This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 21, 2004.

Lafontaine is living an adventure

By Ed Odeven
Like all young lads growing up in Quebec, Canada, Pierre Lafontaine dreamt of being a professional hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens. And it didn’t take him very long to figure this out.

“I could skate by the time I was 2 years old,” Lafontaine was saying Thursday during a lunchtime interview. “You’d skate with a hockey stick in your hands so you could stay up. That’s just what you do.

“…We’d be on the lake from eight in the morning ’til eight at night playing hockey.”

Little did he know it at the time, while skating on the frozen water of the Montreal suburb Pointe-Claire, but Lafontaine found his niche in an unexpected place: on an unfrozen surface of water, a swimming pool.

“My mother was a principal at a school for disabled kids and she needed somebody to teach swimming lessons to the kids,” Lafontaine recalls. “So I started teaching the disabled kids, and then the Johnson brothers (Tom and Dave), who are now coaching the Canadian team, asked me to coach the 8-and-unders (at the Pointe-Claire Swimming Club) and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that while I go to the university.’ And I’m in Australia now.

“I got my start with the 8-and-unders,” the 47-year-old says proudly.

Little by little, Lafontaine worked his way up the coaching ranks. He coached the 9- and 10-year-olds, then the 11- and 12-year-olds at Pointe-Claire while learning the ins and outs of the craft.

The rest is history. Nowadays, Lafontaine is a senior assistant coach at the Australian Institute of Sport and an assistant coach for the Australian Olympic team, which began a three-week training camp at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex last Saturday. (Heralded stars like Olympians Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Klim and Petria Thomas are taking part in that camp. The other half of the Olympic team is competing in the Mare Nostrum 2004, four big meets in three weeks in Europe.)

After several years of coaching in his hometown, Lafontaine moved on to the University of Calgary, where he worked from 1984 to 1988 with the university’s club team and intercollegiate squad. After that, he took a post at the newly formed Phoenix Swim Club in 1988.

It’s a job that opened up a world of opportunity for Lafontaine. Charles Keating and Gary Hall Sr. invested a lot of money into establishing the PSC and transforming it into a world-class training center where up-and-coming stars like Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time Olympic medalist, and Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for the Olympic gold in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2000 Sydney Games, perfected their skills. Lafontaine worked at the club until 2002, save for a three-year stint (1994-97) when he coached at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta.

Then in 2002 the AIS announced it was looking for an assistant coach. It was a no-brainer, a wonderful career move for Lafontaine. An exciting change of scenery for his family — wife Alisa and their four children: Marie-Eve, 14; Pierre-Philippe, 12; Anne-Marie, 10; and Marc-Andre, 8.

“We looked at it more as an adventure than an opportunity,” Lafontaine says. “To me, life is made up of a sum of experiences, and that was going to be a neat experience. Everybody’s always looking at Australia and (saying), ‘Ah, that’s kind of an exciting place to try and visit.’ Well, we had a chance to go live there for a while, so that’s what we did. We made an adventure more than anything else.”

The Lafontaines’ adventure revolves around Canberra, the nation’s capital, which is about 90 miles inland from the nation’s East Coast. The city of 300,000 is a great place, he says, noting there are more than 1,000 kilometers of bike trails and it’s only 1 1/2 hours from the beach. “It’s similar to Flagstaff in terms of a lot of open space,” he adds, saying it conjures up images of the Old West.

“Remember the ‘Mad Max’ movies? It’s just like that. It’s bare,” he continues. “There’s properties in Northwest Australia that are (huge) … There’s one property that is as big as the state of Arizona. It’s a cattle ranch.”

The Australian government’s support of swimming is as big as that ranch — maybe bigger. In addition to the major aquatic clubs in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, there are public pools all over the country, sort of like a Circle K at every intersection in the Valley.

“If there’s a town of 1,500 people, they’ll put a 50-meter pool in it,” Lafontaine says. “Every little village with 1,500 people or more has a pool. So there’s a lot of kids that come in from the little towns to the clubs that have no place to go. That’s when they come to train with us; that’s kind of a neat setup.”

This national commitment to swimming certainly deepens the sport’s talent pool. And it continues at the elite level.

For instance, the Australian team currently in Flagstaff consists of 19 swimmers and a support staff of 14 (that includes three physiologists and a massage therapist).

“It’s really the strength of the Australian team,” Lafontaine says. “Whenever we go away, there is always a lot of support staff. It’s not so the coach can do less, it’s so the coach can do more specific work and pay more attention to the needs of the swimmers.”

Having lived in Phoenix for many years, Lafontaine grew accustomed to how much press coverage baseball and football get in the U.S. He says it’s comparable to the media attention swimming receives in Australia.

“You are going to hear about somebody’s ingrown toenail in baseball,” he says, laughing. “That’s why he’s not going to play tonight, and there’ll be a page about his ingrown toenail here. … Well, there’s half a page about a swimmer that went out to the movies with his girl at a certain time in Australia. And every week there’s things about swimming in the paper in Australia, which is kind of fun also.”

How long will he live in Australia?

Lafontaine admits he’s not sure. His contract is up in December. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in a hurry to leave the Land Down Under.

“They’ve approached me (about) staying there for the next four years,” he says, “and that would be interesting to do. But I think sooner or later I would love to coach in a college setup in the U.S. I think that would be really good. We are keeping our doors open right now.

“I think my family would probably like to stay until 2008, only because the Chinese Olympics are in 2008, and the world championships are in 2007 in Melbourne and the Commonwealth Games are in 2006 in Melbourne. There’s a huge amount of things happening in swimming, and I think in sports the Asian-Australian corridor in the next four years will really be an exciting time in life.”