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SERIES: Mark Shivers, one of Canada's top swimmers, 'humbled' to enter sports hall of fame

'To compete on the world stage ... after training in a six-lane pool at the YMCA, that’s pretty amazing for a kid from Orillia,' says former athlete of the year

Editor's Note: OrilliaMatters is profiling the quartet to be inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame on May 28. Last Monday, we started the series with a profile of Bill Smith.

Mark Shivers, one of Canada’s top swimmers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, will be inducted into Orillia’s Sports Hall of Fame later this month.

“It is quite an honour and I am certainly grateful,” Shivers told OrilliaMatters. “I am really humbled by the whole thing.”

Shivers learned to swim soon after his family moved from Bracebridge to Orillia in 1985. At the time, the family homestead was the skip of a rock from The Narrows.

“My parents thought it was important to have strong swimming skills and that we should learn to swim because we lived so close to the water,” Shivers said, recalling races with his older brother, Todd.

“We used to race around the docks,” Shivers recalled with a chuckle.

His brother was an “accomplished athlete” who had joined the swimming club in Muskoka before the move south. Shivers followed in his wake and soon joined the Orillia Channel Cats.

“My very first teacher with the Channel Cats was Elaine Thompson, who was my main development coach and the biggest influence on me,” said Shivers of the late swim coach who was among the inaugural class of inductees into Orillia’s sports shrine in 2015.

“It means a lot to me to be going into the Hall of Fame that she is a part of.”

While Thompson poured her heart and soul into athletes like Shivers, two other Channel Cat coaches — Martin Gurrin and James Whynacht — also played a key role in the young swimmer’s progression while he was a member of the club from 1989 to 1999.

During that decade, Shivers excelled as he moved up the rankings. He won a Junior National title in 1997, was named Orillia’s Athlete of the Year in 1998 and qualified for his first of several World Cups.

“It takes a village to raise a child and in athletics, it takes a lot of people — from parents, coaches, supporters — for an athlete to have success,” he explained. “I couldn’t have done it without those three coaches and everyone else who supported me.”

After 10 years with the Cats, he decided to attend Conestoga College in Kitchener, mostly because nearby Wilfrid Laurier University was home to Canada’s National Training Centre for swimmers.

There, Shivers swam with the Waterloo Region Swim Club under esteemed coach Dean Boles — a three-year association that helped Shivers take his performance to another level. 

In 2000, Shivers was a finalist at the Olympic Trials, finishing sixth in the 50-metre freestyle. In 2001, he earned a Top-10 finish at the U.S. Open in New York City.

But he plateaued. 

After failing to make the Commonwealth Games in England during what he told The Packet & Times in a 2002 article was an 18-month-long slump, he contemplated throwing in the towel.

But his brother, Todd, talked him out of retirement. 

Mark, who just graduated from Conestoga College in Kitchener, heeded his brother’s advice and moved to Victoria, where he could concentrate on swimming. It was a good decision as coach Jim Fowlie at the Victoria High Performance Centre helped elevate Shivers’ performance even more.

And that led to the pinnacle of his pool success in August of 2002, when he swam to a national championship in the 50-metre butterfly in Victoria, B.C.

“That was an unforgettable moment,” recalls Shivers, whose mom had flown out to watch the race. “I remember my coach came up to me after the event and said, ‘You’re the Canadian champion.’ It was an amazing moment.”

It was a notable career, says that former coach, Dean Boles, who is now the CEO of Swim Ontario. He supported the nomination of Shivers to be inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame.

“Throughout his swimming career, he was an athlete possessing great athletic prowess and speed,” said Boles.

“(Shivers) was consistently at the top of his game provincially, taking several championship titles from 1998-2001 to being a finalist at the 2000 Olympic Trials and then hitting the pinnacle of his career (by) becoming a Canadian National champion in the 50 butterfly at the 2002 National Trials in Victoria.”

Boles said Shivers was “an ambassador for his sport” and “an inspiration” to younger swimmers.

“Mark’s drive and determination was admired by his teammates,” wrote Boles, who said Shivers was “mature, grounded and conscientious.” 

Today, as Shivers reflects on his medals and titles, he said he does so with a great deal of pride.

He recalls, for example, warming up for a race alongside Ian Thorpe, an Australian swimmer who would go on to win five Olympic gold medals.

“I had seen him on TV and here I was beside him,” said Shivers. “To compete on the world stage ... after training in a six-lane pool at the YMCA, that’s pretty amazing for a kid from Orillia.”

And while his natural talent was critical, he was buoyed by “the good culture of a small but mighty team” of Channel Cats who were blessed with “great coaches” and supported by a dedicated board of directors and other volunteers, he said.

“It was a pretty amazing environment,” he said.

In fact, it’s what drew him to masters swimming when he decided to quit competitive racing. Under the guidance of Orillia Hall of Fame swimmer Dave Town, who has coached the local masters’ program for many years, Shivers’s spark was renewed.

He was ranked first in the world in the 50-metre freestyle event among masters swimmers aged 25-29 in 2007.

These days, the 41-year-old father of three does not swim competitively. He is busy with the kids, volunteer work and his job as General Manager of Orillia’s Subaru.

But every once in a while, he’ll drop into the masters club, which now takes place in the pool at the Orillia Recreation Centre, where Town continues to work with older swimmers.

“It’s nice just to get back in the pool once in a while and see if I can still do it,” he jokes.

Shivers will be inducted at a gala at Hawk Ridge on May 28. He will enter the shrine alongside builder Bill Smith and two other builders: baseball coach extraordinaire Nels Dunlop, and women’s lacrosse pioneer Joanne Stanga.

They will be joined by Dave Town, Wayne Dowswell and Bill Watters, who will also be officially inducted that night as last year’s ceremony was cancelled due to COVID.

Tickets for the gala are $100. For more information, visit sportorillia.ca. For information about tickets, email: Michael_ladouceur@hotmail.com