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Time To Listen, Adlington Tells GB Board

Dec 4, 2012  - Craig Lord

Double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington has called for a radical shake-up of British Swimming's ruling board, with representation and voting rights extended to elite swimmers and coaches at executive level after swimmers were "ignored” in a review into performances at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Urging swimming bosses to appoint a new head coach and a performance director before the year is out, Adlington said that swimmers had been overlooked in a tardy and inconclusive review that "told us nothing we didn't already know".

Speaking to The Times and SwimNews as a leading member of the national team's Athlete Leadership Group of 10 senior swimmers, Adlington said: "It's not good enough. I feel insulted, disheartened and saddened by the way they have ignored us, the swimmers, in all of this. We've been left in the dark.  There have been so many positives. London, though not what we wanted, was not the great disaster some painted, but the real negative in the whole thing is that the board are taking too long with everything."

Adlington was asked to join a Skype call with review panel members while in Africa on a charity bike ride but suggested she meet them formally with other senior athlete at the federation's offices about half an hour away from her home. “I never heard another thing," she said.

"We athletes are fed up of not being heard ... Its time for British Swimming to sit up and listen," Adlington added, noting that she was one of a few swimmers who spoke to Katrina Radke, a former US athlete and sports psychologist gathering information for the review panel, but then got “no feedback, not even a thanks". Adlington had no criticism of Radke, who she described as "very professional".

David Sparkes, chief executive of British Swimming, noted that there were no restraints placed on the Review Panel and that Radke had been placed at the disposal of swimmers. Few spoke to her, however, feeling that a psychologist would only look to the past not the future.

When I put the Adlington’s criticisms to him, Sparkes said he would call Adlington's agent Rob Woodhouse to set up a meeting in which “Becky and other athletes can meet me face to face and talk through their issues and perhaps feed anything new into the review process”.

On Sunday, the federation released and backed the key findings and recommendations of a Review Panel chaired by Board member Craig Hunter and formed in the wake of Adlington's two bronze medals and a silver by Michael Jamieson at London 2012. That tally left the swim team two medals shy of an official minimum target provided to UK Sport for lottery funding on the road to Rio 2016. 

"The search starts today" for a head coach and performance director, said the federation, while leaving responsibility for recommended change to those who will fill the two top posts. Head coach Dennis Pursley's planned move back to Alabama after the Games in London was common knowledge in spring and by June three candidates for “Director of Coaching”, including Adlington's mentor Bill Furniss, had been shortlisted and told to expect news the week after the Games.

The review put everything on hold, the Board's "wait-and-see” approach likely to "mess up the whole year and leave us starting again a quarter way into the next olympic cycle", said Adlington, the most successful British swimmer of the modern era with world, European and Commonwealth crowns to her credit.

"I know there are financial matters to consider but they should have appointed someone, even if they did it on an 'acting' basis ... people are really worried about what's going to happen. They needed guidance,” said Adlington. Michael Scott quit as performance director 10 days ago and had had the "common decency to email us to say thanks for the past four years", she said. “Nothing from British Swimming. We're fed up with it."

The federation today appointed Mark Perry, currently head of development and team lader for open water swimming at London 2012, as interim technical leader with immediate effect, his role taken by Graham Bassi, early mentor to Elizabeth Simmonds and based at the Swansea ITC of late.

The moves come at a time when some ITCs are grappling with staff changes - former world 50m breaststroke champion James Gibson starting as Sprint Coach at Loughborough’s Intensive Training Centre yesterday - and cannot plan their 2013 training cycles.

Adlington explained: "Its crazy that here we are in December and they haven't said when world-championship trials will be. That's stupid. We think it might be June but no-one can structure camps or anything. If they don't have very specific stuff [plans] in place by January ... it will be a disaster."

Sparkes said that plans to appoint a director of coaching after the Games had been put off at Scott's suggestion because the appointment might "contaminate" the review. The three shortlisted candidates for the director role will be asked in the next week if they are interested in reapplying for a head coach role with a different job description drawn up through the review process and approved by UK Sport yesterday. 

British Swimming has a Paralympic swimmer on its Board as the Athlete’s Representative. Sparkes noted that the difficulty with having athletes and coaches on the executive was that they were sports specific in five disciplines. Asked if elite swimmers and coaches should have an executive vote Adlington replied: "Yes, definitely, no question. I don't think the board fully understand what swimming is about, what our routine is, what structures, goals we have, what an athlete's life is like."

Before the Paralympic swimmer, a swimmer and then a diver served on the Board. Sparkes pointed out that it was difficult to have representation across all five disciplines under the federation's umbrella. He supported the idea of having a coach join the board but said that it would have to be someone at the cutting edge of the sport - and those people were busy on the deck and had no time to sit in Board meetings.

To some extent, what Adlington has said reflects a positive in the review process and widespread agreement in the swimming community that a system devised by Bill Sweetenham and put in place by Michael Scott is not broken. Ask Dave McNulty, Bath coach to silver medallist Michael Jamieson, and he would doubtless point out that it worked for him. It came down to what he did within that system, to the messages he took on board and how he applied them. 

The review will produce some worthwhile changes but many of those were simply not visible - without reading between the lines and assuming you know what was meant and how it will be applied - in the statement that emerged on Sunday. What is clear is that Adlington feels that there was nothing there that reflected how she feels about it all and how her own experience might help. 

She has broken something of a taboo by speaking out. Modest results and constant stumbling on the quest to reach Olympian heights made it easy for the blazers to beat back any bleating with a chant of "athletes should be seen and not heard - we say, you swim". Unless it suits to listen. History is full of the stuff. 

When the vast majority of the national team spoke up in support of Bill Sweetenham, the Board went ahead with a damaging inquiry into bullying nonetheless - and spent good money concluding that the majority was right. Time was wasted too - and a revolution set back, far too many athletes ignored when listening to them before calling an inquiry would have been the better way.

Not so easy to ignore a 23-year-old whose personal medal table - 2 gold, 2 bronze, beats that of all other British Olympic medal winners put together from 1984 to 2012. Particularly so when what she has to say rings in the ears of a Board that has fallen down on the job when it comes delivering the kind of results Adlington has celebrated for Britain through a daily habit of hard work, professionalism, steeliness and honesty at good times and bad.

Her journey with coach Bill Furniss is a model of what it takes. There are parallels to be made with the experience of Michael Jamieson and coach Dave McNulty, on the podium in London, and Hannah Miley and her coach and father Patrick, just off the podium in London but back on her horse for European gold in November. 

The Review Panel suggested damage done to performance by commercial and media activities. Quite right but no wonder Adlington (and Miley, Jamieson and others might have said the same) says “I could have told you that”.  The model was there for all to see but not rolled out, not made standard, not insisted upon. Adlington is managed by 1984 Australian Olympic medallist Rob Woodhouse, Furniss looking on. The work in the water always came first, profile built on the rock of result. 

It is hard to argue with any points Adlington makes and easy to see why “wait and see” simply doesn’t work for a woman who was only ever as good as her last season and has long reaped the rewards of sewing seeds in time for a summer harvest. Would appointing an acting head coach during the review phase have been a good idea to prop up centres swimming in disappointment and uncertainty? Yes. Could it have been done soon after the Games? Yes. Should a June date have been set for trials independent of the trials process? Yes. 

Officials will say “can’t jump the gun when a process is underway”. Actually, you can and you should, if it makes sense and can be done, if only because the Olympic cycle waits for no man, woman, coach or Board. In January, Adlington will return to the fray, judge whether her body “can take it” or whether to call it a day. Should Adlington hang up her golden goggles, British Swimming would do well to consider a golden handshake that sees a great swimmer leave the water and join the executive as a go-between two worlds apart.

A version of this article appears in The Times today.

The Review Panel

  • Craig Hunter (British Swimming Board member and Chef de Mission for the British Paralympic Team)
  • Bob Bowman (USA Coach to Michael Phelps and agent for TSE Consulting)
  • Thomas Lurz (German Open Water Olympic Medallist in 2008 and 2012)
  • Conor O’ Shea (Director of Rugby at Harlequins RFC and former English Institute of Sport Director) 
  • Michael Scott (National Performance Director of British Swimming until November 30)