EP Swimmer, Stellenbosch swim coach and International Triathlon coach
Libby comes from a Port Elizabeth swimming family - her father was a member of the EPASA and sister Wendy set a South African record for the 220 and 440 yards freestyle heats at nationals in 1962. Another South African swimmer to migrate to triathlons - like Mandy Dean, Kevin Richards, Paula Newby-Fraser and Simon Lessing, Libby was an Eastern Province breaststroke swimmer, where she graduated from the Collegiate Girls High School in 1973. Her father was a president of the EPASA, and her swimming coach Tom Connell, who also coached Peter Williams. Today she is an international triathlete coach and Director of ITU Sport Development - see her blog here.
She was also associated with swimming at the University of Stellenbosch, where the Maties Swimming Club was founded in 1927. Up until 1980 the club had only consisted of students, but with the arrival of Libby Burrel as full time coach a subsection for non-students was founded. The club has since flourished under full time head coaches Santa van Jaarsveld, Petro Nortje, and current head coach Pierre de Roubaix.
Triathlon Canada calls on Libby Burrell for leadership fix
Libby Burrell was standing near the finish line in London the day Paula Findlay made her slow, anguished approach. One of Canada’s marquee athletes, Findlay was in tears as she ended her Olympic debut, 52nd among the 52 competitors to complete the triathlon: “I’m really sorry to everybody,” she said. “To Canada.”
It was, for me, a very hard thing to watch,” Burrell said.
On Tuesday, when she was announced as the new high-performance director of Triathlon Canada, Burrell moved from spectator to active participant. Part of her job will be to help elite Canadian triathletes avoid the kind of difficulty that conspired to end Findlay’s hope for a medal in London.
Burrell, an experienced South African coach and executive who moved to Whistler, B.C., almost three years ago, will begin her new job on Monday. She has been director of sport development for the International Triathlon Union since 2006, which is why she was near the finish line in London.
Findlay won five major ITU events in the two years leading up to the Olympics, including one on the Olympic course. But a hip injury and a split with her coach just weeks before the Games ultimately left her unprepared for the big moment.
It was a tough call for a young lady to go and race in an international race, her first one in 12 months, at the Olympic Games,” Burrell said. “It would be tough for Usain Bolt to have done that.”
Burrell was careful not to assign blame for what happened to Findlay in London. She said she will spend part of her first few weeks and months gathering information and listening to the sport’s Canadian stakeholders — and not just about Findlay, though her struggle in London remains an obvious talking point.
“If you have to think of a real layman’s phrase for ‘what does the high-performance director do?’ — that’s to set the coaches and the athletes up to be successful, and to help the athletes be bullet-proof on the day,” she said. “I think one could see that wasn’t there. I think they were good coaches, and I think there were probably very good plans in place. I’ll have to have a good look at why it didn’t work.”
Alan Trivett, executive director of Triathlon Canada, said he interviewed Burrell twice in person before the London Olympics, and said they talked once more over the phone after the Games. Burrell was South Africa’s triathlon coach in 2000, when the sport made its Olympic debut in Sydney, and she spent five years working with United States Triathlon until moving to the ITU.
“I’m the first to tell you that I think it was a crisis in leadership that we had in London, and that I was the ultimate leader of that team,” Trivett said. “I take a lot of that responsibility on my shoulders.”
A full-time high-performance director will not have to be distracted by the day-to-day organizational operations, he said, which could only help if a situation like Findlay’s arose again.
Trivett said Findlay is preparing for next month’s world championships at a training base in Guelph, Ont.
“She still has to address her hip issue,” he said. “She was absolutely healthy leading into the Games — and at the Games, for that matter — but that’s not to say that there isn’t some maintenance required there, or some continued work to be done.”
1970 EP Schools Team - with Libby on the right, in the 4th row
1971 - Derek Elliot receiving EPASA Swimmer of the Year - from Libby's father - Les Burrell