Swimming: Coach's vision helps Guildford make a splash

Resurgent club that won 'The Independent' Charity Auction is aiming to provide half a dozen swimmers for London Olympics
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The Independent Online

When Richard Garfield took over as head coach in 1998, Guildford City Swimming Club was, he says, "bankrupt financially, at a low ebb competitively, haemorrhaging swimmers – truly a third-division club".

Today, Guildford, winners of The Independent Charity Auction prize of having a report about their club in these pages, are an emerging powerhouse of the sport, with hopes of providing half a dozen competitors at the 2012 Olympics, and Garfield, leading a 28-strong staff of coaches and teachers, has just overseen a move into a new 50m pool.

The pool is part of Surrey Sports Park, a new £36m facility at the University of Surrey that also hosts Guildford Heat basketball and is the training base for Harlequins rugby. The pool alone cost £9m, but, with Guildford's help, the reward should be a much-improved university swimming team.

"The vision was always a strategic partnership, where we would hire the pool but also help build, develop and then coach a first-class university team, to make Surrey University competitive," Garfield said. "They were definitely going to build a swimming pool, but we may have influenced their decision about a 50m one.

"I've been speaking to them since 1998 about a university team. In the South-East, you have a big attrition rate with people going off to university. You make a big investment in these kids as swimmers only to find that Loughborough, Bath, Stirling or even American universities get the benefit." But while the club's elite now have access to an Olympic-standard facility, the former base at the nearby Spectrum Leisure Centre has been retained, with the spare capacity allowing for expansion.

"We're up to about 700 members now," John Ingram, the chairman of the committee, said. "Our target is to develop the university and our high-performance squads so that we can push into the top three in the country, but we also want to raise the general standard of swimming, and we're attracting a lot of disabled swimmers. It has become a complete top-to-bottom swimming club – kids right through to Masters. The challenge is to keep it financially viable."

It is a far cry from the day in 1997 when Garfield was persuaded to get involved, becoming head coach a year later. "The then-committee's ambition was survival," he recalled. "But my ambition was fired by the Spectrum, which was four years old, an awesome, state-of-the-art leisure centre. This was a sleeping giant, almost a no-brainer. If we did the best job we could and had some luck and success, I was sure swimmers would want to join us."

A new committee emerged, which now boasts a team of all talents, including lawyers, bankers and even a musician – Gary Langan, a founder member of Art of Noise.

If the success is judged by the performance of the club's elite, then so far, so good. "Marco Loughran, who has been with us since he was nine, represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games and made three finals, came fourth in the 100m backstroke, and will probably be in the Great Britain Olympic team," Garfield said. "We have aspirations for Rachael Solway, who left us this year for Loughborough, and we have four athletes within the squad at the moment who we are targeting for 2012, although it's a tough road."

You sense that the committee would be equally proud to reach its membership target of 850, "and to cater to all capabilities", in Ingram's words. But the ambition that has driven Guildford was still there as he added: "And some of the 11-year-olds are already busting Marco's times."