In the swim of things

Jack Kelso leaves some students following in his wake

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Picture In the early summer of 1996, Jack Kelso found himself about to go head to head with a 30-year-old former UBC varsity swimmer in the 200-metre individual medley event in the provincial master's swimming championships in Victoria.

Two minutes and 34.3 seconds later, Kelso, who's 57, had left the youngster in his wake and set yet another world record in the event, slicing five seconds off the previous record for his age group in master's competition.

"I blew him away," laughs Kelso, a senior instructor in UBC's School of Human Kinetics whose competitive swimming career spans four decades.

Kelso also coached swimming for 30 years and, from 1978 to 1990, coached UBC's men's and women's varsity swim teams. Because of his long coaching career, it's not unusual for him to race against a former student -- as was the case in Victoria -- at national championships where competitors race in time groups rather than age groups.

"I like swimming against younger people and invariably come up against some of the kids I've coached. It's very humorous, but it's also very competitive, and deep down they really don't want to be beaten by their old coach," he says.

Kelso started blowing away the competition 46 years ago in Ocean Falls, B.C. and set his first world record in 1961, while competing for the University of Denver. That record stood until, a week later at the U.S. national championships, he took to the water and broke it again. Unfortunately, so did an even faster swimmer from Indiana, and Kelso's first record was short-lived.

Since then Kelso has held numerous Canadian and world records, mostly in the four-stroke 100- and 200-metre individual medley events -- his specialty. He currently holds world records in the 100- and 200-metre individual medley in the 55-years-and-older class, and is a member of two world record relay teams from B.C. He also holds 20 Canadian records and is the only master's swimmer in Canada to hold current records in his age group for the 50-metre event in all four strokes -- butterfly, backstroke, freestyle and breaststroke.

Born in 1939 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Kelso came to Canada with his family when he was 12. The family settled in Ocean Falls, a small community on the B.C. coast.

At that time, Ocean Falls was home to one of Canada's top swim organizations, the Ocean Falls Amateur Swim Club. And, a year after arriving, Kelso had learned to swim and had started racing and winning at meets in B.C. and Oregon and Washington states.

"The club was very fortunate to have as coach a chap called George Gate, who's still one of Canada's prominent swim coaches. He produced a lot of international swimmers out of that little town and many national champions as well," Kelso says.

While in Grade 12, Kelso narrowly missed making the team for the British Empire Games, and after graduating moved to California to swim for Long Beach City College.

"That was quite a contrast for me," he says. "Imagine a very naive and innocent boy from Ocean Falls going to Southern California and being met at the bus terminal by a guy in a powder blue T-bird convertible. I lived in a boarding house right on the beach. It was a different world down there."

Despite the distractions of California life, Kelso swam to win national junior college championships during his two years of college and his performance drew scholarship offers from universities across the U.S. He chose the University of Denver and embarked on his record-breaking career.

Unfortunately for Kelso, the individual medley wasn't made an Olympic event until 1964, and then as a 400-metre event. Kelso, still a 200-metre specialist, didn't make the Olympic team. The 200-metre individual medley was introduced as an Olympic event in 1968 after Kelso's (temporary) retirement from competition.

He still found opportunities to win medals as a member of the Canadian National Swim Team from 1962 to 1965 and claimed six medals for Canada in the Commonwealth and Pan-Am games in 1962 and 1963. He also owned the Canadian national championship titles in the 100- and 200-metre breaststroke and the 200- and 400-metre individual medley from 1960 to 1964.

Following his retirement from competitive swimming, Kelso did a master's degree in Physical Education in Oregon -- where he met his wife -- and a PhD in California and went into teaching. Then, for nearly 20 years, Kelso and his wife, a librarian, worked in international schools in Jamaica, Pakistan, Holland and Japan. In each location Kelso remained close to swimming, overseeing aquatic facilities, coaching, teaching lifeguards, establishing programs and building swim teams.

In 1978, the year UBC's aquatic centre opened, Kelso was hired as a faculty member and varsity coach. And by 1980, perhaps spurred on by the energy of his varsity swimmers, he was ready to start competing again.

"In 1980, master's swimming had really picked up momentum and the competition was starting to look reasonably strong," Kelso says. "I had a few good friends who were former national or international swimmers and we formed the UBC Master's Swim Club."

For the past 16 years Kelso has swum steadily through the master's age groups, breaking Canadian and world records as he goes. One record he set while in his 40s stood for a decade. He competes at provincial and national meets each year in April and May, choosing not to mix his passion for travel with his love of competition.

"We've travelled to about 70 countries," he says. "But if you go somewhere to compete, they know you're a record holder and there are a lot of expectations. That's not really my idea of a holiday."

Kelso says his uninterrupted involvement in competitive swimming, as a coach when not as a competitor, has enabled him to keep his interest in competition alive. He still spends hours each week swimming laps in the aquatic centre, picking up his pace each January as the championship season approaches.

When he's not in the pool he teaches aquatics and coaching science in the School of Human Kinetics and has written several books on swimming including A Concise History of Aquatic Sports in Canada, and Swimmers and Divers: A Historical Perspective. He also conducts master's swim clinics in B.C. and has conducted coaching clinics for the International Olympic Committee in Australia and Africa.

He is, he says, probably the best authority on the history of swim ming in Canada. And given the length and breadth of his involvement in the sport, it's not difficult to accept this claim.

In more than 45 years of involvement in the sport, Kelso has witnessed and participated in the evolution of competitive swimming.

"There's no question the sport has changed drastically," he says. "The training that we did in the 1950s and '60s, for example, is a tenth of what they're doing now. I remember that if I swam a mile in a training session it used to be a lot of swimming. Now these kids swim a mile just to warm up. There's no comparison.

"In the '50s we might train two hours a day, five days a week, and that was major in those days. Swimmers today would do double that."

Kelso also now sees kids being channelled into sports such as swimming as a means to keep them out of trouble, a phenomenon that adds challenge to the coach's job.

"We have a fairly high attrition rate in kids in the mid-teens who become completely disillusioned by going up and down the pool. So coaches have to be creative and able to provide a training atmosphere that will keep the kids interested. That's always a battle."

Those who stick with swimming, whether for competition or recreation, are buying into an activity that Kelso says is hard to beat.

"It's a very healthy, very clean sport with virtually no injuries and you can do it for a lifetime. I'm living proof of that."