It is both moving and encouraging to see different groups and organizations working together to make sport in Canada better as a whole.
Emma Van Steen
Senior Manager of High Performance Para-Swimming
The interview with Emma Van Steen was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
Tell us about your role as the Senior Manager of High Performance Para Swimming for Swimming Canada. What does a typical day look like for you?
I don’t think I have a typical day! It all varies on what location I am in and the time of year.
In this role, I have many different responsibilities. Some days it is heading into an office or meetings to be the link on projects or plans with other departments. Other times it is travelling to locations in advance of the team to plan and solve problems ahead of them happening. And at the best times, it is standing behind the starting blocks supporting an athlete for their race.
My role is split into two sides:
The administrative support for Para-Swimming runs in Canada and Internationally. This includes policy, selection criteria, AAP carding, reporting, classification, CCES requirements, and financial reporting. It is working to collaborate on best practices for Para-Swimming in Canada now and for future generations.
The second is the logistics manager for teams to camps and events. This is an operation and planning process; and I often say that I am the General Manager or the team, working to improve efficiency and maximizing the budget for success. I handle all team and staff logistics, operating as the liaison between the team, event officials and World Para Swimming — on top of being responsible for all aspects of team travel and accommodation, which can become a complex exercise when moving more than 25 swimmers and up to 15 support staff and coaches. This includes people management; working with them to connect and support each individual’s role and responsibility for smooth operations for the team. Many little bits are required for success: planning for travel, entries, building schedules, information sharing, outfitting & performance gear, supporting friends and family, helping with media and interviews, prepping for emergencies, and dealing with daily changes at an event. This site has the bonus of lots of travel to unique locations. This also includes working as Team Manager and or Leader on-site with athletes at an event and putting all the planning logistics in action. Overall, my main goal is to make sure that I reduce every distraction possible, to help the team perform in the pool. My job is to make sure that they can focus on swimming and don’t have to focus on any of the other external things that come with performing at the top event (Paralympic or World Championships).
This requires me to pay attention to a lot of details, multi-task, and remain calm under pressure. It all requires dealing with individuals on a personal level, to adjust the plans to work, all with a smile.
How has the re-scheduling of the 2021 Summer Paralympics changed your role and plans for the rest of the year?
What a year this has been.
My job moreover has gone into full planning and trying to figure out any options during these times. It is hard as there are many unknowns and everything changes daily.
It is about taking time to research and understand all options and work out as many different scenarios as possible that will keep everyone safe and able to focus on swimming.
Most recently, we have focused on a return to the swimming framework. We are targeting a December 2020 event for the National and Development teams in Vancouver. Fingers crossed this will happen, but it starts with everybody taking the appropriate actions now by every single individual follow the rules and guidelines to flatten the curve.
Why did you choose to work on the non-profit side of the sport as opposed to others? What is the greatest reward that you have experienced working in the non-profit sector?
I followed the opportunities that came my way. This is a small and very competitive industry. I worked and juggled many part-time roles to reach the great job that I am in.
Despite it being a small and competitive industry, we all work together to support athletes toward the podium, achieve their dream, and be a hero for the next generation. It becomes a close-knit family that is very supportive.
I know I can pick up the phone and call several people from different organizations for support advice and direction before making a difficult decision. It is both moving and encouraging to see different groups and organizations working together to make sport in Canada better as a whole.
There is no “one size fits all” solution in high-performance sport. In saying this, what measures are taken to ensure each para-swimmer under your supervision is reaching their peak potential?
I think every athlete is unique and requires individualized support to reach their goals; either Paralympic or Olympic bound you just need to adapt to each. Within Swimming Canada we try to align to two programs to use the same training locations when games are in the same location (Olympic/Paralympic year) and use the same detail of logistics.
We also align as much as possible the policy and support that teams receive. They are all high performing athletes striving for their top performance, and ideally podium finish.
You’ve been with Swimming Canada under the Para-Swimming umbrella for over 7 years and worked as a Communications and Marketing Assistant for Wheelchair Basketball Canada. You also have experience with Field Hockey Canada and Athletics Canada. What would you say some of the main differences working in Para-Sport are?
I don’t think is a big difference in working in Para-Sport, from a management side. I might need to make a few technical adaptions for some needs and skills, but overall this is more the concern of a coach.
I don’t see a difference in my job. The small differences would be the variations between any two sports; a hockey team needs different support them a baseball team; however ultimately still striving for good performance.
However, to gain more understanding of Para-Sport it helps to gain knowledge about classification. It seems like a lot to process, however understanding classification is just like understanding the specific rules for any sport.
It is similar to having an understanding of the difference between NBA vs FIBA basketball, as it will help you have an appreciation of what players bring to the game, as well as enhance your connection when watching games.
I’ve held many different roles over the years that I have provided me with great experiences. I don’t need a technical sport understanding to help out a team, as this is something you can learn in any role with a curious mind. I can transition to support any sport, any team in a competitive environment, either para-sport or able body sport, since striving for high performance is the same in any environment.
In High Performance, athletes need the motivation to excel. How do you motivate the athletes you oversee? On the other hand, how do you find motivation yourself?
I motivate with unconditional positivity and support that a colleague can always rely on. My key strengths include the ability to plan, develop, and execute strategic plans with a smile.
I love to solve problems, and find solutions. I like to plan all the different options well in advance, so I can stay calm under pressure. I work hard to support athletes and coaches so all they need to worry about is their performance in the pool.
I joke that I take care of everything else that happens besides whats going on in the water. The athletes that I work with will tell you that I am like a tough mom to them – as I offer all support they need providing they take responsibility and put in some hard work of their own.
I find motivation in my competitive nature. I strive to do the best that I can, and always improve on myself. Our team has the focus and mentality of always improving. For athletes, it’s dropping a second every time they race. I focus to improve into my planning and logistics, to always make everything run as smoothly as possible.
Hayley's Final Thoughts
From what I learned in this interview, Emma is an amazing Manager and truly wants the best for each athlete under her supervision. I love that the athletes she works with think of her as a “tough mom” — that only furthers my point as she wants to see all swimmers succeed but they have to put in the work to do so! Although COVID-19 pushed the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics to be moved to 2021, Emma has been on top of figuring out new options for Swimming Canada and planning for the future. I know Emma will excel at creating a new ‘game-plan’ and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her and Swimming Canada!