmers to international teams, and was an assistant on the 1992 Canadian Olympic team. He also competed in the 100-metre butterfly for Canada at the 1972 Olympics.
MacDonald and Kiefer are arguably the most successful coaches in the history of Canadian University swimming, having won 24 women’s conference championships and 10 USports National Championships throughout MacDonald’s tenure, including the last seven conference titles.
What makes the pair so successful? Their unique and understanding approach to coaching, despite contrasting styles.
“He (Byron) knows when to intervene, when to backoff and when to push you a little, I’ve never heard him raise his voice ever, which is something I feel is very shocking to people,” said Giselle Steiner, a fourth-year member of the swim team.
“Byron and Linda have enough respect, authority isn’t the right word because it doesn’t suit them, but they command a sort of dignity that they don’t need to raise their voices at anybody.”
MacDonald takes a relaxed approach to coaching, one where he is not overly critical or harsh on his swimmers. An attitude he credits his mother and a former swimming coach he worked with in the summers for helping engrain in him.
Unlike most who coach at a high level of swimming, MacDonald does not enforce mandatory attendance at all practices, allowing his swimmers to focus on their education as well as their athletics.
“Byron is the most chill person I know, he’s the polar opposite of our other coach (Linda), which makes them work so well together.” said Kate Rendall, a fourth-year swimmer and one of the team’s captains.
“He’s just there for you, he’ll always help you with anything you need, he’s not going to force you to do anything, you put in the work you want to do and that’s what you get out, he’s not like other coaches screaming in your ear all the time telling you what to do.”
Kiefer’s importance to the Varsity Blues
Kiefer is Canada’s highest-ranked female coach, and is now in her 32nd year of working alongside MacDonald as the Varsity Blues’ assistant coach.
Kiefer joined Team Canada as an assistant coach at the 2020 Games, and was the only female on staff. She also coached former Varsity Blues swimmer Kylie Masse to a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games and three medals at the 2020 Olympics.
She has also coached at the FISU Games, the Commonwealth Games, and multiple world championships.
She plays a unique role on the Varsity Blues team, with a hands-on coaching style opposite to MacDonald.
“Linda is kind of like the whole team’s mom…she balances Byron out really well, in situations where he’s almost too chill she’s the voice of reason,” said Rendall.
“Linda is all powerful, all knowing, one of the strongest ladies in Canada,” said Steiner.
“She is the backbone of the team, and I think she deserves all the recognition in the world, she’s also going to tell you stuff you didn’t know you needed to hear, and you may not want to hear, but she’s going to tell you and she’s not going to mince her words.”
A U of T grad and former swimmer, Kiefer had worked with MacDonald during the 1988 Olympic year, with a coaching spot open on the staff and U of T looking to hire a female coach, it seemed like a perfect fit, and turned out even better.
“It’s been fantastic, I can’t recommend her higher and I can’t recommend to a head coach to find somebody you trust implicitly to be your assistant coach. It makes life so much easier to be able to trust your assistant coach one-hundred percent, one you know that if you’re not there that day, they can take over,” MacDonald says.
“In most head coach assistant coach relationships the head coach is the tough one and the assistant coach tries to mend the fences, there’s no question in our coaching relationship Linda is the hard-ass, she tells it the way it is and doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and I’m the one who tries to mend everything and get everybody on side,” said MacDonald.
The team culture MacDonald and Kiefer have cultivated is evident coming off of the cancelled 2020-21 season. With a large roster of 25, the girls and coaches make it a priority to ensure everyone is included and can maximize their performance in and out of the pool.
“I think the fact we still have 25 girls on the team speaks for itself, they’re going to a top university with a top swim program where they’re being worked very hard, we still retained most of our girls, I think that speaks to our team culture and the support we try to offer the girls,” said Steiner.
The Varsity Blues women were last national champions in 2015-16, but both the swimmers and MacDonald are confident they can take back the title this season.
The large roster allows the Varsity Blues to qualify 18 swimmers for nationals, each who can swim four events. MacDonald’s experience allows him to map out early point projections.
“I can sit down in a couple of weeks and give you a rough idea of what the final point score is going to be…in swimming what is supposed to happen is probably going to happen 60 times, then ten times there will be some surprises, you’re hoping it will be a close meet,” he said.
“Based on the talent we have in the pool and the points that they are hopefully going to score, it looks like we would be favoured to win.”
As for how long he plans on coaching? MacDonald has no plans to leave.
“I’m way past retirement age, six years past retirement. I’m still going to go for another seven or eight years, provided I’m still alive.”
An earlier version of this story contained incorrect statistics. The Observer apologizes for he error.