Today would have been Victor Davis’ 51st birthday.
Davis was one of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the sport. Watching him win the 200 breaststroke at the 1984 Olympics in world record time is a memory that I will never forget.
I will also never forget the day I met my swimming idle. I was 11 and had a rare opportunity to play cards with him, to see his intensity and desire to win first hand, even during a game of crazy eights.
The following are 5 of the things I remember about a Canadian Olympic legend.
1. Pre-Race Rituals
Victor’s pre-race rituals were awesome.
I could describe them to you, but I could not match the eloquence and accuracy of the description that the iconic Australian coach Laurie Lawrence gives in his book Lawrence of Australia,
“His pre-race ritual was enough to intimidate even the most experienced of competitors. He would shadow box, bound, skip, stalk the pool deck – commanding the attention of spectator and competitor alike, before lying on the deck beside the racing block and plunging his magnificent, well oiled body into the beckoning water. Any opponent not accustomed or alert to this domination ritual – although physically harmless, like the chest-beating of the mountain gorilla – was often beaten before the starters gun sounded, psyched out and intimidated by Victor’s very presence.”
In the documentary The Fast and The Furious, which chronicled both Davis and Alex Baumann‘s journey to the 1982 World Championships, he spoke about how he wanted let his opponents know he was a force to be reckoned with.
Then in Davis fashion he went on to say, “I don’t throw things at them or anything, I just let them know I am there.”
Post 1984 you could look on the pool deck at many competitions in the Canada and see several boys shadow boxing and even some plunging their upper bodies into the water before they stepped on the blocks.
2. The Seoul Olympic Games 4 x 100 medley relay
One of the most iconic photos of Davis was snapped at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when the Canadian 4 x 100 medley team out swam the Russians to collect the silver medal. With Sandy Goss in the water Davis stood on the block, every muscle flexed, cheering for his teammate, almost willing him to the finish.
Goss had the race of his life, swimming two full seconds faster than he did in the individual event. If you watch the NBC telecast of the race you can see the American team celebrating an incredible world record performance, but the reaction of the Canadians beside them is priceless.
You can see Mark Tewksbury jumping up and down looking like a madman while Davis almost falls off of the blocks because of the ferocity of his fist pumps.
His commitment to excellence and how much he cared about his performance each and every time he hit the water was inspiring. After watching the 1988 Olympics every Canadian swimmer found just a little bit more energy to encourage their teammates.
3. Not Your Typical Canadian
Quite often Canadians are known for taking pride in their humility, almost having an apologetic reaction in the midst of victory.
That was not Davis. He loved to win and he showed it. He hated to lose and he showed it.
“He was an intense person, knew what he wanted to do, knew how he wanted to achieve it and wore his heart on his sleeve a lot,” Alex Baumann told the Toronto Star in 2008.
“Victor was an atypical Canadian. He wasn’t happy with second place because he knew he could beat the other competitors.”
“Victor was the most intense and passionate athlete I knew.”
Davis had a passion for success and a commitment to excellence that was contagious. He showed young swimmers that it was okay to hate losing, that it was okay to exude confidence and express your passion. In fact you should hate losing, you should exude confidence and you should display your passion.
4. What a Coach and Swimmer Relationship Should Be
Victor Davis and Cliff Barry seemed to be made for one another. Victor had a huge personality, he had a temper and could be a handful. Barry has a softer personality, tempered intensity and could be a calming influence.
They seemed to create a perfect balance. Barry knew exactly how to guide the talented young man to the top of the podium. A process that was not without many challenges.
You could and can see to this day just how much Barry cared for Davis. Just as you could see how much Davis cared about Barry. This extended far beyond the pool.
In a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette Barry explained what he thought the best part of coaching was, “The one on one, working with motivated individuals,” said Barry.
“Making that connection with someone who is really motivated, sharing the same goals. It’s quite a wonderful process.”
He certainly had that connection with Davis. The way the two worked together is an example of what a coach and swimmer relationship should be.
5. His Legacy
The impact that Davis had on Canadian Swimming and on the hearts and minds of many young swimmers is only part of his legacy. Motivated by the fact that he did not want to see the memory of Davis’ fierce desire to win or his ability to motivate others Barry created The Victor Davis Memorial Fund and Award.
Swimming Canada’s description of the award is as follows:
The Victor Davis Memorial Fund was established to remember Victor, his contribution to competitive swimming in Canada, and to encourage other young Canadians toward excellence. Each year awards may be made from the Fund to promising, high performance Canadian amateur swimmers to assist them to continue their training, education, and pursuit of medals at the international level of competition.
In an article Barry wrote for Swim BC he describes exactly what the intention of the award is, “Personally, I think The Victor Davis Memorial Fund is one of the best things in Canadian swimming,” wrote Barry.
“The money is given with no strings attached. It is intended to reward the moms and dads who do everything in their power to support their children towards success. It is also meant to be a financial bridge until SNC carding can be realized. Finally, it brings honour, recognition, and affirmation to the successful recipients.”
The list of recipients have included names such as:
- Ryan Cochrane
- Brent Hayden
- Annamay Pierse
- Brittany Reimer
- Audrey Lacroix
I will never forget being at a swim meet in Saskatoon when one of my teammates came up to me and told me that Davis had been struck by a car. My heart sank and it hit me that a man that appeared invincible wasn’t. It saddened me to realize that I had gotten my one and only chance to sit down with one of my swimming heroes.
Davis died on November 13th, 1989 at the age of 25. Once again Lawrence’s words may be the most appropriate:
“God bless Victor Davis. He left the world with many great sporting memories and I reckon he’d still be up there fighting in Heaven… I just hope Saint Peter doesn’t want to race him.”