Bill Sweetenham: No one ever came to me and said "Bill, you pushed me too hard"

The Australian coach once accused of bullying is being lauded for creating a sea change in attitude and achievement. Simon Turnbull talks to the revivalist of British swimming
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It is breakfast time at the Didsbury House Hotel, and Bill Sweetenham is in apologetic mood. "I'm sorry; we've just got back from training," the performance director of British Swimming says, proffering a hearty handshake and introducing his colleague Jodi Cossor, a fellow Australian.

The clock has not yet struck 9am but already Sweetenham and his sports science manager have put in a working shift. They have been to Stockport to assess the form of David Davies, the Commonwealth 1500m freestyle champion - Sweetenham with his expert eye from the pool deck, Cossor with the underwater camera equipment she uses to analyse stroke technique and biomechanical efficiency.

This is the side of Bill Sweetenham that does not tend to make it into the public arena, past the headlines portraying the miner's son from North Queensland as a fearsome Aussie tyrant, whipping British swimming into shape with a rod of iron. His most immediate concern is the European Championships, which open in Buda-pest tomorrow and run until next Sunday, and from which Davies will be absent, having lost too much background fitness since undergoing surgery on an infected foot. Still, Sweetenham is not one for ignoring the detail required for the bigger picture, such as making a first-hand check on the progress of one of Britain's major medal hopes for the Beijing Olympics.

It has been ever thus since Sweetenham swapped Australia's Gold Coast for England's East Midlands and his Loughborough-based post six years ago. Through all of the highs (the big medal hauls at the World Championships in 2001 and 2003 and the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and 2006) and the lows (the disappointing returns from the 2004 Olympics and the 2005 World Championships and the ultimately dismissed accusations of "bullying" levelled at him by swimmers reluctant to meet his demand of total commitment), nothing has deflected him from his long-term mission to raise British swimming high above its former depths down among Davy Jones's locker.

That locker, lest it be forgotten, was bare when Sweetenham took the helm in 2000. The Olympics in Sydney that year were the first without a medal for British swimmers since 1936. Six years on, at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March this year, British swimmers won 15 golds, just two fewer than their Australian hosts. "The Empire strikes back," The Age proclaimed. "Sweetenham transforms serial losers," another headline trumpeted.

The man from Mount Isa might have been quietly tickled by such praise, particularly coming from his homeland, where, as the head of swimming at the Australian Institute of Sport and head coach at four Olympic Games, he had much to do with giving Aussie aquatics its gold-topped reputation. For Sweetenham, though, his Britannic swimming empire remains a work in progress.

He has a contract to keep building it up to the 2008 Olympics, though he sees it as a structure for the London Games of 2012 and beyond, and is busy constructing it with the kind of painstaking, ultra-professional thoroughness that ought to put any fly-by-night £4m-a-year national football coach to shame. He has created élite training centres at Loughborough and Swansea (from which David Carry, Gregor Tait and Caitlin McClatchey emerged to bag Commonwealth doubles in March) and an "offshore" base at the Southport School in his native Queensland, where eight teenaged British hopefuls for 2012 board and train, and where the senior squad will prepare for next year's World Champ-ionships in Melbourne.

Then there is the first-class backroom team Sweetenham has assembled, leaning heavily on proven Aussie expertise such as that of Cossor, whom he lured from the Australian Institute of Sport. The support system has raised the level of British coaching to world class, and with it the standard of Britain's swimmers - a stunning achievement given the Third World facilities that still exist in the country. There are more 50-metre pools within a 10-mile radius of the Southport School than there are in the whole of Britain.

"The reason I came here was because I needed something to get me out of the comfort zone," Sweetenham says, setting his Eggs Benedict aside to consider the question of why he chose to leave swimming's land of plenty for the backwater of Britain. "I'd done every job in Australian swimming and I'd been comfortable in everything I'd done. I didn't know I was going to be this uncomfortable in Britain, but the challenges were great.

"The facts are when I leave I'm pretty certain, pretty hopeful, that I will leave a legacy for British swimming. I feel like I've changed the course of history for British swimming, and I think I'll leave a legacy for Britain that will take it further forward. In 10 years' time I'll look at it, and in my conscience and my heart I'll think, 'I made a difference; I actually turned something'.

"It wasn't easy, but there was no easy option in it. But because I was prepared to stick to my convictions, we turned British swimming into something that's powerful and responsive, that can address world swimming.

"It was my daughter's birthday yesterday and they had a huge party back home. It's those times that are the hard part. The good part is the opportunity to make a change to a nation's sporting culture, and I think we've done it."

The culture of British swimming has certainly moved on from the dark age of the year 2000, when Jonathan Edwards famously accused the aquatic squad of being more interested in partying than training at the preparation camp for the Sydney Olympics on the Gold Coast. The British swimmers at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March were a different breed: not serial losers but serial winners.

"If you'd asked me when I first came here what the difference was between an Australian athlete, not just swimmer, and a British athlete," Sweetenham reflects, "I would have said that, in the majority, the Australian athlete has bred into them a massive sense of pride and sense of duty.

"It's your responsibility to beat the New Zealanders. It's your responsibility to win Olympic medals.

"In Britain there was more a sense of, 'I want to make the team; I want to do a PB'. That was the hard part. That change had to take place.

"I think today that the British swimmer has a massive sense of pride and a massive sense of duty - to themselves number one, and to their country - that they've never had before. And that couldn't have happened unless they were willing partners. I couldn't force that. It had to evolve over time, with involvement in the team, with the buy-in from the coaches.

"That has been massive. The fact is at the Commonwealth Games the British swimmers could stand up and take the Australians to the last night of the meet."

At this point the Eggs Benedict are getting seriously cold, and the Joybringer section of the Planets Suite is playing over the sound system in the breakfast room. If Sweetenham has brought joy to British swimming, he has done it with the toughest of love.

Britain's 56-year-old performance director is a nuggety Queenslander who started his working life in the offices of Mount Isa Mines, who turned to coaching after failing to make the Aussie Olympic team as a swimmer, and whose left leg and life both hung by a thread when he fell from the back of a minibus and crashed into a German autobahn sign in 1983. When you have been raised in a mining community and survived a near-death experience, you tend not to call a spade an earth-moving implement.

"It's so strange that none of the athletes I coached in Australia - and let me tell you, I was a hard coach - ever came to me and said, 'Bill, you pushed me too hard; you demanded too much'," Sweetenham says, considering the subject of the harsh public image that does rough justice to his engaging blend of bluffness and inspiration. "So it was quite a different experience for me to see people thinking I was too hard.

"If I was too hard for Britain... it might have been the case. But when you go to the Olympics you're on your own and it's the toughest environment you've ever been in. It's hard. It's challenging. It's confrontational. Ninety-nine per cent of the world's athletes and coaches think they can prepare at a lower level and that it'll happen for them when they step up at the Olympics, by chance or luck or because they're a nice person. Well, I don't see that. I've never trusted luck or chance.

"If you don't prepare at the level you'll need to be at when you get to the Olympics you're not going to do anything there. I've tried to instil that. There's no forgiveness in the Olympic arena."

It will be the same in the European arena in Budapest this week. "The European Championships will be a much tougher meet than the Commonwealth Games," Sweetenham says. Aside from the strength of the Continental opposition, the British team will be without the absent Davies, while Chris Cook and Liam Tancock, two other Commonwealth golden boys, are attempting to make up for time lost to injuries. "Time is our enemy," the performance director says, leaning back in his chair, having finally polished off his breakfast. "Britain is about to realise that; 2012 can beat us if we don't accept it's a timeline that we have to meet. There's an urgency there that needs to be addressed."

Perhaps that could be the next challenge for Bill Sweetenham: taking on time. He has, after all, turned back the tide threatening to sink British swimming.

Life & Times: Making waves Down Under

NAME: William Sweetenham.

BORN: 23 March 1950, Rockhampton, Australia.

CAREER: Former head of swimming at Australian Institute of Sport. Australia's head coach at four Olympics and five Commonwealth Games. Also coach of Hong Kong and Australian national youth.

HIGHLIGHTS: Personal coach to nine world record holders and 27 medallists. Guided Tracy Wickham, whose World Championship 400m freestyle record has stood since '78.

IN BRITAIN: Performance director of British Swimming since Nov 2000. Contract ends after 2008 Olympics; 18 medals in three World Championships, matching tally in the previous eight. Two bronzes at 2004 Olympics.