Swimming – “The National Swim Centre”
During the early 1970s there was widespread concern about falling standards in British sport and one of the solutions suggested was the establishment of “Centres of Excellence” to provide first class Coaching and Training for the country’s most talented sportsmen and women.
Around the same time, the S.A.S.A. was also putting together a scheme to produce Excellence. Both ideas developed independently of each other for a while, but in 1976 they were synchronised and resulted in the establishment of the National Swim Centre at Stirling University.
The creation of a National Squad, training on a regular basis, had been very successful in the lead up to the 1970 Commonwealth Games and so it was agreed to continue with the arrangement so during the early 1970s, John Hogg, the Technical Director of Swimming, organised regular Squad Training Days at The Mazy Erskine School, Edinburgh.
Both swimmers and coaches benefited from the sessions and Hogg realised that the next step was to run residential weekends.
Accommodation was not readily available in Edinburgh and so with help from Jack Queen he looked around for an alternative venue and in 1972 they moved to Stirling University, which had just opened a 25 metre swimming pool and had suitable Residential Accommodation.
It soon became clear to Jack Queen that the University had the potential to play a bigger role in Scottish swimming as the exodus of the country’s leading swimmers to North American universities was a growing problem for the Association in the early 1970s. David Wilkie (Warrender) and Jimmy Carter (Paisley) left for the States and Dundonians Debbie and Jackie Simpson went to Canada.
Partly in an attempt to stem the tide and partly to improve Scottish international swimming standards, Jack Queen, Ian Thomson, (Stirling University’s Director of Physical Recreation) and Ian Martin, (S.A.S.A. Treasurer), planned the development of a residential Centre of Excellence and they drew some of their ideas from the American system, in which sport and study were totally integrated. They proposed to attract students, who were first class swimmers, to the University by providing them with unlimited access to Training Facilities and first rate Coaching.
They also aimed to transfer the S.A.S.A. Administrative Headquarters from Glasgow and they envisaged the National Swim Centre as an integral part of the University, with the Director of Swimming as a member of the Physical Recreation staff and the Director of Administration with access to all the University’s support services such as computing, printing, etc. In August 1976, the Association moved to Stirling and a month later a Director of Swimming was appointed. The original ideas of merging the Association’s Administrative Services and the post of Director of Swimming into the mainstream University system never happened but even so the National Swim Centre was a reality.
At the same time as Jack Queen, Ian Thomson and Ian Martin were making their plans, the Government became concerned with the development of Excellence. Its interest was aroused by two developments. Firstly, complaints about some poor British athletic performances in the early 1970s and secondly by the findings of a study into Sport and Recreation by a Select Committee of the House of Lords in 1973. The study indicated that insufficient use was being made of Sports Facilities in Educational establishments.
In the debates which followed, it was suggested that selected Colleges and Universities might want to act as Centres of Excellence where talented sports people could undergo intensive training and coaching without jeopardising their career prospects. Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport, was instrumental in developing the idea and within two years the Sports Council was able to offer financial aid to the governing bodies to develop centres.
The Scottish Sports Council noted:
“The Sports Council is of the opinion that substantial additional resources are required to provide our British competitors with a better chance of competing with success in international events leading up to the Olympic Games. These resources include grants to governing bodies to … meet the costs of developing regional centres of excellence and to provide efficient back-up services in coaching, sports medicine and scientific evaluation of performance.”
Governing bodies required places in which to locate their Centres and this necessitated the development of a partnership with an appropriate Educational agency. The S.A.S.A. already had a partner and so it took advantage of the Grant Scheme and it was the only Scottish National Governing body that did. The rest showed little interest in establishing Centres of Excellence and so the Sports Council adopted other strategies to cope with their circumstances.
The Centre got off to a good start with the appointment of Dave Haller as the Association’s new Director of Swimming. He was one of the country’s most successful Coaches and had previously been employed as Club Coach at Cardiff and Southampton and had just returned from coaching the British team at the Montreal Olympics.
Three British internationalists followed him to Stirling: Richard Iredale, Gordon Hewit and Margaret Kelly and he appeared to act as a magnet to swimmers considering a University education and one or two were drawn to Stirling because of his presence. His small group of swimmers quickly settled down to their daily training and Haller started to plan an ambitious programme of Training and Competition.
Remarkably, within 14 months the Centre had lost its impetus and changed direction.
From being a full time Residential operation, it became a weekend enterprise. There were various interrelated reasons for the change, perhaps most significantly, Haller resigned in October 1977 to take up a coaching post at Beckenham S.C. He had been enticed away by a very attractive salary and just as some swimmers were thinking about moving to Stirling to live and work or study, one of the Centre’s biggest assets left.
The Association was unable to attract another coach of Haller’s calibre because the market price for their services was beyond its means and the Scottish Sports Council was unable to help because if it paid the going rate it might have created unrest amongst the other National Coaches.
There were additional problems as the University found it difficult to attract swimmers because it did not offer the Degree Courses which some were interested in and also because some potential students lacked the necessary academic entry qualifications.
On Hailer’s departure, Jack Queen stepped in as Interim Director and staff coaches were appointed to take responsibility for weekend training. Although the ideas generated by Queen and Thomson were never realised, both men had made a brave, sincere attempt to create conditions in which excellence could thrive. Unfortunately, the climate was not right for the development. Nevertheless, nothing had been lost.
The Centre was still in operation and it became the focal point for National Squad Training. Regular weekend work was arranged to supplement daily club sessions.