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Going stroke for stroke with a future Olympian through much of his youth
2021-03-23

In the spring of 1977, at the age of fourteen, Rob Wallenius would finish first in no less than ten separate events at the Ontario Swim Championships. The Sudbury native would hold several national age group records at the time, notably in his specialty (200m backstroke), but also in both the butterfly and the IM (individual medley).

For a handful of years, Wallenius and clubmate Alex Baumann, who is, somewhat ironically, exactly two years younger to the date than the now long-time resident of North York, would inseparably travel the world as members of the Canadian swim delegation.

Given that Baumann would go on to highlight an incredible career with a double gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, it might be easy to forget that on a local level, in his youth, he very much enjoyed the presence of a training partner who was nearly his match.

First introduced to the pool at the old Sudbury YMCA and having moved to the Dow Pool in Copper Cliff before eventually landing at Laurentian, Wallenius entered his teens as a force on a national level, a reality of which he was not unaware.

“I knew that I was good by that time,” he said.

If that sounds the least bit conceited, then you know little of the background that would lead him to this point.

“I grew up with five siblings, so it was pretty easy to stay grounded,” said the third youngest of the Wallenius clan. “There was no way my head would get too big - they would make sure of it. They had no problem treating me like their younger brother, and I had no problem arguing with them, like a younger brother.”

Still, Wallenius owes his start in the sport, at least in part, to those same siblings that came before him.

“The Sudbury YMCA had Saturday activities; they would have a bunch of tables set up in the gym and you would go in and pick out what you wanted to do,” recalled the now 58 year-old former swimmer and coach. “My mom and dad had told me that I couldn’t sign up for swimming, that I was too young for it.”

That didn’t stop the Sudbury Y Tankers’ coach, Hall of Famer Jan Wojakowski, from sliding him into a group that already included his sisters. It turns out there may have been a bit of genetic predisposition for the water at play within the fiercely Finnish family, with Rob taking to it the most.

“My mom was actually quite a good swimmer as well,” he said. “I remember watching her swim when she retired - she could really swim. I had never really paid attention to my mom in the water, growing up - I was too busy splashing around myself.”

The second of her four boys would be something of a natural. And though it seemed that he could more than comfortably handle himself across all four strokes, given his rankings in the I.M. and such, Wallenius didn’t necessarily see things that way.

“I couldn’t do breaststroke to save my life,” he said with a laugh. “Well, I could probably do it to save my life, but I couldn’t do it to save myself in a race. I just didn’t have the flexibility to get my feet out.”

Yet for as talented as he was, Wallenius understood far better than most the generational phenom that was training at his side. “Alex Baumann could have been Michael Phelps,” he suggested. “Think about it - he held the Canadian record in the 50m freestyle and the 1500m freestyle at the same time.”

“He could do anything. He was top three in the country in every stroke. Alex had the MV02 of a world class marathon runner. He was an incredible athlete - his fitness level was extraordinary. He set a world best time in the 400 IM a year after he had retired.”

That said, the philosophies of swim training were not what they are today.

“The mileage that we did was insane,” said Wallenius. “We were training three times a day during the year of the high-school strike, logging 80,000 to 100,000 metres a week, with an all-out effort every day at lunch time. Between September of 1977 and May of 1980, I had a total of three weeks off.”

“In my estimation, we overtrained.”

Make no mistake: it wasn’t as though Wallenius and his partner in crime (or vice-versa, if you wish) were not enjoying a fair bit of success.

“In 1978, both Baumann and I made the national level B team,” he said. “I was 15, Alex 13 - and we competed at a meet in Leeds (England). We both swam against the US Olympic B team in Montreal. In 1979, we both qualified for the Pan American Games. That year, I won both short-course and long-course nationals in the 200m backstroke.”

Yet things were quickly coming to a head.

The Olympic boycott (Moscow - 1980) was, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Seldom one to conceal his own opinions, Wallenius would butt heads with legendary coach, Doc Tihanyi. While he would go on to represent Canada at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, the swim career of the northern Ontario talent had reached a crescendo.

“I end up eventually going to Arizona State, but I was pretty messed up when I went down there,” said Wallenius. “I swam at ASU for a couple of years; it took a little time to get settled in. Some of it was my own immaturity, part of it was the fact that I had a mindset that was different than some of my teammates.”

“I’ve never been one who hasn’t been opinionated about my own ability or performance.”

By 1984, following a couple of memorable summers in Vancouver, thanks in large part to the welcoming generosity of Mies and Ted Schootman, and one final short hurrah back at Laurentian, Rob Wallenius would move on.

He started coaching in Toronto in 1985, enjoying a fair bit of success with the Dorado Swim Club in Caledon, training the likes of seven-time Paralympic gold medal winner Stephanie Dixon, as well as siblings Keith and Lindsay Beavers, the former of whom donned the maple leaf in Athens in 2004.

Fourteen years later, Wallenius would step away from the pool deck completely.

"I have always considered myself to be a pragmatic optimist,” he stated. “The little things drive me crazy, the big things I can deal with. My mother was very much like that. I am sure there is a little bit of tenacity and stubbornness involved.”

Such are the character traits that can easily lead to some challenges along the way. Over time, Wallenius has reconciled all of the above quite nicely.

“I am proud of how far I came from a four lane twenty yard pool in Sudbury,” he said. “We were not a rich family - dad was a miner, mom was a stay at home mom. I had a lot of community support, especially from the Finnish community. Those are the things I will never be able to repay.”

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