Ards SC say goodbye to pool that unearthed champions
It's the end of an era for Ards Swimming Club as last night they hosted the final gala in their William Street pool, out of which has come so many fine swimmers.
The pick of the bunch, the greatest Irish swimmer Andrew Bree was one of many Ards members past and present who took to the pool for one last time for a special goodbye to the Ards Leisure Centre which has been the home of the club for the past 50 years.
The club is moving on to the Leisure Centre facility in the town and while that is an exciting prospect for current head coach Davy Johnston, the memories of early morning training and Aqua Sprint triumphs were to the fore last night.
The club has been at the forefront of Irish swimming over the past 25 years, with former head coaches Nelson Lindsay and the late George Morrow transforming the club into a powerhouse.
Indeed, since 1994 Ards have always had at least one member representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games - including Bree who swam at four between 1998 and 2010 and Paralympic gold medallist Bethany Firth, while youth coach Nuala Glynn was at the 1986 Games.
Conor Munn was another of those who came through the ranks to make it to the Games and his mother Norma has been a coaching stalwart at the club - leading them to five straight Aqua Sprint titles.
"The pool will always be a special place for everyone. I've seen so many kids come through the ranks and of course it's great to see those who go on to be Ulster and Irish champions but at the core of the coaching is the fact that we are giving children a life skill," said Norma.
"To see my own son Conor go to the Games was special. He was into his football but made the decision at 16 to focus solely on swimming and it paid off."
For former head coach Lindsay it was an emotional night as he met up with numerous Ulster and Irish champions whom he guided during his 22-year reign.
"I think the key to our success has been that we never stop looking to improve our programme. We are always looking to tinker with it to make it better," said Lindsay.
"I feel George and I put in a good structure and it makes us proud that we've had Commonwealth Games swimmers since 1994 and we've had someone at every Commonwealth Youth Games. Andrew Bree was exceptional, Bethany Firth was the top individual medallist for GB at the Rio Olympics and then we had other excellent swimmers such as Steven McQuillan, Mark Craig and Gareth Walker who competed on the international stage. It was great to see so many of them at the pool again."
Lindsay passed the head coach baton on to Davy Johnston in 2017 and he has embraced the challenge of maintaining the conveyor belt of success.
"It means so much that we have a new pool because it has saved our club," said Johnston. "Pool time is at a premium in any complex. This means we have a club for at least another 50 years.
"We have 180 swimmers at the club and most are between six and 12 so the coaches who work with them are the backbone of the club. There's a great tradition here and it's up to us to keep it going."