Clubs come together to pool young swim talent
MEXICO City in 1968 seems a long time ago. It was. Martyn Woodroffe does not dwell on the Olympics of that year, even though he got a silver medal in the pool, beating the legendary Mark Spitz in the 200 metres butterfly.
No, the stretch of water he is most concerned with these days is at the Wales National Pool in Swansea. That is where you will find him in his role of national performance director of Swim Wales.
And today he is helping to lead the way into a new era for his sport in the city.
Producing the next Tom Daley and establishing the first official water polo club in Swansea for 20 years are on the radar, along with preparing more young swimmers for training with elite squads.
Woodroffe calls it one of the most exciting aquatics plans for any city in the UK. But it is fair to say that it has caused a few ripples among the swimming fraternity.
Clubs are all coming together under the Swim Swansea banner, which means the loss of Swansea Sharks under the merger. The Sharks had 116 members, many of whom, along with their parents, expressed disquiet about the move.
Coach and parent Leah Morgan admits some parents have been worried they won't be able to afford to send their children to swimming anymore.
"We are a volunteer club, with volunteer coaches, which is how we keep prices down," she says.
"Parents are also worried about the logistics of taking their children to the pools. We use Bishop Gore and the National Pool, but Swansea uses Morriston, Penyrheol and the National Pool.
"And children don't want to be split up from their friends. My daughter is 12 and has been with Swansea Sharks since she was 3.
"She doesn't want to go anymore. Some children have already gone to other areas such as Llanelli which only uses one pool and parents can keep their children together."
But, despite the fears — which Swim Wales has done its best to allay — the new era starts today, headed by Swim Swansea head coach Adam Baker and Woodroffe.
The original Swim Swansea Club is already being seen as one of the most successful in Wales, with swimmers representing Great Britain at recent European Junior Championships and a three medal haul at the last Commonwealth Youth Games. But it is the opportunity to build on that success that is exciting Woodroffe.
"The picture is clear for me," he says. "This is one big programme for aquatics in Swansea that will improve what we offer to a generation of young people.
"Most clubs and organisations across Britain will usually just focus on one area of aquatics, mostly just swimming. But we're a national governing body for aquatics, not just swimming.
"There should be opportunities across the whole range of disciplines — water polo and diving included. By bringing all our resources together — particularly pool space — it means we can plan much better and make sure that young swimmers are in the right place to develop with the right coaches.
"Some young swimmers will need to swim in different venues in the future, but they will be training with similar standard swimmers with coaches who want to take them onto the next another level."
Swim Swansea has swimmers aged from 6 up to internationals aged 22. Under the new structure they are setting up a masters club as well for older swimmers to swim socially and competitively, while the wider world of aquatics, including diving and synchronised swimming, is under the City of Swansea brand. Penyrheol Swimming Club is not yet part of the brave new world, but Swim Wales hope talks will see it sign up soon.
"I must be clear on the huge potential for Swansea to be a stellar city for aquatic sports in the UK," says Woodroffe.
"This will help us achieve that.
"We have the support of our colleagues in sport and leisure at Swansea Council because they can see the benefits to improve opportunities in the city.
"Our diving coach has already been out looking at all the pools and is really excited by what he will be able to do.
"We hope we would be able to set up the water polo club and a masters' triathlon club within a couple of months. We're looking to train more coaches already. There will be more opportunities but also more opportunities to excel."
Swansea is now just one of four locations in the UK housing a British Swimming intensive training centre, with the likes of Olympic swimmers Georgia Davies and Jemma Lowe swimming alongside Paralympic queen Ellie Simmonds.
With pool space for age-group training squads managed centrally there will be more places available for young people who want to swim in skills squads — possibly around 65 extra a year.
The pools at Penlan, Bishop Gore, Morriston and Penyrheol, as well as the Wales National Pool, will be utilised so that disciplines like diving and synchronised swimming can be a permanent part of aquatics for the next generation of young swimmers.
And those swimmers will have the opportunity to progress through the ranks in the hope they can reach the same heights as their Olympic and Paralympic heroes.
"We have already been assessing the young swimmers and placing them into the right skills and development squads," adds Woodroffe. "As well as the closer links to the higher-end squads, we will also see more swim time and inclusion for disabled swimmers.
"Our plans are about collectively bringing all swimmers in the city under a Swansea aquatics organisation that will strengthen the opportunities available.
"I don't feel the old way of working, with multiple clubs and no structured opportunities to branch out into other aquatic sports, is in the best interest of children who want to swim and do aquatic sports. Yes, there is difficulty for those who will have to travel further to swim with their squad.
"At the lower end of the programme costs to parents will be lower while at the higher end the costs will be a bit higher. But ultimately the service will improve with more pool space and more paid coaches.
"We have had some really good feedback from parents and other people excited by what this will bring."