Donovan written up in The Medical Post


As he helps his son prepare for his final Paralympic appearance, Dr. Hugh Tildesley reflects on how his roles as coach and physician are complementary


At 6:30 a.m. on a typical rainy, cool morning in Vancouver, the indoor pool at the Arbutus Club is full of swimmers. In the second lane, Donovan Tildesley warms up, gliding through the water at an effortless pace. The 27-year-old Paralympian will swim countless laps for the next hour and half, his coach calling out instructions every now and then.

Donovan is training for his fourth and final Paralympics, the 2012 Games in London. He’ll race four events, including the 200-metre individual medley, the event Donovan won for his first medal, a bronze, at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. His father, Dr. Hugh Tildesley, who is also his longtime coach and tapper, will be there as always.

For a blind swimmer, a focused tapper is essential. The tapper’s job is to warn the swimmer that he or she is approaching the end of the pool lane, using a pole with a Styrofoam cylinder at the end to tap the swimmer on the head or shoulder. It’s an important job and one in which timing is crucial, as the tap must be in synch with the swimmer’s stroke movement
and speed.

“There’s a big trust element to it,” says Dr. Tildesley, an endocrinologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and a faculty member at the University of British Columbia’s department of medicine. “I can’t carry on a conversation at the same time because I’ll miss a tap.”

About an hour into the practice it’s time for 50-metre sprints. Dr. Tildesley grabs his tapping pole and jogs to the far end of the pool to stand at the lane’s end as Donovan slices through the water. (At a competition there would be tappers at either end of the pool lane, rather than having tappers scurrying to cover both ends.) About a stroke before Donovan reaches the edge, Dr. Tildesley taps him on the head. Donovan executes his turn and pushes off the pool wall, streaking toward the other end. Dr. Tildesley doubles back to tap his son again.

“Thirty point five,” Dr. Tildesley calls out when Donovan stops, adding, “which is awesome!”

The father and son work comfortably together, trading jokes and finishing each other’s stories. When Donovan pauses poolside to talk about the upcoming Paralympics, his dad sits back on a bench, having adjusted to the tropical atmosphere in a white T-shirt and dark shorts, interjecting with a fun detail or joke as the conversation progresses.

One of Donovan’s most memorable dad/coach moments was walking into the Bird’s Nest, the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Games.

“Originally we talked about Dad guiding me, holding my elbow. But I said, ‘Dad, no, I’m a blind swimmer,
I’d like to walk in with my cane,’ ” recalls Donovan, who was born without retinas, a condition called Leber’s amaurosis. So Dr. Tildesley walked behind his son, who had a cane in his right hand and the Canadian flag on his left hip in a lanyard, and called
out directions.

“He was frantically directing me: ‘OK, forward a bit, no, no, back to
the side, you’re in that lady’s way;
oh, lift the flag up, it’s dragging on the ground,’ ” Donovan says. “Everyone looked at that picture afterward and said, ‘Donovan, you look calm, cool and collected, but Hugh, you look a little tense there.’ It was a great team effort.”

Dr. Tildesley laughs and replies, “You almost skewered the woman in front of you with the flag. You could have caused an international incident.”

A leader in diabetes management, Dr. Tildesley has founded numerous clinics over the past 25 years and published extensively, and has travelled regularly with the Canadian Paralympic Team. Donovan works full-time as an insurance broker but is also an inspirational speaker, a keen skier and part-owner of two radio stations in Whistler, B.C.

And yet, five days a week, the father-son duo begin the day when their respective alarm clocks go off at 5:15 a.m. It’s a reminder of Dr. Tildesley’s own days as a competitive swimmer growing up in Montreal. He began coaching when he stopped competing, a switch that also helped pay his way through an undergraduate degree at McGill University. Once medical school took over his life, Dr. Tildesley gave up coaching, until Donovan began to compete. In 1999 they made a pact to work hard and qualify for the Paralympics in Australia.

For Dr. Tildesley, the roles of coach and physician are complementary. As an endocrinologist, the physiological side of coaching is a breeze, and the motivational skill set is the same he uses with patients.

“As a doctor, you’re a coach,” he says. “I mainly deal with diabetes and I motivate people to get where they need to go—lifestyle changes, dietary changes, taking their medications regularly. You have to know the person, figure out what makes them go, and then you have to figure out which buttons to push. That’s what coaching is—pushing the right buttons.”

Coaching is also about knowing when to lay off.

After his Sydney medal and then winning five golds and one silver at the World Para-swimming Championships in 2002, Donovan felt the weight of expectations heading into the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Dr. Tildesley took a step back as coach and let Donovan sort out how to juggle his new life as a university student and competitive swimmer. They re-evaluated the training regimen and let go of some stress, and Donovan ended up swimming faster than ever, winning two silvers and a bronze in Athens.

“It’s been a process and it’s taken both of us growing into it,” Donovan says. “Because he and I have such a strong relationship, even though he can be tough on me on deck at times, I don’t take it personally. He’s a natural-born coach and teacher, and likes to see improvement in others. It goes far beyond his medical career. That’s just who he is as a person.”

Transitioning to the next phase of life after this last Paralympic appearance will have its challenges, since both swimmer and coach have worked so hard for so long together.

“But I’m not going to miss 5:15 in the morning,” Dr. Tildesley says, as he and Donovan share a laugh.