The Big Read: Nelson and Ards ride the glory waves
Top coach Lindsay reflects on 20 years of producing top swimmers as four head off to Commonwealths
As so often in life it is a small twist of fate that opens the path to an unforgettable journey. Nelson Lindsay, head coach at relentlessly successful Ards swimming club, knows that all too well.
Just like countless parents down through the ages, he was looking for club in which his children could learn to swim in the mid-1980s and his first port of call drew a blank so instead of Bangor he ended up with their north Down rivals.
Having caught the bug as he watched daughters Sarah and Alison learn their pool skills, he eventually ended up helping out with coaching but was as surprised as anyone when he found himself thrust into the deep end as the main man to lead the club forward.
That was in 1994 and what unfolded – in tandem with friend and late fellow coach George Morrow – was an unbroken run of athletes at the Commonwealth Games, around 100 Ulster representatives and numerous Ulster and Irish champions.
This week at the Commonwealth Games the 69-year-old will be pool side to watch Michael Dawson, Curtis Coulter, Conor Munn and Paralympic gold medallist Bethany Firth as part of the 10-strong Northern Ireland swimming team – following in the footsteps of Andrew Bree, Melanie Nocher and Gareth Walker in that 20-year period.
"It's been a great 20 years and I still get as much of a buzz out of coaching today as I have ever done. To watch kids come through and fulfil their potential is just great," says the highly respected coach.
"Over the years we've had some great swimmers and for me the major highlights would have to be Andrew Bree winning his silver medal at the European Championships in Dublin and then placing 11th in the Beijing Olympics, just a tenth of a second away from the final and of course Bethany (Firth) winning her gold medal at London 2012.
"Andrew gave me some great moments and from an early age you could see that he was special, it was the ease with which he moved through the water. But he also gave me a big disappointment when he didn't win a 200m breaststroke medal at the 2002 Commonwealths. He was right there in the podium position but in the last couple of metres he just tightened up a little.
"He was and continues to be a great role model for everyone in the club and a real inspiration. But as much as you get a kick out of those who go on to the Olympics or Commonwealth Games there are many more who give you a lot of pleasure when you see them go from hardly knowing how to swim to winning an Ulster or Irish title. It's all about fulfilling your potential."
Lindsay, who continues to spend four mornings from 5.30 to 7.30am before work as well as two afternoons and a Sunday morning with the Ards elite squad, has certainly pushed himself to the limit in pursuit of success ever since the head coach's position was quite literally handed over to him.
"I was assistant coach to Colin Budd in 1994 and we were at the Ulster Championships in around February time and at the end of the meet he just took off his stopwatch and handed it to me and said 'there you go Nelson you're now in charge'.
"It came as a real bombshell to me and everyone at the club because Colin had been doing a very good job, he had brought the club forward but decided he'd had enough and so it was over to me and George Morrow. At first we just thought about seeing out the season and then see what happens. We had Gareth Walker going to the Commonwealth Games and a couple of swimmers just missed out so the club was doing well.
"But when it got around Ulster swimming that myself and George were taking over I was made aware that many expected it to be a disaster and the club to go into a crisis – I have to say that gave me a lot of motivation and I think the 20 years since have shown that we did a pretty good job.
"So, in the summer we got together and worked out a plan for the season. George and I were different personalities, George was a lot more laid back than me and the two of us together seemed to work well for the swimmers.
"We got our level three and level four badges and we attended many conferences and I always felt that I came away with something that could help the club and that is still my philosophy. You can never stand still in this sport because the competition moves so fast – it's like a runaway train.
"So we got the club going and thankfully the success continued and we managed to increase the pool time dramatically. When we started it was only three one-hour sessions a week. It's amazing to think that one of our coaches, Nuala McKibben went to the Commonwealth Games in 1986 on that training – that just shows you the talent that she had. Nuala's now taking one of the junior squads in the club which is great but we have around 16 people who are actively involved and all for no payment, just for the love of the sport and helping the kids develop."
So, with an unbroken stream of success at junior and senior level, just what is the secret of the club's success?
"Well, there is a spirit within the club, an ethos that has been built up over the years and everyone who comes to the club is quickly made aware of that. We have high expectations from our juniors right through – Norma Munn does a great job with the Charity Shield young ones who do very well every year," says Lindsay and two of those heading to the Games today, Coulter and Dawson are quick to concur with their coach.
Breaststroke ace Dawson has spent the last year in Dubai engaged in preparing for his assault on Glasgow but continued to be in regular touch with the Ards set-up and his pride in wearing the blue and green of the club is clearly evident.
"Every time we go down to nationals and do the relays it is so important for us to do well. Every year we take a session just to practice the relay because it's so important for us to hold onto the relay titles," said Dawson.
"That has always been there since we have been in the club and we now hold three Irish junior records, one Irish senior record, three Ulster senior and three Ulster junior records. That's how much this club means to us.
"And to have Nelson as our coach is just great."
Freestyler Coulter added: "It's always great for the club to have representation at the Commonwealth Games because if you went a couple of Games without being there the club would be out of the spotlight a bit.
"Because of the reputation of the club we have swimmers wanting to come to us over in Bangor even though they have the 50m pool and to have Nelson with all his knowledge means a lot.
"I always admired both George and Nelson because a lot of coaches get paid but they have given up so much time for free."
Naturally, there will come a time when Lindsay is no longer at the helm and he even hinted that could be the case come 2018.
"Well, you have to be realistic, I'm 69 now and nobody knows what is around the corner. I would love to still be here in four years time as long as I am doing the job the way I want to.
"I don't want to just stay in the job just for the sake of it. I always want to be giving my best, still learning and still bringing swimmers through to the next level – though after a couple of years most of my swimmers think they know more than me. I don't think that's the case, though!"
Sounds like Ards will be having their guru around for some time to come...