Cayman Islands used to be useless at swimming. Internationally they couldn’t cause a ripple. Sea turtles had a better chance of winning medals. That’s until Dave Kelsheimer arrived and inexorably improved the swimming programme.
The former technical director at the Lions Aquatic Centre transformed the set up there taking the juniors from zeroes to heroes virtually overnight.
Kelsheimer moved to another coaching post in Orlando two years ago before eventually ending up Down Under to be head coach and general manager of Surrey Park Swimming Club in Melbourne.
The celebrated coach was in George Town this week on a short vacation so it was an ideal opportunity to catch up with the man who handed over the reins to Dominic Ross who has done a fine job since.
Leaving Cayman was a wrench for Kelsheimer but he felt that after a decade here it was time to move on. ‘The Australians gave me the opportunity,’ he says. ‘It is a chance to get into a really motivated programme. The Australians love swimming, they love sport. They’re just great people. The only down side is that they’re just too far from family and friends.’
The 35-year-old American’s loved ones live mostly in Michigan. He’s got a lot of friends here, ‘who are almost family’ including Peter and Sara MacKay. Peter is president of the Cayman Islands Swimming Association and Sara is heavily involved in promoting the sport. The MacKays son, Andrew, hopes to qualify for the Beijing Olympics next year and although he studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, he chose to spend the whole summer being coached by Kelsheimer in Melbourne. Shaune Fraser is the best swimmer to come out of Kelsheimer’s era, along with Heather Roffey. Fraser, 19, has already qualified for Beijing, the others are likely to although Roffey is impeded by a shoulder problem. All three were good enough to compete in the Athens Olympics three years ago.
Kelsheimer spent a few days in Grand Cayman this week before going to America for a wedding and flying back to Melbourne today. Even on vacation he was emailing training programmes to his little charges.
‘I’ve got a great bunch of kids out there. They’ve really absorbed things very quickly. They’re highly motivated. We’ve had seven state records in the last month. These are 13 and 14-year-olds so the earliest we’ll see them in the Olympics is London. As the Jamaicans say: ‘I don’t want to put my mouth on it.’ But we’ll see what happens. I do coach seniors but the younger ones will probably have a shot at the London Games.’
He’s got a group of open water swimmers who won four medals at the Australian nationals in April, including one gold. Not bad considering no athlete from the club had ever qualified for the nationals. ‘It was great to see those kids step up and go.’
His results are a testimony to an unstinting work ethic, but his methods were not always appreciated. Total dedication, win at all cost, is his ethos. ‘My delivery is probably different than what it was. Yes, I’m intense, that’s how I’m wired, that’s not going to change. I’m still immovable and still inflexible but it is the way it is.’
His programme at the Lions Aquatic Centre was not wholly popular with parents and children alike who resented early morning starts, intense training and heavy demands on their time and resources in the evenings and weekends. Yet his record speaks for itself. Before arriving in 1995 Cayman had never even got a sniff of a medal at the Carifta Games. Seventh was their best showing. Within a year they won eight medals at Carifta and by the end of his nine-year stint had amassed almost 300 medals and a flood of records in the process. ‘That part was fun, seeing our kids get feared.’
In 2003 Cayman Islands took a team of around 90 competitors to Guernsey for the Island Games. Their four swimmers were Fraser, MacKay, Roffey and Kaitlyn Elphinstone. Cayman won 28 medals of which 21 came from the swimmers. ‘Kaitlyn actually got a bronze in the Pan Ams open water championships against the Americans and Canadians soon after. She was a great kid as well. That was fun, seeing those guys have such a big impact.
‘All those four made the top 10 of the Pan Am Games a month after. That’s what our focus was. We went to Paris before the Island Games for a week-long hard training camp in a 50m pool. When we were in Guernsey we trained every day around the racing to prepare for Pan Am.’
Coach Ross has maintained the high quality of youngsters coming through. Less confrontational and demanding than Kelsheimer, Ross’s laid back but firm approach completed his predecessor’s style perfectly.
‘I have a lot of love for coach Dom, he’s a great guy. I never had more fun than coaching with him. He’s great, his passion for the sport. It wasn’t an easy environment to work in. There were ups and downs, ebbs and flows. I had a lot of love and support but it didn’t change the fact that it was a tough job. I loved that challenge when I was here, but it came at a very big price.’
Surprisingly, Kelsheimer wasn’t a strong schoolboy swimmer. He actually spent more time diving competitively. Coaching came early and by chance. The captain of his high school swim team got him a job teaching in Troy, Michigan. ‘It was good money, you got to hang out at the pool and you got to meet a lot of girls, so it was a great job.
‘I have the best job on the planet. I’m so blessed and could not be more passionate about what I do. I do a lot of swim clinics and camps, which makes me reflect on what I do. ‘For me, when you’ve worked a number of years or even a season with an athlete and you go to a championship meet and they look at that scoreboard for their time or their placing or both, the next place they look is you. And that look is what sustains the passion.
‘That look is a reflection of the cold winter mornings when you didn’t want to be there at 5am. The hours and hours of effort it takes. That small fraction of intense joy comes at a price of a lot of hard work. There’s no question in my mind that these kids are up to it. As a good friend once told me: ‘They only try to tackle you when you’re carrying the ball.’ You can expect some of that stuff. I really enjoyed the underdog quality and struggle and strife of coaching in Cayman because Caymanians are up to it. They’ve done it in other arenas.
‘For me the biggest source of pride was just the guy on the street, total stranger, who was really proud of their swim programme. Taxi drivers too, people on the street, they were proud of Cayman’s swim programme and for something frankly as silly as swimming, I’m not doing heart surgery. So something which is essentially trivial to have such a great impact was a lot of fun. To see the underdog step up and to hear Jamaican kids talk about our swimming programme and be afraid. They knew there was a certain set of expectations because they came from this country. That was real joy that I may never find again.’