For 21 years, the Dalhousie University Tigers men’s swimming team has handily won every AUS championship. But their time in the pool as an unchallenged rival is coming to an end. The Acadia University Axemen have beat them in several meets so far this season and if the trend continues, could win their first Atlantic University Sport (AUS) title since 1981.
“When I came here, I had a mindset of that I wanted to create a championship team,” says Axemen head coach Gary MacDonald, who is in his fifth season at Acadia. It was a slow start, with only eight athletes on the men’s team when he took over in 2015. Eighteen is the maximum number that can compete.
They’ve come a long way since then. This year, they have a full roster, including two-time AUS swimmer of the year Brett Liem. Although consistently a second place team in the conference, the scoring gap between them and Dal used to be significant. This year, they’ve caught up.
At the Amby Legere Invitational meet at the University of New Brunswick in October, Acadia beat the Tigers 724.5 points to 441.5, and followed that up with a strong performance at the Kemp-Fry Invitational meet at Dal in mid-November. Coming second to McGill University, the Axemen still outpaced Dalhousie by a score of 735 to 612.5.
So what’s changed at Acadia to give them a shot at an AUS title?
MacDonald says that recruiting is one of the most important factors for team success in university swimming. In his second and third year at Acadia, he brought in some strong swimmers, and their success has attracted more and more swimmers as people took notice.
“The better you do, the more people take an interest in your program,” he says.
In 2017-2018, the Axemen came close to an AUS title, losing to Dal by a narrow margin of only 67 points.
“We worked really hard that year. I don’t know if we had the better team that year, but we certainly entered the proper events to give us a chance to win,” says MacDonald. “I think it got our team excited and we’ve sort of been pushing ever since.”
He had another strong recruiting year this season, bringing in eight first-year swimmers who are contributing to the team’s success.
“When you have a recruiting year like that it’s a little bit easier to get some really good results, and now the results are showing.”
As a coach, MacDonald tries to create a “culture of winning” that is based on hard work. He mentions stressing the importance of the little things, like waking up at 5:30 a.m. to train and coming to workouts with a smile.
“If we can work as hard as anybody else in the country, then we can be a championship team,” he says, and he believes the team this year has that work ethic.
Dal’s decades of dominance
From 2004-2005, MacDonald was an assistant coach at Dalhousie, giving him familiarity with the Tigers program and offering learning opportunities. Before working with current head coach Lance Cansdale, MacDonald worked with former head coach and “visionary” David Fry. Fry coached the team for 16 years and built the Tigers program to be a national contender. This success that has continued since Cansdale took over at the helm.
At the U Sports championship in the past three seasons, Dalhousie’s men’s team came thirteenth in 2017, ninth in 2018 and twelfth in 2019.
After Acadia’s success this fall, MacDonald thinks they have a chance at the AUS title, as long as they keep improving on on what they’ve already done.
“I know how tough Dal is, so I told my team ‘we’re only as good as our last competition,'” he says.
In the new year, the teams will compete at the AUS Invitational before the Subway AUS Championships Feb. 7-9. Both meets will be hosted by Dalhousie.