Wednesday, 14 November 2012

State of the nation: British Swimming

London 2012. The British nation came together like never before and celebrated their incredible sporting success. Riding high in the medal tables, punching above their weight, the team came through on the biggest stage, under the brightest spotlight. However, one sport was conspicuous in its absence of national heroes. Swimming.

What Went Wrong?

The British team called all the shots prior to the Olympics, they held their first trials in the Olympic pool and had access to the pool before the games for a training camp. They had the support of a vociferous home crowd, the importance of which we were constantly reminded of from swimmers, coaches, team management and commentators in the build up to the games. All of this, however, was not enough to drive the team onto the kind of successes achieved in other sports such as Cycling, Rowing, Athletics, Equestrian and Boxing.

The numbers paint an unpleasant picture

The British team had a highly encouraging trials in March. Had they made the steps forward that other nations did from their trials the medal table would have looked a lot healthier. This is a serious problem. Coaches need to go away and have a hard look at their training regimes. Their job is to to put athletes in a position to perform at their absolute peak on the biggest occasions and this didn't happen. The blame for such a wide-scale slow down from March to August lies squarely on British Swimming and the home coaches.

The most likely result of the current review into British swimming will be to move trials for major championships much closer to the event. This works for the US, the challenge will be implementing it successfully in a nation with a smaller talent pool to dip into. One hopes that this isn't the only major change that is made.

Further reasons have been highlighted for the under-performance:

Not enough race practice beforehand - This does make sense, although tell that to the Loughborough swimmers who raced the Mare Nostrum tour shortly before the Olympics.
Head coach Dennis Pursley not being British - Having a coach that understands the British swimming environment is solid reasoning. Nobody can doubt Dennis Pursley's credentials, but he wasn't able to transfer his success in the US to Britain. The collegiate system and US Grand Prix circuit offer something entirely different to what we have in the UK. If Pursley truly believed that the US model is the most robust in world swimming, he should have tried to move the GB system closer to it by improving the competitive aspect of university swimming and increasing the number of domestic meets attracting top talent from Europe and further afield.
Michael Scott, the performance director, spending too much of his time in his native Australia - The role of performance director is crucial to the nation's successes in the pool. At the very least it is full-time job, it doesn't seem like to ask for the incumbent to be based full-time in Britain. Ultimately Scott's reputation lives and dies by the his results at the Olympics, that is the reality of our sport. In London he did not deliver enough to keep his job.

The Men

The men's team haven't been GB's strength for some time now but London unearthed a new star in Michael Jamieson. The 24 year old Scot should be a medal contender in major championships for years to come, although he does face strong competition from Daniel Gyurta and new world record holder Akihiro Yamaguchi (who wasn't in London).

There are a number of talented British youngsters coming through, several gaining valuable experience in London. With the retirement of a number of team regulars, men's swimming in Britain is now hugely reliant on these swimmers to make the jump to the next level and vying for international medals.

The Women

London 2012 was tailor-made for the British women to deliver strong results. Four years had passed since Rebecca Adlington became a household name and raised the bar for swimming in this country. Britain came to the Olympics with a strong stable of medal hopes, and significantly, international success from a number of swimmers in the intervening years. They just needed to kick on from that success in front of a home crowd.

Six major prospects weren't able to match their earlier form from 2012. Why did that happen? Was the pressure of making the team so great, that it became counter productive and ended up surpassing the main job at hand?

The Review

Now comes the inquest into the team’s failure. It is a curious group of individuals. Registering highest on the curiosity scale is the aforementioned Michael Scott. The decision to allow the performance director to judge his own credentials is an odd one. You can’t help but think when Scott’s own performance is reviewed, there will be a muffled Australian voice in the background saying ‘he did fine, move on’.

Also on the panel, Thomas Lurz. A tremendous open water swimmer, tremendous character, but an expert on a nations open water programmes? We will have to see. Conor O’Shea, the director of rugby at Harlequins and former national director of the English Institute of Sport, is also on the panel. He’s been called upon for his knowledge of sport science, medicine and coaching.

A late addition to the review board was Bob Bowman. Bowman is the biggest name in coaching and his presence does add some gravitas to the panel, but this is also the same man that only coaches American swimmers at NBAC, a new found passion to improve British Swimming is odd.


The panel will come to it’s own conclusions, but for me the key problem was a mental one.

Frank Busch, head coach of the US team, made a telling statement after the Olympics. Referring to the team's viral 'Call Me Maybe' video he stated, "When I saw the video, I knew we were going to be good." This level of confidence is instilled at all levels of US Swimming and it filters down to the team, inspiring them to take their performance to a new level. The US were favourites as they often are and weren't burdened by the weight of expectation. This can't simply be explained by the collegiate system or increased competition.

This level of confidence also cannot be simply attributed to being an 'American thing'. The British cycling team has it. The British rowing team has certainly has it. Rowers Zack Purchase and Mark Hunter were inconsolable after their silver medal, breaking down in tears on live television because they came for gold and ended up with silver.

Ultimately the question the review will need to address is whether the top brass of British Swimming instill the same level of confidence in the British swimmers as their rowing and cycling counterparts? If they do not, then changes need to be made. Although British swimming is in a much better place than in the early 2000s, it has also enjoyed huge funding recently, enough to expect returns on a scale of Britain's more successful sports in London.


  1. If the blame is on the coaches, then why do I only see the names of the swimmers?

  2. If I understand the "blame comments", the same coaches who were able to place swimmers on the team, were somehow responsible for the poor performances at the Olympics? Suggest that your Trials was at least as high pressure as the Olympics - and that the people responsible for scheduling Trials in March for Olympics in August are the one's to name and to blame. The US team effectively "raced into speed" - building on their Trials experience at the Games.

    March to August is insane - If Trials had been run in late June - you might have had some different names on the team - and the overall performance would have been better.

    Your management level needs to be sacked.