The Story Behind the Name: The Mel Zajac Jr. International Meet

by Mark Wild 6

June 04th, 2023 Canada, International, News

Outside of the Mare Nostrum Swim Tour, the ever-evolving World Aquatics World Cup Series and the Pro Swim Series, the Mel Zajac Jr. International Swim Meet in Vancouver has been one of the longest running high-caliber swim meets in the world. But who is Mel Zajac Jr.? And why does his name attract top talents including not only Canadians Josh Liendo and Maggie MacNeil, but also in past years world records holders such as Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte, to name a few?

Mel Zajac Jr. was a Canadian swimmer who competed in the 100m breaststroke at his home Olympics, the 1976 Montreal Games. He also represented Canada at the very first FINA World Championships held in Yugoslavia in 1973. He additionally swam stateside for Arizona State University. 

Tragically, Zajac Jr. died in 1986 while kayaking in Canada. Eight months later, an avalanche tragically killed his brother, Marty Zajac, who also had attended ASU. In their honor, their family, led by Mel Zajac Sr., founded the Mel Jr. and Marty Zajac Foundation. In addition to sponsoring the swim meet, the foundation runs a home for seniors in British Columbia and the Zajac Ranch for Children. The ranch’s mission as taken from their website states:

To develop and operate an accessible, innovative, and inclusive facility for children and young adults with medical conditions, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend camp.

While the ranch and the other philanthropic endeavors began after the two tragic deaths, the swim meet actually started in 1963. Then known as the Canada Cup, the meet was the brainchild of renowned swim coach Howard Firby. Firby founded the Canada Dolphins Swim Club, was the head coach for the Canadian team at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics and coached some of Canada’s swimming greats, Mary Stewart and Elaine Tanner being just two. In 1998, the foundation stepped in as lead sponsor and the meet has been named after Zajac Jr. ever since. 

While the meet brings in big names and fast times, it does more than that. It represents the memories of a family seeing their son swim, it honors his love of sport, and it brings name recognition to a foundation trying to do so much good. More information regarding the Ranch and ways to give can be found here.

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3 months ago

Thanks for this article! Every time I hear about this meet I wonder who Mel Zajak Jr was and why this meet is such a big deal, but I never took the time to find out. I would have been cool if all the ASU athletes had swum their great times at this meet to support a good Foundation related to an ASU alum.

3 months ago

“ one of the longest running high-caliber swim meets in the world.”

A few years there it was run in a 7 lane pool with no warm down tank. Not exactly high caliber.

Reply to  Rap
3 months ago

When was it in a 7 lane pool?

Reply to  Splash
3 months ago

I recall between 2013- till they got the new pool.
Literally had a garden hose running into the pool topping it up so when go in and out cold patches.

There was sometimes some big names at the meet, but none would ever return the next year because the facility was so poor by the end of it.

Reply to  RAP
3 months ago

Must have been later than that…I worked at the meet when it was in the old UBC AC from 2013-15 and it was run as 8 lanes with the wings for warm up/down

Reply to  Splash
3 months ago

I also worked at the meet for a few years about the same time (2010-2015). I recall that the old outdoor Empire Games Pool (8 lanes/50.2 m) was available for warm down. However, both tanks were operating well beyond their useful lives. Hopefully, with the wonderful new UBC Aquatic Centre and new accommodations for athletes located on site, this event will once again attract elite talent.