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Olympic medallist/national team coach from Ukraine to become Ottawa National Diving Club’s new head coach

By Mark Colley

When Ottawa National Diving Club head coach and program director Brennan Villemaire got on Zoom to interview his potential replacement, his first question was simple.

“I’m like, ‘One, can you speak English?” recalled Villemaire.

Villemaire was interviewing Illya Kvasha, a past Olympic bronze medalist and Ukranian national team coach. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Kvasha took charge of moving his competitive divers safely to elsewhere in Europe while he remained in the country.

Kvasha wanted to move to North America, and Villemaire – whose family founded ONDC 15 years ago – was ready to explore other professional opportunities. It wound up being a solid match, right from the start when Villemaire realized the interpreter they had on hand for the interview wouldn’t be needed, and Kvasha got the job.

Now, weeks away from Kvasha officially starting as head coach and program director in June, the anticipation — and anxiety — is rising.

“The whole province, the whole country knows he’s coming and everyone is thrilled to have him,” Villemarie highlighted. “We’re excited. We’re anxious, but it’s going to be a very exciting year.”

There’s still plenty to figure out. Kvasha’s wife, four-year-old daughter and in-laws are currently in Spain, but the family is waiting for Kvasha’s daughter’s visa to come through before travelling to Canada. Villemarie is simultaneously trying to line up his next job.

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Combined with the other stressors of immigrating halfway across the world during a war — preparing banking, lining up English lessons for family, finding a place to live, nailing down the exact start date for Kvasha’s employment (some time in June is the current plan) — Villemarie’s plate is full.

“There’s like 15 juggling balls up in the air,” smiled Villemarie, speaking mid-meet from the pool deck while serving as coach and organizer of the summer provincials last weekend. “My head is going to explode, so I’ll be happy once he’s here [and] he’s safe.”

Accomplished athlete/coach to take lead of local club

As Villemarie tells it, the tale of how Kvasha ended up at the Ottawa National Diving club is “a very long story.”

Illya Kvasha. Photo provided

Villemarie’s sister Mary, also a coach at the club, stepped back this year to enter full-time work at a veterinary clinic, launching the search for a new coach. It was a struggle to find an optimal candidate for a part-time role, so ONDC decided to post a listing for a full-time coach, and the club received an email from Diving Canada with Kvasha’s resume.

Simultaneously, Kvasha had been trying to immigrate to the United States in hopes of working for a friend’s diving materials business, but it turned out that going to Canada would have fewer roadblocks, so Kvasha’s American friend had passed his information on to Diving Canada.

By the time Villemarie had his video call with Kvasha, two other Canadian clubs wanted him. Ottawa got to him first, with Villemarie deciding that Kvasha should take over for him as program director.

Still, Villemarie calls hiring Kvasha a “little bit of a leap of faith.” Although the club considered flying the 35-year-old to the city for a coaching trial, they deemed the cost too high. Instead, ONDC hired Kvasha without ever seeing him coach their athletes live.

They’ve seen the results, though. After retiring from diving in 2017 with a Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medal and three World Championships podiums, Kvasha started his own club in Ukraine and led his athletes to huge success, including a top-six finish at last fall’s junior worlds in Montreal.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Villemaire stated.

Brennan Villemaire coaching alongside his sister Mary Villemaire and his mother Kathleen Murphy for ONDC. File photo

Villemaire said it’s been a “bit of an emotional ride” stepping back from the club – where he is still busy running meets and getting his athletes in top shape for the upcoming nationals – though he plans to help with Kvasha’s transition and to remain involved beyond that.

When Villemaire told his divers of the hire, he tried to explain — especially to the younger athletes — what Kvasha has been through.

“They’re coming here with nothing … This is a full reset. Leave your house, leave your job, leave your friends,” underlined Villemaire, who’s started a gofundme fundraiser to help Kvasha’s family settle in Ottawa. “We’re the second family that he needs right now. That’s what we have to be.”

4 victories for ONDC’s Howes at Ontario Championships

Audrée Howes. Photo: Dan Plouffe

Audrée Howes was the star performer at Dive Ontario’s summer provincials, held May 19-21 at Nepean Sportsplex. The athlete from the host Ottawa National Diving Club recorded four first-place finishes at the event, which also drew about as many entries from Quebec as Ontario.

Howes was best on the 1-metre springboard and the platform in both the girls’ Group A and Women’s Open competitions. Other local divers who topped the standings included ONDC’s Emilie Kelly (girls’ Group B 1 m), and Nepean-Ottawa’s Owen Dansereau (boys’ Group D 1 m) and Ella Lindsay (girls’ Group B 3 m).

“All in all, it’s best a really great season for us so far,” signalled Villemaire. “Everyone’s got their national (qualifying) scores, which was our main focus, so now it’s all about getting ready and confident.”

The Canadian Junior National Diving Festival will take place from July 10-16 in Montreal.

— with files from Dan Plouffe

Ottawa National’s Emilie Kelly (left) and Nepean-Ottawa’s Ella Lindsay were both winners at the May 19-21 Dive Ontario spring provincials at the Nepean Sportsplex. Photos: Dan Plouffe

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