As a young kid, I watched Dawn Fraser and all the legends of the day competing at the 1960 Olympic Games on TV.
t 12, I was mucking around at the local pool at Drummoyne in Sydney when the coach tapped me on the head and said, “Who coaches you?” “Oh, I don’t have a coach,” I replied. His name was Forbes Carlile, quite a famous coach of the day who was one of the few coaches with a scientific background at the time. He offered me a scholarship to swim in the squad, and by the time I was 17, I was on the Olympic team for the 1964 Tokyo Games.
My rapid rise was probably more due to my very strong determination than talent. I hadn’t been involved in the sport for very long, so I was pretty naïve. At the Olympics, I stayed focused, did everything I’d learned and watched from Dawn Fraser (who was a mentor of that time), and was able to win a position of the Australian freestyle relay team, where we broke the world record and won silver behind the USA team. It’s something you never forget and a great experience.
I was also very lucky, as there wasn’t money in swimming in those days like there is now. Every trip and expenses other than the Olympics came from your own pocket. I really loved swimming, loved the environment and everything. I got a scholarship to study Physical Education and Teaching at Wollongong University, but put it on hold to swim at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica where I won 3 medals.
During study at Wollongong, I was approached to be the swim coach at the local Port Kembla Swim Club. I’d been recommended by top coach, Don Talbot. That set me on a pathway that I’m still on today. I started coaching a small group of 20 kids and fell in love with it. I haven’t looked back and I’ve now been coaching for 47 years.
After 1967, I went back to Wollongong, studying at Teacher’s College, when I was approached by the CEO of Port Kembla swim club looking for a coach. I said, “Oh no, you’ve got the wrong number. I’m not a coach, I’m a student at the Uni.” They’d been told by Don Talbot that I’d be really good. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” I said. But I gave it a go, and started coaching a small group of 20 kids and just fell in love with it. It was the best thing ever and I haven’t looked back really.
I’d been working with Don for some time when we decided to go to Canada together to coach. We were there for 6.5 years and managed to put 6 kids on the Canadian Olympic team from scratch. Following this was a 2-year stint of successful coaching in Nashville, USA. When the Australian Institute of Sport was to open, we came back to Australia for Don to be its first Director. After another stint in Canada and our divorce, I married a Kiwi and moved to New Zealand for 24 years where I coached a top club, North Shore, for 10 years before becoming the National Youth Coach, the National Head Coach and National Performance Manager. Many of my charges swam internationally and onto NZ Olympic teams. As National Head Coach of NZ, I was a rare commodity operating in a male-dominated industry, as it still is today.
In 2016, I am the only female coach for Rio on both the Olympic and Paralympic Australian swimming coaching staff.
MY PARA-COACHING JOURNEY
I’ve really enjoyed every aspect of my coaching. It’s been varied, and brought me into contact with great people, great coaches, great swimmers and great parents. I’ve been very privileged to have experienced that and go to a number of Olympic Games. However, other than in 1972, this will be my first Paralympics, so I’m quite excited about that!
While I was coaching in Sydney, I taught a young Paraplegic girl to swim (Pauline English), with whom I eventually went to Heidelberg, Germany, for the Paralympics in 1972. She won silver at those Games and I was part of the Australian coaching staff. While working in Canada, I’d also coached a young woman, Josee Guy, who won multiple medals for Canada at the Paralympics.
There’s no difference coaching able-bodied or para-swimmers. There are some things that you have to learn about the classification system, as each swimmer may be in a different category depending on their disability. Classification is divided into groups of physical, vision and mental disabilities. Getting to know each swimmer, creating a strong relationship, work ethic and a great team culture is the essence of coaching a squad anywhere in the world.
It’s not very different between coaching able-bodied and para-swimmers. There are some things that you have to learn, which is about the classification system, how it works. The swimmers are now classified into different groups: physical, vision and mental. Learning those and understanding what events they can swim, what their limitations are, and then you get on with it.
I’ve had a long coaching history, covering the full spectrum of coaching from age group to Olympics and Paralympics. Most coaches have a squad in where there may be one para-athlete. I’ve had different roles in coaching over many years in different countries, but I feel the same values have been there and are still today. If you’re a coach, you have to be prepared to give 100% to your job. That does not mean you do not have a life, or that the athletes don’t either. It means you’ve got to have life balance, and understand that when you go to work, you’re 100% focused on work. Being a Paralympic representative for Australia requires both athlete and coach to dedicate and discipline themselves to complete the task – to be the absolute best they can be in Rio.
OUR PARA-SWIMMING PROGRAM
I have 7 young men to coach at the moment, and they are just great people. That’s the most important thing – that they’re great people, citizens and role models. I’m very privileged to be part of that and join them on their journey. All 7 are on the team, and they’re working hard towards being the best they can be for Australia and for themselves in Rio. They’re all very independent, and most drive except for the vision impaired. 4 are current university students and are doing very well academically, 2 are working and one is still in high school. The athletes are all full-time at the program we run at the University of Sunshine Coast, originally started by Dr. Brendan Burkett. The university is a great support, and Swimming Australia is the major sponsor of the program. They help provide the environment – pool space, the gym, support staff, mechanics, and anything else I need to do the job. It’s a great partnership.
The 7 young men are trained in a team environment, all together in the pool, and support one another. Inside that team, they are all individuals working towards their events in their own special way. Two of the boys are vision-impaired and have some issues in reading the program, so I print it out for them so they don’t have problems trying to look at the board. It’s little things like that that make a difference in their ability to get on and do the job. We train in a team environment, as swimming is very difficult to do alone. When we get together in the morning and it’s a bit chilly, they have a bit of banter and wind me up, which is part of the fun of it. You’ve got to have fun! Together we embark on that session and then evaluate it. How did it go? Could we have done better? What could we do better next time?
The most rewarding part of coaching is seeing the athletes develop over time, not just seeing them get medals. Whether they win or lose, it’s just so exciting because I know it’s taken a lot of work to get to that point, and the rewards are there. They may not win a gold medal, but it they get up and improve again and again, it is rewarding.
Each athlete has their own set of goals – not my goals, theirs. It’s my job, as the coach, to design the program that’s going to help them achieve that goal. It’s important that the goals are real and not fictional, that they’re believed in both by them and myself. Then they can get up to race knowing they’re ready. It’s their job to deliver – I can’t swim it for them! So we’ve all got roles in the journey, of which mine is to use my experience to design the program and support the athletes so they have every opportunity to achieve their goals. Inside the design of the program are all the processes required to achieve the ultimate outcomes: technical, skills, efficiencies, strength, race planning and practice, nutrition, recovery, biomechanical analysis and body support. It’s very process driven, with a lot of time, effort and money going into it. These processes are really critical because it doesn’t matter how hard you go. If you’re not doing it well, your performance will fall short.
STAYING FOCUSED FOR SUCCESS
3 of this group went to both London and Beijing Paralympics. One was in Atlanta and Athens as well – Rick Pendleton – who is now at his 4th Paralympics. The whole team travels together, first to Auburn, Alabama for a training camp prior to the Games. We then fly to Rio on the 1st of September and move into the Athlete Village. It can be hard for rookies especially, of which we have 4 at USC, not to be overwhelmed. It’s even harder to stay focused and not allow the distractions to permeate the preparation. Luckily we’ve a very good support group to help our swimmers do that. Once they’ve finished competing and the swimming events are over, they have more opportunity to explore and enjoy.
5 TOP TIPS
- A coach doesn’t start at high performance. You do the hard yards in club development and learn all the nuances of your craft. A coach starting out usually starts with youngsters and builds up into age groupers, then maybe 16/17/18-year-olds. Performance coaching is then taking the cream of that and working with them specifically.
- I recommend every coach gets a mentor coach. This was one of the turning points in my career. I was fortunate to have Don Talbot, one of the greatest coaches ever in Australia, who helped me refine skills and challenge myself. Spend time with that coach learning your craft and being challenged, as it will make your journey in coaching more productive.
- When opportunities come up, you have to back yourself and go for them. Throw yourself into it, do the very best you can, and usually good things come from that.
- In coaching, you never stop learning. Always strive to be better and constantly upskill yourself.
- Enjoy the whole experience. Having fun while working is a great recipe.
ONES TO WATCH
China and Russia! It can be hard to predict as there are always a lot of new faces that don’t appear on the regular rounds.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!