OLYMPIAN Melanie Nocher says that Irish swimming could not be in a better place ahead of the first Commonwealth Games qualifying meet this weekend, the Dave McCullagh Memorial Gala in Bangor's 50m Aurora Centre.
Nocher, a top international swimmer and 2011 European bronze medallist, is now working for Swim Ireland and in particular their new Swim For A Mile programme which has encouraged hundreds to take up the sport.
Having left the sport in 2012, the 25-year-old admits that she would have relished starting her career at this point such is the overall backing for Irish swimmers a decade on from when she was starting to make waves as the youngest member of Ireland's 2003 European short course championships squad.
Nocher said: "I remember when I was starting off and going to swim in a 50m pool was something special – you had to travel for two and a half hours but now it's on the door step of everyone.
"The investment in swimming from the Irish Sports Council is fantastic.
"The sport has changed a lot because now we have physios, nutritionists, there are regular training camps and I think we are at a point where we have caught up with the rest of the world.
"There's not a lot more that can be done in terms of facilities and support so I believe that the sport will only get better and we can look forward to some great years for Irish swimming.
"The teams going to international meets are increasing in size all the time and if you look at the Olympics, we had two in Athens, three in Beijing and four at London so everything seems to be moving in the right direction.
"We have some great young prospects but also right across the board of ages. You have Sycerika McMahon and Fiona Doyle and Dan Sweeney consistently producing good performances and then there is this group of 12, 13 and 14-year-olds such as Conor Ferguson and Antoinette Neamt – and these guys are now growing up with resources behind them that I would have loved.
"When you consider the size of our country I think we do very well in producing top international athletes.
"You have to be realistic when you look at the size of America and China for example. I would definitely say that we have a greater depth in quality than before."
Nocher admits she resisted the temptation of making a comeback for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer and is instead continuing to develop a new career, with the Swim For A Mile campaign taking up most of her time.
Nocher said: "Swim Ireland's Swim For A Mile campaign training programme is for anyone over 18 to sign up for. It's about getting people back into the sport, to enjoy it and have fun and we've had a great response.
"The Challenge starts on March 31 in Cork, then it goes to Limerick and Galway and then up to Bangor for April 3 and finishes in Dublin on April 4.
"It's a programme that takes people from zero to hero and already we are seeing it make a big difference in the lives of people.
"It's genuinely changing their lives because many of them have kids and now they are taking time for themselves – they're feeling better, feeling healthier and losing weight.
"Those who sign up have their own programme set out by Swim Ireland but also at Bangor there is free coaching with a Swim Ireland coach, on Tuesday 8-9pm, Thursday 7-8am and Saturday 6-7pm.
"It's been such a success that we are looking to expand it next year," Nocher added.
While she insists "swimming is my passion", the Irish backstroke record holder is adamant that her future remains away from the competitive side of the sport.
"You are always tempted to make a comeback and when I looked at the Commonwealth Games qualifying time I was tempted to come back but I made a clean break when I retired and I was determined to stick by it," she added.
"Now I feel that I have the best of both worlds because I'm developing a career and I'm involved in swimming. I love going around to the various centres and giving the Swim For A Mile people some tips and as an Olympic athlete you get a great response."
* THE Swim Ireland Dave McCullagh Memorial Gala takes place at Bangor Aurora Aquatic & Leisure Centre this weekend from tomorrow to Sunday.
Heats are 9.45am-12.30pm each day with finals and medal presentations tomorrow and Saturday from 5.30pm-7.30pm and Sunday from 4.30pm-6.30pm.