The Steroid-Dealing, Ecstasy-Smuggling, Dead-Body-Burning Swim Coach

I was told to tread carefully. I was told that the man in the headline above could be litigious, and that he had deep pockets. There's also the matter of him burning and burying a dead body on his own property... During the trial when this dark detail emerged, an attorney said of this coach: "If he has a conscience, it would be a very hard thing to find." Fair warning. Careful what you write. I'll just tread in the facts. Here are some greatest hits:

- In 1997, Canadian swim coach Cecil Russell was banned for life from the sport for his lead role in an international steroid trafficking ring. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he agreed to testify in the murder trial of one of his associates.

- At that murder trial, Cecil Russell admitted under oath that he helped burn and bury the butchered body of the victim in a corn silo alongside his home outside of Toronto. After the disposal of said body, Russell and the murderer raked the area and made sure they disposed of any lingering evidence - in the form of bones and the victim's jewelry. In exchange for his testimony, Russell served just 201 days for his steroid crimes. His body-burning accomplice was convicted of first-degree murder.

- A few years later, Russell, banned but now coaching in Spain, was arrested on the pool deck on charges of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. At the time he was coaching eventual Olympic medalist, Nina Jivanevskaia, of Spain. He spent four years in a Spanish prison. This was no small time drug bust; Russell had been the main player in a plot to import 500,000 tabs of E from Amsterdam, thru Canada, into the United States.

- In 2005, Russell's ban was lifted after he claimed he had been exonerated in the ecstasy case. The ban was reinstated in 2007 after a front page story in the Toronto Star revealed that he had misrepresented and managed to suppress facts surrounding his past crimes during his reinstatement hearing. Weeks after his second lifetime ban came down, Russell was seen back on the pool deck still coaching.

Here's another fact: Cecil Russell is also a very good swim coach. And because of this last fact, moral ambiguity muddies the present of a hard core criminal past. Despite the bans, he's never really stopped coaching, and when you get your swimmers to swim fast, as Russell does, it seems parents are willing to overlook any manner of past misdeeds. Reading those greatest hits in the headline, it's staggering to consider, but the scariest part of this true crime tale is that many parents are still behind him. They still want him to coach their children. Because he's good at it, never mind the man behind the curtain.

Welcome to the strange saga of the Dolphins Swim Club... A Toronto team loaded with Canadian Olympic Trials qualifiers, an A-list club team with a Russell-led history of producing top talent on the national and international level. This talent is led by Russell's own children: Colin and Sinead Russell, two of Canada's finest swimmers. Son, Colin, was an Olympian in 2008, a world class middle-distance freestyler. Daughter, Sinead, is even better. At 18-years-old, she was a finalist in the 100 back at the 2010 World Championships. Her lifetime best of 59.6 puts her right in the mix as a medal contender in London. Both children have reportedly spent much of their training time at the nearby University of Toronto, however, according to sources on the Canadian team, they still call their dad their coach. They're the two shining examples of Cecil Russell's success as a world class swim coach. And two young swimmers who find themselves in an immensely difficult position, thanks to the sins of their father.

The Dolphins are a team with a lot at stake in this Olympic year, five months from deciding Team Canada's London Olympians. Now is not the time for disrupting their training. Now's not the time to bother with annoying distractions like the outsized criminal past of their coach. And so, while parents hear of plenty of past evil, if they don't see it, they don't seem to care.

I spoke with Toronto Star reporter Randy Starkman, who has been tracking this story for years. Indeed, it was his front page story that caused Russell's second lifetime ban. He has been on deck with the Dolphins, spoken with Russell in person in front of his team, and was floored by what he found.

"It is by far the strangest story I've been involved with," says Starkman, who has covered every Olympics since the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. "The weirdest interview I've ever done. Sitting at a picnic table, asking Russell about all this stuff, with parents and kids walking by. You get the impression that they all think he's a good coach, that things have been blown out of proportion. Their kids are swimming faster, they like swimming for him, end of story."

No, not end of story. And considering where this story begins, it would be difficult to blow any of Russell's past out of proportion.

Needless to say, the rest of Swimming Canada shakes with shame and embarrassment at the continued presence of the rogue coach in their midst. Yet, they've continued to prove almost powerless in their enforcement capabilities. Plenty of efforts have been made, but with limited resources there is only so much they can do to physically enforce any bans. Recently, the Dolphins' regional federation, Swim Ontario, has placed the team under suspension. This caused the team to lose its coveted pool time. And that led to a howling uproar among Dolphins parents.

In an astonishing scene at a community hearing, this loss of pool time was labeled a "violation of their human rights." Said one parent at this council meeting: “Please keep in mind the impact your decisions may have on shaping their values and views." (Hello, pot, please meet mister kettle...)

While that derailed the team momentarily, recent reports confirm that they are now back in the water, training at one of Canada's finest facilities, the Etobicoke Olympium pool. It will take more than that to keep Russell away. Over the years, he's learned a few tricks of technicalities.

First, Cecil Russell is not technically listed as the head coach of Dolphins Swim Club. His wife, Erin, is. A distinction that leads to instant eye-rolling among swimmers and other coaches in Canada... Next, it's said that he now lists himself as a "personal coach" not a "club coach." Meaning, he's not a part of any team at all, merely a proven commodity as a coach who is happy to lend his services to those swimmers who approach him personally. Whether using a spousal front or an individual vs collective distinction, both of these strategies have been effective. What has also been effective is Russell's ability to doggedly wait out the bad press, the roving spotlight that continues to glare over the shocking facts of his history. A coach to the core, it's clear he refuses to be denied the pursuit of his greatest passion.

"Nothing stops the guy," says Starkman. "That's the real tragedy here -- every athlete has to follow the anti-doping code. As most make almost no money, they have to be cleaner than clean. And then we have this coach, a guy who has been convicted of major drug offenses, still leading them."

And so it falls to the parents. The tunnel vision of an ambitious mom and dad cannot be underestimated. Those my-kid-only blinders that refuse to acknowledge anything outside of the immediate perception of what is good for MY kid... There is nothing else. And when that perception happens to include an Olympic dream on the cusp of being fulfilled, who has time for things like morals and ethics?

Best of luck to Cecil Russell's swimmers and devoted parents as the Trials approach. And good luck living with yourself.

The Storyteller and the Torturer

Lessons in Motivation... Orlando, FL   The view from room 761 of the Disney Swan Hotel is disorienting. Adrift neck deep in the land of make-believe, this is what I see: A green-canopied expanse of Florida palms and citrus trees, eleven hotels dot the horizon, a water tower with Mickey Mouse ears off in the distance, a faux New Orleans complex of time shares on the banks of a new canal, the parking lot below circling with Disney buses, depositing stroller-pushers into the hands of the Disney army, whose customer service is dispensed with relentless good cheer. A long way from home...

We're here for the annual United States Swim School Association conference. I spent a good deal of time preparing my German partner, Lars, whose only American homes have been in Berkeley, CA and the East Village of New York City, for one of his first real tastes of soul-free Americana. As we approached the hotel entrance yesterday afternoon, he admired the "frozen yogurt architecture." I asked him what he meant. He pulled an imaginary frozen yogurt dispenser, over and over, each imagined swirl exactly like the last. I got it.

The first presentation of the conference, which we'd just missed, was from the keynote speaker, a Disney executive talking about "Building a Business Through Storytelling", something I wholeheartedly embrace. I was sorry to miss it, and the reviews we heard from fellow swim school owners were all glowing. It's long been Disney mantra, the power of the story to sell anything at all. Our environment was proof. A sweltering central Florida wasteland transformed into a money-gushing machine of make believe, built of the backs of Mickey and Goofy, Snow White and the rest. I've never much liked these stories; truth be told, I've frequently found Disney's essential existence offensive. The story as sales pitch. Without apology, inauthentic and phony being the actual point.

Fortunately, I remained absorbed in the Book - the Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. The same one I plugged last week, for those of you following along... Not that Harbach needs the plug for the swimming audience; his novel currently sits comfortably on the New York Times best-seller list at #9. But this Book is becoming something of an obsession with me with each passing page. It could be viewed as the anti-Disney tale. Something that asks questions so hard and deep that it couldn't possibly be distilled into a theme park ride or blockbuster film. (Though it wouldn't surprise me if one of Disney's many tentacles has already purchased the movie rights...) As our flight descended over Orlando International, I read a (another) page that stopped me cold, a paragraph that might just distill the very essence of coaching. And as providence would have it, yes, it was all about storytelling...

Coaches, please read carefully:

"All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph... People loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn't do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer."

In the fourteen nomadic years that my life was consumed by butterfly, I was lucky enough to swim for a wide collection of world-class coaches. While my career started at the same spot as Michael Phelps, North Baltimore, mine was not a path of one coach-swimmer relationship, forming the ultimate age-group to Olympics bond. It was dotted with stops -- from NBAC to Badger to Bolles to USC to Pacific Dolphins to SMU... Each stop run by men who knew how to tell these stories. At their best, all made your story epic, and each at his worst was no more than mere torturer.

As Harbach notes, the key is in choosing the form of suffering. Because when suffering makes sense, we truly do love it. If we didn't, no sport would exist. For that matter, nor would any successful business. Sacrifice hurts, it's often a pain in the ass. It's never, ever, fun to wake up before dawn, but as the Chinese proverb goes: No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.

The men and women who've built this often horrifying edifice of Disney understand this. Walking a faux Atlantic City "Boardwalk" with an ESPN Zone at one end and fake carnival barkers along the edge of a fake body of water, these things might make me suffer without sense, but for many millions, the escape makes all the sense in the world. The story they wish to hear does not include doom or flaws or obstacles, but the complete imagined absence of such things in the world. That's a powerful sales pitch, and the stories of talking mice and dwarves do the job.

But where sport is concerned, especially swimming, the story must have darkness. It needs pain and sacrifice to make sense, to make it worth it. The balance is never easy, and I realize there's a whole lot more to coaching than weaving inspiring, personal tales for each athlete. Like, say, the actual scientific and artistic knowledge of the sport itself... But ultimately, like everything else, it's a sales pitch. How do you make your swimmers buy into being the best they can be? By selling them a story.

The Spell of Perfection

Extreme Expectations and the End of the World Standing behind the blocks, the winner was already obvious. Eight 10-year-old boys stood twitching and nervous behind their lanes, waiting to be summoned to the start and released into the water, racing one lap of butterfly down this 50-meter pool at a college in the Bronx. The one in the middle did not belong among the others. If not yet a man among boys, then certainly a thoroughbred among ponies. A head taller, shoulders broader, an impassive mask of focus locked down his lane... A Swimmer, capital S required.

Four seconds and two strokes into the race, he'd opened a body length on his nearest "competitor." The lead continued to widen, astonishingly so, until about 32 seconds later, when his two hands plowed into the far wall and stopped the clock. Five slow seconds after that, the second place finisher arrived one lane over. Among timers and coaches and officials and parents, there was considerable buzz for this young flying phenom as he climbed from the pool. Then a strange thing happened:

This 10-year-old newly minted Junior Olympic Champion burst into tears. Goggles were thrown. Pats on the back brushed off and unacknowledged. The walk back to his coaches was spent weeping unashamed and devastated. He'd swum his lifetime best, but missed a 20-year record by a tenth, and that was all that mattered. Winning meant absolutely nothing to him. He failed to reach his goal, one that would have required a perfect race. And in this particular breed of athlete, short of perfection meant total inconsolable meltdown. It was the end of the world, and in this state of irrational mania, he did not want to hear otherwise. This wasn't the first time.

Because this swimmer was one of our own, the star of our young New York City club team, this reaction provoked a curious mix of confusion and dismay among his teammates and coaches. Where there should have been high fives, there were shrugs and averted eyes. Coaches from other teams looked our way with bemused sympathy. Parents in the stands looked for the boy's mom and dad, assuming parental pressure must be the root. Unfortunately, as a former confirmed goggle-thrower who threw tearful tantrums well past the age of embarrassment, I recognized this behavior too well. We were one of the same tribe. That's written without pride, and an awful lot of half-suppressed shame.

Why do some athletes succumb to this spell of perfection? This need, and it is a need, to reach their sky-high goals with absolute perfect performance... How do they get so worked up, so obsessive about reaching these extreme expectations, that anything less is utter devastation? Why does it matter so MUCH?

It's not healthy, we know this. We know even in the midst of meltdown. But no, we don't want to hear it. We believe, and in part we are right, that this consuming passion for excellence is what makes us successful, what separates us from the ho-hum cheerful jokers in the next lanes who can actually get happy with a mere best time. Problem is, that ho-hum joker sometimes becomes the what-me-worry Ryan Lochte standing on top of Olympic podiums, long after the fire-breathing head case has burned out and faded away.

In my case, my 11-year-old self ended up on a shrink's couch, trying to explain to a kindly bearded child psychologist why things like state records and top sixteen times felt like a matter of life and death. He didn't give me many answers, but he did give me a small wax figurine of a mouse, about three inches tall. He told me to keep it in my bag at competitions, and when I felt the rage coming on after a race that went less than perfect (all of them), I should take it out and pour out my feelings to the mouse in private. You know, rather than publicly weep on deck while throwing my goggles and stomping away from coaches. So, instead I became the nut bar who mumbled furiously to a wax mouse in the locker room. It helped a little. I also crushed that mouse into a wax ball the size of a golf ball.

Gradually, you learn to hide this madness. You're still cast under its spell; you still need that perfect race, that far off goal time. But when it doesn't happen, you learn to channel the crushing disappointment, or at least you learn to take an extra long warm down until you get a hold of yourself. But deep down, you know you're right, that the world really is coming to an end.

In a terrific new novel called The Art of Fielding, author Chad Harbach shows us just how the universe splinters when perfection cracks. It's the story of a college baseball prodigy, a shortstop named Henry Skrimshander, with a glove poetically, and perfectly, christened Zero. As in the number of errors Henry's ever made in his life... When he makes his first, with a disastrous throw to first, the demons descend and the fates of those around him veer darkly in new directions. The truth might be stranger than fiction, but the best fiction is a whole lot more true than any reality.

Thinking of Henry and his glove Zero, envying Harbach's close to perfect novel, and hoping I can figure out some way to guide our driven young butterfly prodigy, you start to realize how absurd this doomed quest is. You start to take pathetic cliches like 'nobody's perfect' to heart. You hope not just for brilliant flawless all-your-dreams-come-true success, but for something like satisfaction...

And so, from his tearful triumph at Junior Olympics, our young flyer traveled a few weeks later to Eastern Zones, still deeply under the spell of perfection, for his last meet as a 10-year-old. His last chance to break that elusive record. I texted back and forth with his mom, praying he'd succeed, but praying just as much that he'd come out of the meet without cracking up in a fit of flawed despair. On the third day of the meet, he took his marks in the 50 fly... where he proceeded to demolish that record by a second and a half, posting the fastest time in America. His 50 fly was faster than Michael Phelps when he was 10. It was perfect.

Screw satisfaction. Perfection was possible after all, and long live its spell.