The Steroid-Dealing, Ecstasy-Smuggling, Dead-Body-Burning Swim Coach

by Casey Barrett

I was told to tread carefully. I was told that the man in the headline above could be litigious, and that he had deep pockets. There’s also the matter of him burning and burying a dead body on his own property… During the trial when this dark detail emerged, an attorney said of this coach: “If he has a conscience, it would be a very hard thing to find.” Fair warning. Careful what you write. I’ll just tread in the facts. Here are some greatest hits:

– In 1997, Canadian swim coach Cecil Russell was banned for life from the sport for his lead role in an international steroid trafficking ring. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he agreed to testify in the murder trial of one of his associates.

– At that murder trial, Cecil Russell admitted under oath that he helped burn and bury the butchered body of the victim in a corn silo alongside his home outside of Toronto. After the disposal of said body, Russell and the murderer raked the area and made sure they disposed of any lingering evidence – in the form of bones and the victim’s jewelry. In exchange for his testimony, Russell served just 201 days for his steroid crimes. His body-burning accomplice was convicted of first-degree murder.

– A few years later, Russell, banned but now coaching in Spain, was arrested on the pool deck on charges of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. At the time he was coaching eventual Olympic medalist, Nina Jivanevskaia, of Spain. He spent four years in a Spanish prison. This was no small time drug bust; Russell had been the main player in a plot to import 500,000 tabs of E from Amsterdam, thru Canada, into the United States.

– In 2005, Russell’s ban was lifted after he claimed he had been exonerated in the ecstasy case. The ban was reinstated in 2007 after a front page story in the Toronto Star revealed that he had misrepresented and managed to suppress facts surrounding his past crimes during his reinstatement hearing. Weeks after his second lifetime ban came down, Russell was seen back on the pool deck still coaching.

Here’s another fact: Cecil Russell is also a very good swim coach. And because of this last fact, moral ambiguity muddies the present of a hard core criminal past. Despite the bans, he’s never really stopped coaching, and when you get your swimmers to swim fast, as Russell does, it seems parents are willing to overlook any manner of past misdeeds. Reading those greatest hits in the headline, it’s staggering to consider, but the scariest part of this true crime tale is that many parents are still behind him. They still want him to coach their children. Because he’s good at it, never mind the man behind the curtain.

Welcome to the strange saga of the Dolphins Swim Club… A Toronto team loaded with Canadian Olympic Trials qualifiers, an A-list club team with a Russell-led history of producing top talent on the national and international level. This talent is led by Russell’s own children: Colin and Sinead Russell, two of Canada’s finest swimmers. Son, Colin, was an Olympian in 2008, a world class middle-distance freestyler. Daughter, Sinead, is even better. At 18-years-old, she was a finalist in the 100 back at the 2010 World Championships. Her lifetime best of 59.6 puts her right in the mix as a medal contender in London. Both children have reportedly spent much of their training time at the nearby University of Toronto, however, according to sources on the Canadian team, they still call their dad their coach. They’re the two shining examples of Cecil Russell’s success as a world class swim coach. And two young swimmers who find themselves in an immensely difficult position, thanks to the sins of their father.

The Dolphins are a team with a lot at stake in this Olympic year, five months from deciding Team Canada’s London Olympians. Now is not the time for disrupting their training. Now’s not the time to bother with annoying distractions like the outsized criminal past of their coach. And so, while parents hear of plenty of past evil, if they don’t see it, they don’t seem to care.

I spoke with Toronto Star reporter Randy Starkman, who has been tracking this story for years. Indeed, it was his front page story that caused Russell’s second lifetime ban. He has been on deck with the Dolphins, spoken with Russell in person in front of his team, and was floored by what he found.

“It is by far the strangest story I’ve been involved with,” says Starkman, who has covered every Olympics since the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. “The weirdest interview I’ve ever done. Sitting at a picnic table, asking Russell about all this stuff, with parents and kids walking by. You get the impression that they all think he’s a good coach, that things have been blown out of proportion. Their kids are swimming faster, they like swimming for him, end of story.”

No, not end of story. And considering where this story begins, it would be difficult to blow any of Russell’s past out of proportion.

Needless to say, the rest of Swimming Canada shakes with shame and embarrassment at the continued presence of the rogue coach in their midst. Yet, they’ve continued to prove almost powerless in their enforcement capabilities. Plenty of efforts have been made, but with limited resources there is only so much they can do to physically enforce any bans. Recently, the Dolphins’ regional federation, Swim Ontario, has placed the team under suspension. This caused the team to lose its coveted pool time. And that led to a howling uproar among Dolphins parents.

In an astonishing scene at a community hearing, this loss of pool time was labeled a “violation of their human rights.” Said one parent at this council meeting: “Please keep in mind the impact your decisions may have on shaping their values and views.” (Hello, pot, please meet mister kettle…)

While that derailed the team momentarily, recent reports confirm that they are now back in the water, training at one of Canada’s finest facilities, the Etobicoke Olympium pool. It will take more than that to keep Russell away. Over the years, he’s learned a few tricks of technicalities.

First, Cecil Russell is not technically listed as the head coach of Dolphins Swim Club. His wife, Erin, is. A distinction that leads to instant eye-rolling among swimmers and other coaches in Canada… Next, it’s said that he now lists himself as a “personal coach” not a “club coach.” Meaning, he’s not a part of any team at all, merely a proven commodity as a coach who is happy to lend his services to those swimmers who approach him personally. Whether using a spousal front or an individual vs collective distinction, both of these strategies have been effective. What has also been effective is Russell’s ability to doggedly wait out the bad press, the roving spotlight that continues to glare over the shocking facts of his history. A coach to the core, it’s clear he refuses to be denied the pursuit of his greatest passion.

“Nothing stops the guy,” says Starkman. “That’s the real tragedy here — every athlete has to follow the anti-doping code. As most make almost no money, they have to be cleaner than clean. And then we have this coach, a guy who has been convicted of major drug offenses, still leading them.”

And so it falls to the parents. The tunnel vision of an ambitious mom and dad cannot be underestimated. Those my-kid-only blinders that refuse to acknowledge anything outside of the immediate perception of what is good for MY kid… There is nothing else. And when that perception happens to include an Olympic dream on the cusp of being fulfilled, who has time for things like morals and ethics?

Best of luck to Cecil Russell’s swimmers and devoted parents as the Trials approach. And good luck living with yourself.