Swimming chief Reid expects £38m complex to inspire future stars
For some it has been a lifetime waiting for such a facility to arrive in Northern Ireland and for others such as Andy Reid it is the challenge of a lifetime to turn the 50m aquatic complex in Bangor into a factory of champions.
Looking around at the freshly plastered walls, wading through the thick mud and making sure not to trip over the scaffolding and into the Olympic-sized pool below, you do get a sense that a new dawn is about to break for swimming in Northern Ireland.
Local swimming officials, coaches and the competitors are rightly excited and relieved that the £38m state of the art structure survived the cull of the money initially trumpeted from the rooftops by Lord Coe at Hillsborough Castle.
We were meant to have a mouthwatering London 2012 Olympic legacy of new facilities for basketball, tennis, sailing et al but we were left with just one — namely Bangor's impressive Aurora complex which will be utilised to the maximum, starting on March 23 when it opens to the public.
For Reid, Swim Ireland's Ulster High Performance boss and a former Irish record holder, it is a beacon on the swimming landscape which he believes can lead the way to a new ethos surrounding the sport which over the past decade has had international medal success through the likes of Andrew Bree, Melanie Nocher, Bethany Firth and Sycerika McMahon.
Both Bree and Nocher knew they had to leave in order to raise their game to the highest level — as did World and Commonwealth Games swimmers Julie Douglas, Michael Williamson and Clare Dawson to name a few. That is something Reid wants to change.
Reid said: “I believe we have the facilities and the support structure to attract our athletes to stay, that's not to say that they won't go away but ideally we want them to stay.
“The way I look at it, our athletes need supported as much as possible and if they're in a home programme they'll receive better individual support than they would in a programme in the UK or America.
“The argument might be that they have more competition if they go abroad, a higher standard of training partners but we want to try and develop that environment and culture here so the athletes have competition within the training set-up. A few of our top athletes such as Bethany Carson have committed to training here this year.
“Having this facility changes everything for us. Firstly it's going to provide long course training weekly rather having to drive to Dublin or Limerick or go abroad... competition wise it provides long course competition which then provides, for example, our young swimmers better preparation for the Irish long course championships. That's the way they do it in Leinster, they have their championships and they go into the national championships at the NAC.
“We always thought one day this would happen and now it is here we believe that even just training here will inspire the kids — it's like the quote from the movie Field of Dreams, ‘Build it and they will come’. There are no guarantees in anything but I think long term we will be developing a programme to make top swimmers.”
Bangor swimming club will make their move into the club from the local leisure centre and along with the north Down outfit the Ulster squads as well as the public will use the water which can be split into three 25m pools — in addition to the 25m diving pool.
Swim Ulster's offices will also be based at the new complex which it is hoped will stage European events featuring the cream of Northern Ireland talent and Reid is determined to have a structure in place to match any in the UK and Europe.
“You could bring a European junior championships and a European short course event here,” he added.
“In 2003 the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin held the European short course championships and the aspiration is to hold something like that every five years here, at least bid for them. Swim Ulster can also run their own long course event and invite UK swimmers and at the right time of year you can attract some top swimmers.
“Leading up to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 it's obviously going to be a big benefit to the swimmers and of course the World championships this summer and the Commonwealth Youth Games.
“One of the biggest challenges is to get support needed through universities and we want both our universities to be involved, so the swimmers can have flexibility around their studies, the right strength and conditioning and sports psychology.
“Being able to say to athletes these links have been developed, and this can be offered to you, such as slow tracking degrees — instead of doing it over three years they can do it over five or six years — this is all very important.
“For me personally it’s very exciting and there’s a little anxiety — just like when you take to the blocks to compete.”