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a swimmer’s tale

I swam for Wales and Great Britain between 1964 and 1970, then I moved into the world of work, originally as a schoolteacher, but then I was lucky enough to get a coaching job, in swimming. So I have coached several Olympians and Commonwealth Games medalists, as well as then moving on to become National Performance Director for Welsh Swimming.

My father wanted me to learn to swim, and took me to Guildford Crescent Baths in Cardiff. I remember I was about eight years of age. I learnt to swim very easily and quickly. It coincided with the 1958 Empire (later Commonwealth) Games, held in Cardiff. I can remember not actually seeing any swimming but going down into St Mary’s Street and seeing all the athletes from around the Commonwealth walking round, and that was the moment I wanted to be a sportsperson.


The first British level swim I remember was in 1965, when I was 15, and I won the Junior ASA National title for 100m butterfly. And I can sort-of vaguely remember at that time thinking, “I’d like to go on to become a senior British international swimmer”. The thing that inspired me in 1965, I swam in Blackpool, and in the same championships was Bobby McGregor, and I can remember him swimming in the 1964 Olympics, and I thought, “Well, 1968, I could be doing the same as Bobby McGregor”. I thought, “Yes, maybe I could be a swimmer at that level”. I was one of these young boys with lofty dreams and was actually lucky enough to fulfill most of them.

I consider myself very lucky, because Cardiff, where I grew up, had a 50m pool in the Wales Empire Pool. We also had Guildford Crescent Baths and Penarth Baths, and I was able to use all of those facilities to train. My parents had a car but they didn’t take me to the pool, so I actually rode my bicycle to and from the pool, both for the early morning and the afternoon sessions.


For me, the biggest single difference between when I was training and today is I didn’t, for most of my swimming career, have a coach. But, today, that would be unheard-of. Most swimmers are trained at either high-performance swimming clubs or in intensive training centres where there are full-time professional coaches. But in my time, it was a case of, if you wanted to be good at it, you had to get on and do it yourself.

Today, our swimmers are surrounded by sports psychologists, sports physiologists, a doctor, a nutritionist, all of those things. My nutritionist was my mum, my sports psychologist was my dad, so it is slightly different, but the key thing was hard work, and that was the same in 1968 as it is today.

I’m not one of these people that believe it was better in my day. I’ve seen people move from the amateur days into the professional, and, to be honest, if you want to win an Olympic medal, you need to be virtually a full-time professional swimmer. I don’t blame anyone for taking the money for doing something that they’re good at.

A lot of people will say, “It’s not as good because swimmers don’t do it for the right reasons”. I don’t believe that. The great swimmers are great whatever generation they come from. And, okay, they’re paid nowadays, but, for the amount of time they have to spend in the pool, it is only right and proper that they should earn a living.

beating England

I was very fortunate. I swam the Commonwealth Games, the first Commonwealth Games, in 1966, in Jamaica. I didn’t win any medals, just made the final, and would classify myself as just an ordinary international swimmer. 1968 was different for me, because, obviously, I did win a medal and to come second at the Olympic Games (Mexico 1968) was fantastic. The most important moment for any Olympian is to win an Olympic medal. There is no other competition that you will ever compete in that is the size. Luckily, at the time, I didn’t actually think too much about, “Ooh, I’m at an Olympic Games!”. But, when you think about it afterwards, it’s actually quite a frightening competition to be in, to pit yourself against the best in the world, that one single moment in time, and to actually win a medal! I do sometimes think those people are just superhuman. I still can’t believe that I actually did it.

At the Olympics, I swam three other events, the individual medley, the 100m butterfly, as well as the 200 butterfly. The 200 butterfly was my specialist event. Up until that point, I’d not swum particularly well, so I probably wasn’t expected to win a medal. But, after the heats, which was a very comfortable race for me, I can remember, between the morning heats and the evening finals, actually thinking, “I am definitely going to win a medal, here”. There was no way I was thinking of anything other than winning the race. I was in the race with Mark Spitz and, of course, he had had a rather bad Olympics, but everyone still expected him to win. Luckily, I was in the next lane to another American, a guy called Carl Robie, and he was the person I actually thought was going to win it.

So, I picked the winner and I was able to swim directly against him knowing that, if I was in contact with his pace, I would win a medal. Luckily, the race turned out the way I’d imagined it; it all went according to this plan that I had in my head. I can still even now vividly remember all of the details of it. The three Americans in it false-started; now, whether they did that deliberately to try and put people off, or it was just a twist of fate, I don’t know.

But I can remember, at that instant, thinking, “You boys are more frightened of this than I am”. I can remember thinking, “There are two Russians in the race. They are on the far side of the pool. They are going to be out of this race. They are not going to be in the action straight away”. So, all of the tactics and the actual race I can still see in my mind, now.

Then, I swam the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and I look at that Games as both disappointing and very successful. I didn’t win a gold medal, I won a silver medal again, and an individual bronze medal. But the highlight for me is still probably the second best moment of my swimming career, the men’s 4x100 medley relay. We got a bronze medal. It’s the only time we have ever beaten England and, of course, that will always live in my memory. It’s not painful winning, the pain only shows when you lose a race! Obviously, there are a lot of demands in terms of the training and the physical exertion in the race. I can remember being incredibly tired at the end of the Olympic final, but who worries when you’ve got a medal around your neck! Most of the physical pain comes in the preparation, not actually in the race.


I am a proud Welshman! In my garage I have the three Welsh flags – the dragon, Owain Glyndŵr and St David’s flag. I know the history of my sport in Wales, and am very, very proud to be Welsh. Everyone recognises that when you are swimming in an Olympic Games, you are swimming for Great Britain. But there is a secondary thing of “I’m also representing my home country”, and I think it is fair to say that the Scots and the Welsh recognise swimming for their home country more than the English swimmers who just seem to equate swimming for Great Britain as being the same as swimming for England. We know that is not the case.

setting high targets

The achievements in Beijing were phenomenal. I just think the hard thing will be maintaining that through to London and seeing if we can maintain it in the following Olympics. We are now setting ourselves very, very high targets and I think it’s fair to say that Britain, not just in one or two sports, that we are becoming a sporting nation. We’ve always wanted to be good, and now we are becoming very good and I think to sustain it will be a really big challenge for us. The Government’s decision to use lottery funding to help people to train full-time, and to bring in coaching expertise, and sports science, and all the other things that go with it, was essential. We spent, I think, a period of four years catching up the rest of the world and we are now reaping the benefits. We’ve still got a long way to go because American swimming is still incredibly strong, as is Australian. So, you know, we are not home, but the lottery funding has made a huge difference.

I think London 2012 will also make a difference. Every country that’s ever hosted a home Games improves. For me, the test will be whether we can maintain it in 2016. And the other big test, I think, for certainly British swimming and maybe across other sports, is that we have brought in a lot of expertise from Australia, and from America. When these people go back home, we must’ve made sure that we’ve developed our own coaches, we’ve developed our own people, so that we can appoint first class Welsh people to Welsh jobs, first class British people to British jobs. And I think that that’s one of the big strategic challenges that we’ve got.

There were four swimmers that won medals in Beijing Olympics – Rebecca Adlington, David Davies, Cassie Patten and Keri-Anne Payne. Now, I believe that, at this moment in time, there are six swimmers, and that’s not including the ones I’ve just mentioned, another six swimmers, that are capable of winning medals. So, I think we should be optimistic. And certainly, you know, why not aim at that level, why not? I’d rather aim at eight gold medals and only get six than aim at three and come away with two.


I think the Paralympics has got a slightly different challenge, because, as a country, we have led the way in Paralympic sport. We’ve always had a good medal take-up at the Paralympic Games. I think other nations are starting to catch us up, now. So, the reverse will be true: it won’t be, as far as I’m concerned, a sign of failure if we win less medals in the Paralympics because the rest of the world is starting to take the Paralympics much more seriously. So, theirs won’t be so much about winning more medals, it will be about trying to maintain where they currently are. And even, as I said, if they win slightly fewer medals, we shouldn’t think of that as a failure. I’m sure we’ll be okay for London 2012, but it might be a slightly different picture in 2016.

I think the great thing from a Welsh point of view is the high profile of Paralympians amongst Welsh people. We’ve got Tanni Grey-Thompson, we’ve got David Roberts, we’ve got Gareth Duke. These are people we recognise, and they are Welsh people. And, then, we’ve got the little girl, Ellinor Simmons, who’s from England, from Warwickshire, but trains in Wales, so again, she’s recognised as being part and parcel of Welsh swimming.

from swimmer to coach

It’s not the same buzz as doing it yourself, but there’s a definite pride if you have made a contribution to someone else winning a medal. So, the buzz is different, but it’s still there.

You can swim for Wales if you have Welsh parents. So, you could be born in England, but as long as one of your parents is Welsh, you’re eligible to swim for Wales. In that situation, when they come in for their first training camp, we make sure they are sharing rooms with Welsh people, Welsh-speaking swimmers; we make sure they know the words of the Welsh National Anthem; they are not allowed to say ‘Good morning’, ‘Good afternoon’ and ‘Good evening’; it has to be ‘Bore da’, ‘Prynhawn da’ and ‘Nos da’; and we also make sure they know a little about the culture of Wales, so they know the difference between the Welsh flag, Owain Glyndŵr, and they know what St David’s cross is, because it’s my belief that, if they want to swim for Wales, they must passionately want to swim for Wales.

They are not here to swim for Wales because they weren’t good enough for England. We try to insist on that level of commitment to the country.

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