Swim Ireland boss Rudd expects Aurora set-up to raise the bar
The Swim Ireland revolution has finally hit Northern Ireland and if there is a poster girl for the targeted sea-change in culture then Victoria Catterson may just be that athlete.
Catterson may not have achieved the international heights at junior or senior level as some, but then that is the point of this new Ulster High Performance set-up at Bangor Aurora. Without question the natural, central focus for local clubs has been junior success to the detriment of senior development, leading to a huge drop-off in participation for those finishing secondary education, and those at the top of the sport want that mindset to be transformed.
More than that, Swim Ireland’s High Performance Director Jon Rudd says this “world-class” set-up is about developing Ulster swimmers to Olympic level in numbers not seen before.
“Over the course of the Tokyo cycle we recognised that something needed to be there so that the Ulster athletes had a similar offering to the athletes in the south. Ulster are producing good young athletes, the concern was that they needed something that was a professionally focused set-up,” said Rudd, who has been guiding Irish swimming since 2017.
“The clubs in Ulster, in fact across the whole island, do a sterling job to get athletes to a particular level but there is a point when they just haven’t got the resource to be able to do that piece that is needed to not only qualify an athlete for the Olympics but then deliver when they get there.
“This was the natural evolvement of what we have done since 2017… there were huge amounts of consultation that took place with the Ulster clubs, with Swim Ulster, with Sport NI, with Bangor Aurora to make sure it was feasible. We got to the situation that feedback was not only do we want this, but we need it.”
One of the first appointments was assistant head coach Davy Johnson, who left his post as head coach of Ards — the most successful club on the Emerald Isle. Johnston will shortly welcome head coach Kevin Anderson, formerly of the Mississauga swimming programme in Ontario, to Bangor as they seek to take their eight elite athletes to the next level.
Freestyle ace Catterson is one of those who has taken up the High Performance offer, having been brought through from junior to senior level by Johnston, winning multiple Ulster and Irish titles.
“This performance centre is to create a culture for swimmers to know they can stay on the island of Ireland in a performance environment. Since I can remember we’ve had too many swimmers who have stopped because they feel they haven’t made it by the time they hit Upper Sixth,” said Johnston, who has eight athletes in his squad, all of whom will have their sights on Commonwealth Games success next summer.
“We’re in the business of longevity in performance and when you look at the world of swimming more and more athletes don’t peak until they are much older.
“Victoria Catterson is a great example of a late developer. She broke her first Irish record at 20 in the 100m freestyle… we’ve only scratched the surface with what Victoria can do.
“I feel really excited about this position and I’m passionate about how we can develop all these athletes. It gives them a bespoke performance programme with unlimited access to nutritional advice, strength and conditioning, a sports psychologist and analysis of their performance. You can’t get that in a club environment.”
Johnston is relishing the new challenge and happily admits that the learning curve he enjoyed at Ards working alongside swimming legend Nelson Lindsay prepared him for this new post.
He added: “Without being with Ards over the past 14 and a half years, I wouldn’t be here. I will never forget that, I owe everything to them. It’s down to Ards and Nelson Lindsay.
“I always thought, being an ex-international swimmer, that I would be better placed coaching than on a committee so I started off with Norma Munn pulling in the ropes for the six and seven-year-olds and slowly worked my way up, which is the way I wanted it — learning from club stalwarts such as Norma, Nuala Glynn and George Morrow and then of course Nelson.
“When this post came up I really wanted it and I’m also pleased that Ards is in safe hands with new coach Curtis Coulter.”
Rudd admits he has been impressed with how Johnston has led the relentless success of Ards on the Irish scene, seamlessly following on from the standards set by former coach Lindsay, while also acknowledging that “Ulster are arguably the strongest province in swimming at this time… Leinster would be pretty close.”
Having sought to raise the bar in Irish swimming over the past four years, Rudd believes this new squad at Ulster can only bolster Swim Ireland’s bid to make a strong impact on the international stage. But just how far have they come to this point?
“Well, first of all this kind of environment was in place to a degree when I arrived but it wasn’t at the level that it is now. The Dublin centre was in place but it had lost its relationship with the Sport Ireland institute. We brought in high quality established coaches from outside of Ireland to run that,” said Rudd.
“Limerick was operating but in a different kind of way and we rejuvenated Limerick so it was aligned with how Dublin operated and so that gave us two on-shore options that were world-class and to allow the best to train alongside the best because we were losing athletes to the system because they were going to the UK or USA and in the majority of cases were not progressing.
“We always felt that the moment an athlete leaves Ireland that the green tracksuit isn’t necessarily the priority concern of who then takes them on. We couldn’t make them stay but we had to provide a realistic option for them to stay.
“We also got regional alignment. The four provinces were, to a degree, acting independently in terms of their competition structure and how they were servicing athletes, so we put in a structure around competitions, training camps and athlete identification to be able to say if you’re an athlete that lives in Leinster but your father gets a job in Belfast you can walk into Ulster swimming and everything would feel familiar.”
As for the quality of athlete coming out of Ulster swimming, Rudd says there is no reason why they cannot be world-class given the structure now in place.
“If you start with the bricks and mortar, Bangor Aurora is if not the No.1 pool in Ireland it’s in the top two, it’s a fantastic facility. You’ve got really good lane space and at the right times of the day conducive to high performance. We have a fantastic relationship with the Sport Institute of Northern Ireland where their practitioners are going to be working with the coaches and the athletes in a fully integrated sports science programme along with the swimming coaching.
“Then you bring the majority of Ulster’s top athletes together side by side every day and that’s where you get a performance culture because they will learn from each other, challenge each other, be competitive with each other in a healthy way and we’re going to put world-class coaching on.”
The new structure has been put in place and over the coming years Rudd, Johnston et al know they will ultimately be judged on the results that consequently shine out of the Aurora.