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Burnaby swim coach 'retires' after mysterious absence from SFU program

Swimmers were upset to be without their head coach
0407-CoquitlamSwimCoachRetiresFile 1w web
MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO Coquitlam's Andrew Woinoski, right, led a group of SFU swimmers who publicly expressed their displeasure over the "administrative leave" of their coach, Liam Donnelly last year. Wednesday, Donnelly announced his retirement from the program he'd worked with for 30 years.

Liam Donnelly has retired as head coach of the varsity swimming and diving team at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University following a mysterious absence from the program that the university will not discuss.

He’d worked with SFU’s swim program for 30 years, first signing on as an assistant in 1991 then becoming head coach the following year.

In February of 2020, several swimmers spoke out about uncertainty and disarray in the program after their coach was put on what the school called “administrative leave” at the beginning of January, just as the athletes were beginning their preparation for conference and national championships. It was Donnelly’s third such absence from the program in four years, including a five-month hiatus in 2017/’18.

Coquitlam senior Andrew Woinoski, who sat out last season, said the absences were “very unlike Liam,” who “never stopped doing what he’s been doing year-round.” He added the upheaval with the SFU’s head coach was also impacting the team’s ability to retain its best swimmers as well as attract new recruits.

Another swimmer, Collyn Gagne, said, “We came here for our coach, we stay here for our coach.”

SFU’s athletics and recreation senior director, Theresa Hanson, said at the time that Donnelly’s recent history was a personnel issue that’s protected by provincial privacy legislation.

Donnelly guided SFU teams to 15 NAIA national team titles, 374 national individual titles and 62 NAIA national championship records. He coached three NCAA individual champions, 42 All-Americans, 12 Scholar All-Americans and several of his swimmers went on to represent Canada at the world championships, World University Games and the Pan American Games. Three have set Canadian records.

In a press release announcing his retirement, Donnelly thanked the athletes, colleagues, support staff, administrators and volunteers he’s worked with.

“We have created an amazing team with a remarkable record and a legacy of commitment,” he said.

— With files from Dan Olson, Burnaby NOW