Ex-champions Sharlene and James helping to drive Bangor revolution
Walking into Bangor Aurora I happened to mention to one of Northern Ireland’s current top swimmers that I was here to “interview Sharlene” and was greeted with the quizzical response, “oh the coach”.
Time waits for nobody but 25 years ago Sharlene Urry, nee Brown, just happened to be one of the best breaststrokers in the world.
Now after many years spent in England coaching and running her business Swim A Song, Sharlene along with husband Simon and her three daughters have returned home — living in Donaghadee and enjoying being part of the new coaching set-up at Bangor Swimming Club, working alongside another former Irish champion James Hand under the guidance of head coach Paul Dennis.
In 1992 Sharlene achieved a rare feat by an Ulster swimmer when becoming British champion, taking 200m breaststroke gold. It was done with a new Irish record and should have secured a place in the Barcelona Olympics but she went from such a great high to an awful low when her dream was crushed.
“Irish swimming would only fund two swimmers. Seven had done the time but they only took two to Barcelona. It was like a bereavement period for me. It affected me for a long time, I got a wee bit lost because swimming was my whole life,” said Sharlene, who celebrates her 45th birthday this Friday.
“My dad Cecil was out in Barcelona with Coca-Cola and he asked me did I want to come out and I said no, not unless I was on the team. He was in the Olympic Village and I wasn’t… I wasn’t myself for a while after that. I didn’t want to swim and then came back and swam alright but not to my potential.
“I went to the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and didn’t swim well. The training hadn’t gone well, I was burned out. I made the B final but pulled out because I was done — I should have been in the final and if I had gone to the Olympics I could have got a medal at the Commonwealths.”
The experience of her joy and pain in swimming is what Sharlene believes will enable her to help the Bangor kids follow their own dreams, in the same way legendary Irish coach Professor Keith Buchanan inspired her to become British champion.
“I can remember the race as if it was yesterday and my parents recently got it put from video to DVD and we have shown the kids and they were fascinated by it — they said I looked like their sister,” she said.
“Now I’m really enjoying the coaching at Bangor, the club is really moving forward — all we need is a major sponsor,” added Sharlene, whose daughters Amelia, Scarlett and Matilda are in the Bangor club along with Matthew Hand, son of fellow coach James.
James had to deal with his own major disappointment as after a highly successful junior career a cycling accident at 18 meant he was never quite the same again. Three years ago the 36-year-old returned to Bangor to coach, coincidentally just after Paul Dennis had come back to the club having spent time at the Australian Sports Institute.
Eager to make the club into a real force again within Irish swimming, Dennis — with the backing of a new committee — has put in place a new structure which James and Sharlene believe will pay off.
“I think we’re going to see the benefits of what we’re doing now in the years ahead. There’s a great atmosphere now in the club and we’re having more than one or two swimmers placing highly in the Irish Age Group championships,” said James, whose 11-year-old son Matthew lifted five gold medals at the Irish Age Groups last year.
“Paul Dennis has given us the platform to move forward, he has brought some great ideas back from Australia and we have a committee who listen to the coaches.”
Meanwhile, Bangor will be represented by five swimmers at the Scottish National championships next weekend — Jordan Sloan, David Graham, Jamie Graham, Conor Ferguson and Jack McMillan.