Wave-maker in at the deep end

The Bill Sweetenham interview: A pool shark from the Australian outback is turning the tide of British swimming
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He arrived here just as sport, like the weather, was blowing up a storm. The Football Association had installed a foreigner as the England football coach and while the appointment of Bill Sweetenham, swimming's wizard from Oz, may not be quite in the same headline-screeching league as that of Sven Goran Eriksson, we can be sure that he will make just as big a splash in his own particular pool.

He arrived here just as sport, like the weather, was blowing up a storm. The Football Association had installed a foreigner as the England football coach and while the appointment of Bill Sweetenham, swimming's wizard from Oz, may not be quite in the same headline-screeching league as that of Sven Goran Eriksson, we can be sure that he will make just as big a splash in his own particular pool.

Five hours on the runway at Edinburgh Airport and another five in the terminal after his plane had been diverted because of the rains was hardly the sort of welcome the new overlord of British swimming had anticipated. And coming from sport's land of plenty, where 50-metre pools are as commonplace as canals in Venice, the sight of the antiquated 25m set-up at Loughborough University, his working home for at least the next four years, must have been something of a culture shock.

Fortunately, he was quickly shown the blueprint for the new £7m state-of-the-art complex, complete with 50m pool, that will be ready within the next 18 months. By then Sweetenham hopes he will have waded through the ripples that his advent has already created.

His task is to yank British swimming's chin back above the water after it so nearly sank without a trace in Sydney. There, swimming, the only sport which sent a larger British contingent than to Atlanta four years ago, desperately underachieved compared to those who came back rattling the medals. So much so that David Sparkes, the outspoken chief executive of the Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain, admitted that he was on the brink of resigning. It was Sweetenham, already signed up to be the organisation's new performance director, who helped talk him out of it, telling him: "Britain needs to look at Sydney not from the point of what went wrong, but what we did right and how do we build on it for Athens in four years."

It is significant that Sweetenham, his nation's youth coach for five years and as Australian as a can of XXXX, was already talking of Britain in terms of "we". And that was how he was addressing a mass meeting of Britain's international swimmers and their coaches at Loughborough yesterday.

For most of them it was their first encounter with their new boss, and it must have been something of a culture shock. A more unlikely sporting guru is hard to imagine. I hope I am not being unkind - being of a similar girth - when suggesting that the 50-year-old Sweetenham's appearance falls somewhere between Frank Cannon and Gareth Chilcott. He is a bluff, in-your-face Aussie who hails from the same outback outpost as Greg Norman and Pat Rafter, Mount Isa on the borders of Queensland and the Northern Territory, halfway between Brisbane and Darwin. "And you can't get more outback than that," he says. "You played sport in Mount Isa to survive."

His credentials are impressive. Awesome almost. He has run the globally-admired Australian Institute of Sport as well as the one in Hong Kong and was, at 29, in charge of the Australian swimming team at the 1980 Olympics. Fifteen members of his youth squad, including a certain Ian Thorpe, were in the Sydney team, so he must have something going for him. Says Sparkes: "Had Don Talbot not hummed and hawed about staying on as [Australia's] head coach, Sweetenham would have been in the job by now. But Talbot's indecision gave us that window of opportunity."

Sweetenham takes over from Deryk Snelling, who left the unfortunate legacy of being at the helm of the first British swimming team since 1924 to emerge from an Olympics without a medal. "Sydney showed that our swimmers need to be mentally tougher," says Sparkes. "And Bill is the man to do it."

Acquiring Sweetenham is a coup which in its own way is as ambitious, controversial and revolutionary as the FA's installation of Eriksson. His contract may have nowhere near the number of noughts, but it is an annual package running well into six figures and one that brought a gulp or two from those responsible for Lottery funding, which is paying for most of it. Sweetenham is, outside of Eriksson, possibly the highest- paid head coach of any British sport - certainly any Olympic sport.

"It was a tough deal to negotiate," says Sparkes. "We needed someone to provide strategic leadership and everyone I met in Australia said to me, 'You've got the best coach in the world. We've made a big mistake in letting him go'. It wasn't an easy package to sell to the Lottery people, but we said that if you want the best, you have to pay the best. He has a four-year appointment but he will stay six. He wants to change things, and change them quickly."

Swimming's heavyweight does not look the sort to pull his punches. He is someone who believes in neither the short-term nor the short- course solution to swimming's problems, and has already made waves by declining to select the 50m sprint specialists for the European short- course championships next month. It is a decision which will not please the likes of Mark Foster and has already been branded as "discriminatory" by Zoë Baker, a breaststroke specialist and former European short- course gold and silver medallist.

Sweetenham explains: "Traditionally Great Britain have done well in short course, but short and long course don't relate. We have to focus on the 200m events. I have to change the psyche of both swimmers and coaches. The 200m has to be the final test, because from the 200 you can swim down to the 100 or 50, but if you focus on the 50 you can't swim up to the 100 or 200. So we have to change directions.

"We have to make some tough decisions. The next 12 months are probably going to be somewhat turbulent, a testing time for everybody, but if we don't change we have to settle for mediocrity, and breaking the chain of mediocrity is the greatest challenge."

During these 12 months Sweetenham intends to plough a lone furrow. He has teenage children, two at school in Australia and one just finishing a year's schooling here, but his wife will not be joining him for a year, "because I need the freedom to be on the road. I am a field officer not a bureaucrat". He has made it clear that one of his priorities will be to hire more foreign expertise. "Within two years we have to have the best-developed, best-prepared group of coaches in the world. This means bringing in from abroad and I'll look anywhere wherever the best are available, whether it is Europe, Australia or the USA. This is not an indictment of British coaches - we have some very good ones - but a stimulus to get them to challenge the highest peaks."

"Challenge" is a word which crops up often in the Sweetenham vocabulary. It was the prospect of a challenge, he says, which influenced his acceptance of the British offer. "It seemed to me there was a will to challenge world swimming, a will to make it happen which went along with my own philosophy. But it's going to be a 12-year minimum for any system we put in place at the lower levels to come through. Great Britain is a country where, unlike Australia, the US and now Holland, swimming is not part of the culture. We must change that. For every dollar Australia spend on swimming we spend far less. We are up against a nation where swimming isn't sport, it's a religious fervour. We have to do a better job with less money, less facilities and fewer swimmers. But I believe it can be done. My philosophy is do what you love, love what you do and deliver more than expected. "

Sweetenham, who played both codes of rugby, got into swimming "basically as a penalty for some misdemeanours I committed as a young person. My father put me to work teaching some handicapped kids to swim and I enjoyed it so much that it just grew into my career. I've had my fingers burned plenty of times and learned not to put them on the hotplate."

Here speaks a true Aussie, who likes his beer and his tucker. But swimming is also his meat and drink, and the sport here is certainly about to undergo a sea change with the arrival of the man with the shark's bite and an appetite for glory. "There is going to be some boat-rocking," promises Big Bill. "Let's hope I don't capsize it."