Coaching sprint kayak, from Kazakhstan to Canada
by Randy Pascal
The construction of the Northern Water Sports Centre (NWSC), just a few years ago, coincided with a vision that would see the entire spectrum of
water sports take a quantum leap forward on a local level.
And while the attractive new venue is clearly a beehive of activity in the spring, summer and fall, home to a growing membership and curious visitors
alike, there remains a great deal of untapped potential, in the eyes of many.
To that end, the sprint canoe and kayak arm of the water sport partnership believes that it has unveiled both the means to grow their sport and, perhaps
more importantly, the person to make it happen.
Just last month, the group welcomed a former coach of the Kazakhstan national team to the fold, introducing Helen Savin as the full-time
employee whose mandate, over the course of the next few years, is to build a program that can rival the one that existed at the Sudbury Canoe Club in
the 1950s and 1960s, an era when this area produced Olympic paddlers with some degree of regularity.
In Savin, the NWSC has not only partnered with a highly gifted athlete, the youngest member ever (at the time) of the Soviet Union national flat-water
canoe and kayak racing team, but also a coach who has enjoyed more recent success with clubs in both Mississauga and Richmond Hill.
Savin, for her part, is thrilled to completely immerse herself in this latest challenge.
“I think this city has huge potential,” she said, chatting comfortably this week at the NWSC. “People of Sudbury love to spend time on the water. The
club has a large membership, many people come here to do something on the water. My philosophy is to build through kids that have a love of the sport and
enjoy teamwork, and enjoy being around the lake.”
In that sense, she is quick to acknowledge that in her particular case, it was something of an acquired taste. A fairly talented track and field athlete
in her youth, Savin was identified by folks in the canoe/kayak community, as Soviet sport officials searched for teenagers predisposed to excellence based
largely on their physical make-up and core athletic skill-set.
She was 13 at the time.
“I didn't know a lot about the sport,” she said. “My family did not have a very active lifestyle, they were busy with work.” Still, her potential was
evident, so much so that Savin would be recruited to attend a sports school under the umbrella of the renown Dynamo sports group.
“We were told that you're here to bring medals to our country and then continue your career as coaches,” she said. “It was like 90% of my classmates that
became coaches. Honestly, I don't think I am a good coach. I am a regular coach, but I like what I do. I enjoy it.”
Her humility clearly understates her ability to foster both interest and excellence in a sport that is undoubtedly her passion.
A graduate of the coaching program at the Guryev Teacher's Training Institute – coaches in Russia were required to complete a six year university
program in order to then move on to work at the government funded clubs that train the elite in a variety of sports – Savin ascended to the role of coach
with the national team of Kazakhstan, a job that she maintained for seven years after she and her husband had immigrated to Canada.
By 2007, her family commitments forced her to step away from her involvement with her homeland. It also opened the door to the next phase of her
coaching journey, a seven year learning curve with the Mississauga Canoe Club, before spending the past five years with the Richmond Hill Canoe
These were uncharted waters for someone who had grown accustomed to the ways of the heritage that was left behind from the previous sporting regimen of
the Soviet Union. “Everything is different, the whole system is different,” said Savin. “Sport is like school (in Russia). We have funds from government,
parents had little to no involvement, they did not do volunteer jobs, parents did not pay any money to support the club.”
It created a dynamic which was more than a little foreign to Savin. “It was hard for me, because in Kazakhstan, when most kids came to a sport, they did
it because they wanted to get some results,” she explained. “In Canada, when you come to a sport, it can be for enjoyment, for fun. In the beginning, it
was difficult for me to understand, especially why parents would pay money for that.”
Thankfully, help was there to be had.
“In Mississauga, I worked with a great head coach at that time (Drayton Coolen),” Savin continued. “He helped me a lot with everything, to
understand how things worked, to change my attitude, to accept the system. I was also dealing with the language and culture barrier, but Mississauga was a
great experience for me.”
From there, she quickly transformed the RHCC from a group that was but a dozen paddlers or so strong, to a club that would send no less than 17
competitors to nationals. Easy to understand the appeal to the board of the Sudbury Canoe Club – and vice versa, for that matter.
“For me, this is a big change because the board has asked me to build a club,” said Savin. “Sudbury has facilities, you have water. When I saw the lake
in Sudbury, I thought “this is wonderful”. We need to build the enrollment rate at the club, we need to bring competitions from the south of Ontario to the
north of Ontario. We have everything to make this happen.”
“We are building a year-round program,” she added. “It's very important to have a winter program. The racing season for canoe/kayak is very short. We
race only in June, July, August and September. Before that, we build everything – our strength, our endurance, etc...”
“I try and make practices like a game, so that the kids compete with each other, motivate each other. There is a lot a variety in the practice, a lot of
variety in the boats, which can make it fun.”
And that would go a long way towards helping the Sudbury Canoe Club achieve their vision, reviving the days of Don Stringer, Joe Derochie, John
Beedell and others, days which helped put the SCC on the map, internationally – maybe even back in Kazakhstan.