By JONATHAN KRAVTCHENKO
As I walk out onto the pool deck to meet Matthew Lucien, the first thing I notice about him is his smile and warm, cheery attitude.
Matthew has been working at Jimmie Simpson Recreation Centre on Queen Street East for more than 20 years, and in that time has made it the most welcoming, positive and supportive environment possible. Riverside remains a close-knit community where almost everyone knows each other.
“I want it to be a home away from home” Matthew told me.
Indeed, when I visited the rec centre, it certainly felt like I had come home. You can feel the positive energy in the building from the second you walk in.
As I walked through the showers and out onto the deck, I could already hear laughter, music and Matthew’s friendly voice. It was Aquafit (a mix of aerobics, disco, zumba and party that takes place in the water) that night, something Matthew is well known for.
Matthew’s Aquafit class has a fanbase similar to a sports team, and the positive energy is borderline addictive. All the regulars know him, and the community factor couldn’t be any stronger. The feeling of togetherness was through the roof.
“I always wanted to share my passion for the sport [of swimming]. That’s what led me into coaching. I wanted to share the love, the joy of swimming. I believe in only doing what you love and I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t be here this long if I didn’t love it,” he said.
Matthew is often volunteering his break time, showing certain swimmers a better technique or skill. “I just really love seeing others succeed. Helping them succeed,” he said.
“For me, one of the biggest rewards is seeing someone I coached or helped come back to their roots. Seeing people that I have helped reach their goals, whether in swimming or in life, is what makes me love what I do.”
It’s very often that you see people who swam with Matthew as their coach in the past, bring their kids to Jimmie Simpson – whose toddler pool, mind you, has an odd tendency producing champions.
“I think it’s the positive attitude. When you’re exposed to swimming in a very positive and supportive way, I think it kind of paves a path for the future.”
The SPLASH Swim Team program at Jimmie Simpson is also well known around the city for being one of the fastest and best-coached teams at all the competitions.
“So many people got their start at Jimmie Simpson… We’ve had National Team swimmers, high school champions, city champions, provincial and national record holders… The best part is hearing about the positive influence that we had on them and I think that it’s because of the centre’s positive environment that they [as kids] were encouraged and motivated to chase their dreams,” said Matthew.
“What’s your least favorite thing about what you do?” I asked. “Nothing” Matthew replied. “Nothing. Sure, it’s a pain in the ass when the sound system doesn’t work, but hey, at the end of the day I love the community and the community centre so much that I don’t believe there is something I don’t like… I love it all.”
Life is not always very lighthearted, however, and the swim community has certainly had its share of challenges.
When a member of the “Jimmie Simpson Rec Centre Family” was diagnosed with breast cancer, the community rallied around her with calls, visits and texts.
“No matter what, I did my best to be a positive source of energy for her,” said Matthew. It was a long battle and against all odds, she beat cancer.
“Hearing that she had beaten cancer was a huge burst of relief. Perhaps as if a damn of pressure and worry had collapsed. I was over the moon with joy when she came to aqua fit a few months later.”
When I asked other patrons about Matthew, they said that he is one of the most positive people they have ever met. “I don’t know how he does it. How can someone be so positive and friendly?” a patron told me.
As I walked out of the rec centre that night, I felt like I had met some long lost family. A swim family.
That’s what makes Matthew Lucien, one of Toronto’s many unsung heroes.