British hope transformed by Aussie who walks on water

Sometimes brutal, always effective, Bill Sweetenham has rejuvenated Britain's chances of swimming medals. Nick Harris reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bill Sweetenham nearly lost a leg after falling from the back of a moving van in Germany in 1983. He smashed into a traffic sign, came to rest at the side of the road, and then, dazed and bleeding, he tried to stand up.

He couldn't. His left leg was embedded in the ground. He pulled it out and his foot and ankle flopped backwards towards his knee, "held on to the leg by a tiny bit of flesh".

Twelve hours of emergency surgery saved the limb - and Sweetenham's life - and from that day forward, he says, he has been a "nicer", less obsessive, person.

"If he's not obsessed now, God knows what it must have been like when he was," says a swimmer who has worked under him in recent times. "I can't believe there's another coach who dictates so comprehensively every aspect of his athletes' lives, in or out of the sporting arena."

Prior to the accident, only one thing mattered: the success of the Australian swimming team he coached and with whom he was touring Germany. Since the accident, Sweetenham, now 54, has built a reputation as one of the world's greatest swimming motivators. It has been Britain's good fortune that he became the technical director of the nation's swimming team in November 2000.

The no-nonsense Queenslander, named three times the Australian Coach of the Year, worked with his home nation's swimming team at four Olympic Games. He has personally coached 27 different individuals who have won one or more world or Olympic gold medals.

His methods have been variously described as brutal, quirky, madcap, fearsome and inspirational. After his infamous, intensive training camps, it is not uncommon for his charges to be physically incapable of anything but bed rest.

"Mentally and physically, you're in a dark little hole," says one. "You wonder how you'll ever recover. But you do, and however hard it's been, it's working."

Sweetenham's results in Britain are astounding. From the low of no medals of any colour in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 the British team under Sweetenham is enjoying unprecedented performance at all levels: at national (19 records at one meet alone), European (short course and long course success), Commonwealth (37 medals in Manchester in 2002) and world (eight medals in Barcelona last year, two of them gold). Now comes the biggest test of all, the Olympic Games, which will determine quite how close he is to putting the long-misplaced Great back into Great Britain's swimming.

"Attitude is everything and winning is the only considered option," is one mantra of Sweetenham, who makes no secret of his belief that Olympic success, above all else, should be a swimmer's aim and motivation.

"Train well today and every day," he writes in the mandatory "team pledge" that every member of his staff and every swimmer under his control has been obliged to sign. "Each day is an Olympic preparation day."

He means it, and in spades. Immediately after the gruelling national championships (which doubled as the Olympic trials) in Sheffield in April, Sweetenham took his squad to Dunkirk to compete in the French national championships. The small mercy was he didn't make them swim the Channel.

He did, however, deliberately billet them in a hotel across the border in Belgium, despite plenty of accommodation options near the French venue. The rationale? Athens traffic. He wanted his team to spend at least 45 minutes on a bus each way, each day, because that is what they might face in Greece.

Athens has been the only show in town ever since Sweetenham took over. In Manchester his swimmers were pinching themselves as they amassed 11 golds, 10 silvers, 16 bronzes, a world record, two European records, 12 Games records and 12 British records. No doubt some were looking forward to a small celebratory tipple.

Yet Sweetenham, aware that Britain's swimmers had a partying reputation at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where they won no medals of any colour, had already banned boozing, late nights and any other behaviour deemed detrimental to his goal.

At 4am the morning after the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony, he required 13 of his swimmers to be on a bus to Heathrow, from where they flew to the Greek national championships, not an event usually in their schedule. He wanted them to get "race tough" against new opposition, and in Athens to boot, to get a taste of the city, two years ahead of this summer's Games. Members of that party included Melanie Marshall, James Gibson and Darren Mew, who all enter this summer's Olympics as medal hopes.

"There's been a lot of talk about Britain's recent success being down to me," Sweetenham says. "That's not true. It's the swimmers themselves who have been responsible. The credit belongs to them. They've had open minds and worked very hard."

He is evidently fond of understatement. Early in Sweetenham's tenure, Gibson was not alone in being told in front of team-mates that he needed to up his work rate. He was told to forget 25,000 metres in the pool per week. Sweetenham wanted nearer 50 miles. Gibson and team-mates complied.

These days they don't flinch at even the most arduous tasks. At one session Gibson, a 100m breaststroker, thought a knee injury might allow him to miss training. No chance. Instead, he was told to race 400m at full tilt, unthinkable for a sprint specialist. He was given flippers and told to swim with his legs together so as not to hurt his knee with the usual circular kicking motion.

Punishing training is the norm. Ditto early mornings, long days and a total disregard for excuses. Sweetenham has been known to ask female swimmers, at the end of exhausting days, to get back in the pool and race against the men. At a recent camp in Cyprus, every member of his squad spent at least seven hours a day in the pool. Pre-race massages have long been banned. "I don't want you in the comfort zone," he told one early - now reformed - dissenter.

Full-length body suits have been banned in all but the most prestigious competitions. Sweetenham wants his athletes to excel without technical advantages, so that with them, when it matters, they will do even better. A ban on body shaving has been used for the same reason.

Sweetenham has no time for the idea that people should rely on the big occasions to help raise their game. His aim is that, come the Olympics, if they swim a couple of per cent below their peak they will still be medal contenders. Much has been made of Sweetenham's tough attitude. In one press conference in 2002 he told the media, in front of his swimmers, that recent performances had been "abysmal" and the Commonwealth Games had left some of them "arrogant" and possessed of "too much self-gratification".

Harsh, yes, but even some of the squad knew it was true. Sweetenham detests the notion that he is a bully. Those close to him testify that he is not a ranter and raver, not at his swimmers at least. He delegates via his coaching staff and gets what he wants via them. "The coach is not the swimmer's friend," is one motto. But then another favourite saying is: "Don't criticise the swimmer, criticise the fault." He does not set out to undermine people or shower them with personal abuse. He simply believes in the relentless application of his own work ethic, at all times, but especially the right times. No excuses.

Mark Foster, a former 50m freestyle world record holder and a silver medallist at last year's World Championships, discovered that at April's Olympic trials. Sweetenham had laid down stringent qualifying criteria, saying that only swimmers who clocked times as good as the world's top 12 could go to Greece. Foster, a four-time Olympian, missed the plane to Athens by 0.05 seconds.

Sweetenham looked on from the stands, where every moment of action was carefully noted. "So Mark's definitely not going?" asked a journalist immediately. "Mark's a nice guy, a great athlete, and a real competitor when he gets it right," Sweetenham replied, with no trace of malice. "But what's he going to say to the Athens organisers if he doesn't do it on the day there? 'Can we come back again tomorrow?' There's only one chance at the Olympics." Then he shrugged.

For the squad whowill be in Athens, Sweetenham evidently has high hopes. He will not be drawn to predict any medallists but in a meeting shortly before his team left for their pre-Games holding camp, it was clear he has faith they will not let him down.

"I believe the British swimming team will be the best-prepared team, in any sport, from any nation, at the Olympics," he said. "They've done an outstanding job getting themselves ready. This is the hardest that I've ever seen a team work, and I've seen the Australians.

"We've had to improve at a rate faster than the rest. We're coming from a position of no medals at the last Olympics. [But] this is a team that's raised its level of expectation and I'm extremely proud of them."

Ever careful to tell it like he sees it, no gloss, he added that his team will be trying to win medals "against the odds". He even cited statistics that show that a rookie Olympian such as Marshall, despite her No 1 world ranking in the 200m freestyle, has only a 10 per cent chance of winning in her first Games.

He was not simply getting his excuses in early. Nor just trying to take the pressure off. His stated aim is that every swimmer in an individual event will make their final, that the team has "strong podium representation", and that every relay team will finish in the top six.

"This team are doers and fighters, I have as much faith in them as I have ever had in any," he says. "You know," he adds, bringing his hands up to chest level, cupping them briefly around some imaginary treasure, looking at his fingers as if he need say no more in explanation. "It's all about trying to build..." He pauses. "Something special."

BRIT PACK SIX SWIMMERS TO FOLLOW

MELANIE MARSHALL

Age: 22.

Born: Boston, Lincs.

Club: Loughborough Uni.

Main event in Athens: 200m freestyle.

World ranking in main event: No 1.

Self-proclaimed: Mad, sensitive, misunderstood.

Favourite saying: "What if all your fears and dreams existed in the same place, would you still go there?"

When Mel Marshall climbed from the pool in Ponds Forge, Sheffield, after another record-breaking swim at the Olympic trials in April, her first words, to a poolside camera crew, were: "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm trying not to vomit." The scene was Bill Sweetenham's reign in microcosm. Unflinching commitment. Desire. Giving your all for the cause. The trials had earned her wins in the finals of the 100m freestyle (in a British record 54.62sec) and in her favoured event, the 200m freestyle, in a British record of 1min 57.51sec, which was good enough to move her to No 1 in the world over the distance this year. "Two years ago I grew up a little bit," she says. "I got a kick up the backside, and it's been tough under Bill but we've got a great group of athletes. It's like a Ferrari - we're the car and he's the driver."

DAVID DAVIES

Age: 19.

Born: Cardiff.

Club: City of Cardiff.

Main event in Athens: 1,500m freestyle.

World ranking in main event: No 3.

Self-proclaimed: Laid-back, good humoured, determined.

Favourite saying: "'Ave it!"

As a 17-year-old at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Davies improved his personal best over 1,500m by a staggering 50 seconds to propel himself from junior squad member to Olympic dreamer. He did not win a medal but says: "My training and outlook became more professional. It completely took over my life. I have been utterly focused on making the Olympic team ever since." He came fourth in last year's World Championships and set a British record of 14min 57.93sec at the Olympic trials. Coached by Dave Haller, who helped David Wilkie and Duncan Goodhew to Olympic gold.

KATY SEXTON

Age: 22.

Born: Portsmouth.

Club: Portsmouth Northsea.

Main event in Athens: 200m backstroke.

World ranking in main event: No 4 (and current world champion).

Self-proclaimed: Positive, motivated, matured.

Favourite saying: "Remember when times are tough, you are tougher."

A member of the Sydney Olympic squad who returned home with no medals of any colour, but the career of Sexton, transformed under Sweetenham, reached its peak when she won 200m backstroke gold and 100m silver in last year's World Championships in Barcelona. Suffers from asthma but confident that the Athens smog won't derail her ambitions. "After Sydney we needed a big turnaround and that's what Bill did. It's put us back on track. He's brought a different culture to British swimming through his background and knowledge, and his tough regime has worked for us. I'm more positive and I can take anything thrown at me now."

DARREN MEW

Age: 24.

Born: Newport, IOW

Club: University of Bath.

Main event in Athens: 100m breaststroke.

World ranking in main event: No 2.

Self-proclaimed: Determined, competitive, happy

Favourite saying: "If they do 20, we're doing 30."

Mew, one of a quartet of exceptional British men's breaststrokers, won the 100m at the Olympic trials, where he set a British and Commonwealth record of 1min 0.02sec. Ranked No 2 in the world at the distance, ahead of fellow Brits James Gibson (the world No 4, who won world gold last year in the 50m, a non-Olympic event) and Chris Cook, the world No 9. Mew and Gibson are the hopes in Athens in the 100m. Cook and world 200m silver medallist Ian Edmond, ranked No 11 and No 6 respectively in the 200m, are the hopes in the longer event. Mew says: "It's been so motivating with everyone doing well around me."

REBECCA COOKE

Age: 21.

Born: Crawley.

Club: City of Glasgow.

Main event in Athens: 800m freestyle.

World ranking in main event: No 7.

Self-proclaimed: Tenacious, thoughtful, friendly.

Favourite saying: "Be the best you can in everything."

Cooke, a double gold medallist in the 400m and 800m freestyle at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, won bronze in the longer event at last year's World Championships and then gold in the Olympic trials, where she also won 400m individual medley gold and 400m silver. She is also the British record holder over 1,500m. "My coach is Australian so I'm used to that way of thinking," she says of Sweetenham's "tough love" regime. "I found it easier to adjust to Bill's ethos than others on the team but everyone is going in the same direction and everyone is so positive."

STEVE PARRY

Age: 27.

Born: Liverpool.

Club: Stockport Metro.

Main event in Athens: 200m butterfly.

World ranking in main event: No 4.

Self-proclaimed: Big, lively, affable.

Favourite saying: "The only easy day was yesterday."

Parry, a wise-cracking Liverpudlian Olympic veteran, was part of the team who returned empty-handed from Sydney with recriminations ringing in their ears. He is quick to acknowledge Sweetenham's influence, warts and all, and not only in helping him achieve his potential. "Regardless of how we do I'll look back and think what an incredible journey. A lot is said about the tough regime but nothing in life worth achieving comes easily. You have to see what British swimming has achieved over the past four years, the results speak for themselves, and I'm sure we'll carry it forward to the Olympics."

Comments