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From athlete to coach to a slightly different type of coach
2020-11-21

As a young swimmer, Jamie Bretzlaff would heed the words of wisdom of Hall of Fame coach Jeno Tihanyi, translating his natural talent into an incredible ride that would lead him to within a hair of a qualifying berth on the 1988 Canadian Olympic team.

Less than a decade later, Bretzlaff would again be contacted by Tihanyi, moving home from Toronto and jumping into a coaching career in swimming that was originally intended to provide a flow-through from the accomplished mentor to the former student.

Yet their most powerful interaction was still to come.

"I don't know if Doc (Tihanyi) was having a soft moment or what, but he was in his hospital bed, recovering from his first heart attack, and we were sitting down, having a really good chat," recalled Bretzlaff, now 51 years old and living in Powell River, British Columbia.

"It was then that he convinced me that maybe I shouldn't be looking at swim coaching as being my ultimate goal, even though he had specifically recruited me for that, just a couple of years prior. He suggested I open myself up to the possibilities and see what else is out there."

"I trusted him and held him in such regard that I almost immediately started to look at perhaps a bigger picture of what I could do with my skill-set, going forward," he added.

In the words of the biography on the website of the company that he founded (Claricoast), Bretzlaff is a "trusted advisor, expert facilitator and powerful coach". The eldest of two children in the family, he has come a long way from his start with the New Sudbury Dolphins in the early 1980s. Coach Roland Boesch may have lit the spark for racing, but a combination of circumstances would lead the young swimmer to stoke the flames of success.

"He (Boesch) put a lot of great building blocks in front of me for the sport," stated Bretzlaff. "By the time I got over to Laurentian (SLSC - at 13 years of age), I again got great coaching. The peers I was able to swim with made a massive difference. All of a sudden, you're swimming with some of the best swimmers in the country, if not the world."

Mind you, when you are ranked in the top ten in the country in a number of events, this is the company that you keep. "If anything, I may have peaked a little too early, but the opportunities that it gave me were just phenomenal." From 1985 to 1987, Bretzlaff would continue his ascent, a consistent finalist at nationals, at the Commonwealth Games Trials. Named to a Canadian touring team, he would return home with a handful of medals from a high level meet in Israel.

Yet despite posting a lifetime best time of 15:50.86 ("I still remember that time, to the 100th of a second") in his marquee race, the 1500m freestyle, the Sudbury lad would fall short of earning a ticket to Seoul and the XXIV Olympiad. "I finalled at Olympic Trials, which for a lot of people would be a phenomenal achievement, and I am certainly proud of that, but I didn't come close to my expectations," he said.

The ensuing two years would prove interesting. Having graduated from Lockerby Composite, Bretzlaff attended Western, making his mark with the Mustangs swim team, despite reducing his focus on swimming. And while he excelled in the classroom, engineering was not the right path.

A transfer to the University of Toronto, a move into their Physical Education program, and a renewed joy for swimming conspired to create a wonderful environment for the final few years of university varsity athletic involvement. Team success was abundant, and on a personal level, Bretzlaff reached CIAU finals more than a dozen times, climbing the podium on a handful of occasions.

By the time the offer came to return home, he was in a very good place.

"Out of the blue, I got a call from Doc and he wanted to see if I was willing to come back to Laurentian and help him in his transition out of the sport," he said. "He had always been such a fantastic mentor and role model for me. This was such an incredible opportunity. I was able to learn how he did some of the things that he did and then overlay some of the values and beliefs that I had built up over the years."

"I think I developed a little bit more of a softer touch than what Doc had."

Softer, perhaps, but equally as effective.

With the words of Tihanyi still fresh in his mind, Bretzlaff would pursue his Masters in Business Administration at the University of Victoria, still assisting, as time permitted, with the Vikes swim team. From there, it was on to work with a consulting firm, a vocation that he pursues, to this day.

"I help leaders and teams in organizations perform better," explained the father of two children, both under the age of four. "I've been so lucky. I've been able to work with some top-notch leaders in the private sector, in the public sector, in the non-profit sector, looking to better their performance either as an individual leader, as a team within the organization, or across the whole organization."

If that sounds at least remotely like the job description of a coach in a sporting environment, you're not wrong. "It's almost the same skill set," Bretzlaff confessed. "The audience is different, the content is different, but so much other than that is the same. I essentially get to do now what I did with swimmers, back in the nineties, but doing it with executives and leaders."

"I think when it really comes down to it, one of my jobs is to give people the opportunity to experience what it's like to be outside of their comfort zone, no matter what level of athlete or what level of leader they are. It really is up to them to come to the conclusion about whether they are at their peak, or beyond their peak, or too far outside of their comfort zone."

"Each of us rarely pushes our self outside of our comfort zone."

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