By JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press
Fired by Swimming Canada on the eve of the 1988 Olympics, Australian head swimming coach Don Talbot is coming back to Canada.
As a coach?
Well, here's where it gets tricky.
"I'm coming in December," Talbot said with a smile at poolside Monday. "My contract here is up at the end of the year."
The hard-driving head of Australian swimming is as inscrutable today as he was during the 10¾ years he coached on and off in Canada. He remains a master of keeping everyone -- his athletes included -- off-balance.
Talbot kept some of his Canadian swimmers so off-balance with withering tirades and taskmaster tactics, they nearly fell over. He remains the same way with his fellow-Aussies.
And he's still not shy about unloading on Canadian swimming.
"It's part of why I got fired in Canada," he said. "I told them they were making a mistake."
Talbot let that hang in the air, with an implied "and history has proved me right." That's debatable, of course. The head swim coach here is at least the equivalent of the coach of any major pro team in North America. And the talent level is similar.
Talbot has what he calls the best swimmer he has ever coached of the hundreds who have come under his direction.
That, of course, is the kid with the size 18 (or size 17, depending on the report) feet --Ian Thorpe, who lost the most ballyhooed swim of the Olympics on Monday, the 200 metres freestyle final, to Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband.
Talbot is aware of his reputation as an ogre but says it was the only approach to the Canadian swimming situation.
"First, you have to know what it takes to win in swimming," he explained. "You can't be lovey-dovey and tell your athletes everything is wonderful.
"You can't win that way. And that's a large part of what got me fired. I didn't sugarcoat the facts. There are times you've got to play hardball. I tried to explain it to them but they didn't want to hear about it.
"Once you see the system is working for you, then you can become a nice guy. In the meantime, you've got to create some success. They wouldn't see that.
"Everything can't be soft and easy. You need a hatchetman. I know that role and how it should be played. It doesn't make you popular, but that's not important. You've gotta be a bit of a bastard and be ready to give people a bit of a go.
"I found in Canada that unless you were handing out accolades, nobody wanted to listen to you. I enjoyed my time in Canada and I was sorry to leave."
So, what about coaching in Canada -- somewhere?
"Well, my contract is up Dec. 31 but I have an option for another year," he said. "My wife is Canadian and she wants to go back. Her parents are there and her mother is ill. We still have a home there."
As Talbot chatted, passersby glanced over the way they might if it were Olivia Newton-John or the prime minister of Australia standing there.
So, what about another coaching appointment in Canada?
"Heh, heh," he responded.
What Canadian swimming needs in order to catch Australia, Talbot said, is a rehaul, such as has been undertaken here. How that might be accomplished, he couldn't say.
He did say what he hopes will be his mark.
"What I'm trying to leave here is a legacy, something like baseball and other North American sports, where there's summer camps and a farm system, so that success is inevitable."