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Olympic Edition, Sports Bill Sweetenham: The Medal-maker

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By: Bill Sweetenham AM •  4 years ago •  

Bill and Michael Bohl

By Sarah Bailey and Stewart Fleming, CoachingLife Magazine

BILL SWEETENHAM IS NOT A QUITTER. NOR IS HE THE SHY, RETIRING TYPE TO QUIETLY DOWN TOOLS AND TAKE UP KNITTING INSTEAD. FOR BILL, IT IS EVIDENT THAT LEARNING IS A CONSTANT STATE. “I HAVE NO INTEREST IN SITTING BACK AND DOING NOTHING”, HE SAYS, DESPITE CALLING TIME ON A STELLAR COACHING CAREER AFTER 11 OLYMPIC GAMES, CULMINATING IN RIO 2016. AS ALWAYS, HE IS IN PURSUIT OF EVEN GREATER KNOWLEDGE, ADDING TO HIS LIFETIME REPOSITORY OF WISDOM BY HUNTING IT OUT VORACIOUSLY FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE.

This is Bill’s final interview about his incredible career. We can only try to do this legend justice.

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ill grew up in Mount Morgan and then Mount Isa, both historic mining towns in rural Queensland. Even in this rural setting, his keen enquiring mind and desire to seek out his own path proved a personal challenge. At 16 and after having a disagreement with his father, he decided it was time to leave home. As he was packing his bags with approval to leave home, his father informed him that everything he had packed was paid for and provided by his mother and father. As a result of this disagreement, it was agreed that he would leave home with just his underpants and $20. His mates found much amusement as he climbed into their car in his underpants.

After a year of living rough, hot and tough in a mate’s garage in Mount Isa, Bill decided to return home. However, given the argument with his father, there was a penalty for doing so and he had to pay the price. His father set out that Bill, as a penalty, had to teach a thalidomide child to swim a referee-approved 50 metres in two different strokes (the requirement to join the local swimming club), and only when and if he had succeeded in doing this could he move back home. Luckily the young boy was open to bribes and reinforcement, but in the enforced teaching baptism, Bill found his passion. A former swimmer himself, he’d given up on his Olympic dreams in 1972 to play rugby with his friends, but this teaching experience called him back to the pool and by the end of the 1974 summer, he was teaching 40-50 young children to swim.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Bill was always reaching for the next level in anything he did. Through this new teaching and coaching passion, he built a small swimming pool in the back yard of his parents’ home. It was heated and enclosed and Bill gave everything to his teaching passion. In building this pool and with his lack of actual building skills, it was constructed in such a way that it could withstand an atomic blast and it became his dedicated teaching pool. One of the families that he was teaching was the Rafter family of Australian tennis fame. Jim Rafter was the Accountant at Mount Isa Mines and sat on the Board of the local Catholic school. Jim obviously saw something in Bill, so he convinced St Kierens School in Mount Isa to build a 25 metre pool where Bill was able to continue his coaching.

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Bill was always learning, even from his earliest students. One of these was a young lad named Anthony Byrne who volunteered in an early class how swimming was done. Anthony was certain that he could swim. After Bill fished him out of the pool (spluttering and coughing), Anthony explained that he could swim but just not yet. Anthony went on to achieve considerable success at State and National level for many years before taking a college scholarship in the USA. The confidence and attitude of this young man provided another lesson for Bill in his coaching career.

Anthony followed Bill to Brisbane where Bill worked with the local club (Carina) which included Stephen Holland. Laurie Lawrence had just retired from this position and Stephen’s parents had recruited Bill to coach the programme. Although Holland (the future “Superfish”) had already won gold at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, he would go on working with Bill to continue to improve and break more World Records. Before going to the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Stephen had broken approximately 12 World Records with Laurie and Bill coaching him. Even though during this short 18-month period, Stephen improved some 12-15 seconds, Bill remained unhappy with his coaching of Stephen. Stephen had made significant improvements in his personal best time for the 1500 metres Freestyle in the 1975/76 era while training with Bill. He went on to win a Bronze medal in the 1500 at the 1976 Olympics, which was 2 seconds under the previous World Record. By the time Holland retired, he had also won 8 national titles over 400, 800 and 1500 metre distances.

Working as Australia’s first ever Director of Coaching and in the role of Queensland Director of Coaching at that time, Bill was then recruited by Don Talbot for a role working with American coach, Dennis Pursley at the newly formed Australian Institute of Sport. In 1980, Bill was appointed Head Coach for the Australian Olympic Swimming team at the Moscow Olympics and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study all facets of coaching in the USA. Clearly, Bill was on a steep learning curve and on a mission to gain knowledge and experience, and lead fellow coaches in the pursuit of excellence by having the opportunity to learn from each other, no matter what the sport.

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Even a serious accident couldn’t halt this man’s single-minded quest for future success. In 1983, while on tour with the Australian team in West Germany, he was involved in a bus crash that severely injured his left leg. During the accident, it was both fortunate that dirt plugged the wound and stopped him bleeding to death. However, the bacteria in the dirt gave him a nasty bone infection which still continues to periodically flare up to this day. As a result of this accident, Bill spent 2 to 3 years on crutches and subsequently, his left leg is several centimetres than his right. The injury definitely slowed him down temporarily, but Bill was back on deck every day in 1984 coaching his swimmers on crutches with the famed Ken Wood as his assistant coach.

Success continued to flow and Bill remained the Australian Head Coach for a further 2 Olympic Games and on the staff for Australia for 5 Commonwealth Games, being voted Australian Coach of the Year for swimming 3 times and Australian Coach of the Year for all Sport for 1981 and Team of the Year in 1980. Up to this point in time, Bill had coached multiple world record holders such as Tracey Wickham, Michelle Ford and Stephen Holland. Working on his return from 4 years in Hong Kong, once again recruited by Don Talbot to come in and help prepare athletes and strategies for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney (1995-2000). The youth programme for Australian Swimming was a first, and is considered by most to have been and remains the world’s leading youth programme.

Always an advocate for taking up new challenges and opportunities, along with continued professional development, Bill accepted an offer from British Swimming to become their National Performance Director and Head Coach after the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Up until this point, Britain had been in a downward spiral with its swim programme for many years, and the Sydney Olympics were the first time that the Brits returned home without a single medal for its swimmers. However, with Bill at the helm 6 years further on at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, British swimmers took home 15 gold medals. They produced their best ever performances at the World Championships and Olympics, breaking 200 domestic records along the way and nearly every record on the books. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Bill’s radical rejuvenation of the programme was met with resistance at every turn. “Britain pursued me pretty aggressively and I wanted a challenge,” he said. “I knew it was going to be tough – I just didn’t realise how tough.”

“Britain pursued me pretty aggressively and I wanted a challenge,” he said. “I knew it was going to be tough – I just didn’t realise how tough.”

They were hard years, trying to change and improve the culture and altitude, and Bill was thinking, “Did you bring me to the UK to change me or for me to make changes to British swimming?” However, despite the naysayers, Bill had clearly ushered in a new era of success for Britain in both swimming and sport in general. Olympic medallist, David Davies (1500 metres Freestyle and Open Water), was quoted as saying, “The biggest turning point was when we got Bill Sweetenham. He changed the attitude, the professionalism, the way people trained, the way coaches worked and thought.” Despite the ‘tough and eccentric’ moniker, accolades came from all corners, including his successor, Michael Scott: “I always say that the fundamental thing is that you’ve got to have good coaching. That is the legacy of Bill Sweetenham.”

As for Bill, the shake up complainers weren’t his main focus. It was all about building a programme of success that would pay off for years to come, nurturing young talent – both athletes and coaches – through a more professional programme and approach. He relates this to planting a tree and observing it grow and bear fruit. “The greatest fear I have when I coach an athlete is that one day they will look back and think, ‘I could have done better’”, he confesses. “Swimmers are only as good as their coaches, and a winning partnership as required.” There’s not a morning when he doesn’t wake up at 4am, wishing he was somewhere coaching, because his love for coaching, swimming and success overrides everything else in his life.

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After 8 years in the job and a very successful campaign for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bill stepped down. It was time for a new challenge, a new growth opportunity. He said, “I feel like I’ve changed the course of history for British swimming”. Many also give him credit for doing the same thing for British sport. “I believe that I have left a legacy for Britain that will take it with good leadership further forward. In 10 years’ from now, I’ll look at it and in my conscience and my heart, I’ll think that I made a difference – I actually turned sport around in Britain.”

One of the strategies that Bill was able to put in place in Britain was a talent identification and development programme in 2004 and 2005, where he developed what is considered by many to be the world’s most advanced early identification and development programme aimed at global success for womens’ swimming. It developed the likes of world and Olympic podium athletes such as Ellen Gandy, Rebecca Adlington, Hannah Miley, Kerri-anne Payne, Jo Jackson, Francesca Halsall and Jazz Carlin. This strategy was also supported by a very successful mens’ programme developed at the Offshore Training Centre located at The Southport School on the Gold Coast, where a small number of men, with the support of Coach Chris Nesbit, were able to win European Junior Championships for the first time in the modern history of competitive swimming in Britain.

Bill’s international coaching network wouldn’t let him relax for long. After leaving Britain, he spent time with Spain and greatly assisted them to a 2nd in the World Short Course Championships in both medals and points score. He recruited Fred Vergnoux from France to assist with the British programme – a close relationship that has lasted the years. He values Coach Vergnoux as a protege of his mentoring and professional association which will continue through the 2016 Olympics and beyond. Bill works closely with Michael Bohl (one of his ex-swimmers), Chris Nesbit, Ken Sabotic and Scott Talbot in a similar concept.

Bill and Argentina swim team

Bill works closely with Argentina and has witnessed their massive improvements in the last 5 years. He was afforded much credit for their greatly improved performance at last year’s Pan American Games and their first ever male medal in the 100 metres Freestyle at the 2015 World Long Course Championships. He has also coached and continues to work with Lauren Boyle of New Zealand who also was a World Record holder during his coaching period with her, and he World Long Course medals won in 2015. Bill has mentored many coaches across many sports but clearly, after talking with him, one of his favourite achievements is mentoring Lisa Alexander who is now Head Coach of Australia’s netball team, the Diamonds. He has consulted with many sports including the New Zealand cycling team.

Bill considers his biggest achievement to be mentoring coaches, having developed over 30 coaches in 4 countries to go from having no global performances to becoming global podium coaches. Coach education and development has become his greatest passion. This has extended outside the sports arena over time. The corporate world is now yet another advocate of Bill’s significant leadership and strategic development work – perhaps inevitable given the similarities between sport and business in their quest for success and driving performance targets.

When not actively involved in a coaching programme, Bill is off searching the world for more knowledge and experience, and for the next piece of information that will connect the dots and improve athlete and coaching performance. He sought information from everyone and in every field. Now he considers knowledge to be less of an advantage and a winning point of difference. With the introduction of the internet, knowledge is now a common denominator of the top coaches in the world. He feels that 98% of coaches are trainers and focused on what happens from the neck down (the physical). In his observations and experience, many coaches can train but struggle with coaching. Coaching is from the neck up (the mental) and training is from the neck down. They must be connected. He believes that if you cannot inspire, then you cannot coach. Many of Bill’s lessons came from observations of racehorses training in Hong Kong when he lived on the Hong Kong Jockey Club (1990-1994). Subsequently, he observed Bart Cummings and Neville Begg train their stayers and sprinters. He relates how he questioned Bart on the coaching of horses. Bart’s response was that he had to “read the horse”. “Just like coaching an athlete, you have to know the heart and mind of who or what you are coaching”.

98% of coaches are trainers and focused on what happens from the neck down (the physical).

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Every Olympics are different for finding the winning edge, so relying on last year’s results or those of the last Olympics is not an option for Bill. There is only forward movement, improvement and positive change. “The growth of your learning has to keep you ahead of the field. Winning without improvement is just lucky, and luck will run out. Success comes from sustainable and reputable work.” Bill knows the business better than most. Incredibly, by a role as a National Head Coach or personally coaching an athlete or being part of a podium athlete’s programme, he has had a significant input to a podium athlete or team at every Olympics since 1976. Truly legendary results! The secret to his success? “With great accuracy, do things that others are not prepared to do,” Bill says.

Bill was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989, and has now served as Head Coach at Olympic Games for 3 different countries. To do so once might be considered luck, but with results proven many times over, no one can deny his genius in strategic planning, national relay development strategies and for taking swimming to a new level of professionalism. As Bill says, “Luck has never been good to me!”.

Bill believes that the future of coaching and training will come from the neural and sensory aspects of applied preparation. He campaigns constantly for a drug-free, transparent and fair playing field for the sport of swimming.

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