Thursday, March 10, 2022

Bringing back the #Boost to Edinburgh

The battle cry #BOOST when an Edinburgh University athlete launches themselves into the pool is a familiar sound on the pool deck, but this year, it is shouted with more conviction and more enthusiasm than ever before.

With Kara Hanlon and Scott Gibson breaking Scottish Records alongside a superb team performance at last month’s Speedo and BUCS Long Course Championships at Ponds Forge, Sheffield where the squad finished second overall, and Scott Quin and Stephen Clegg on the same weekend both racing hard to secure places on the team for the World Para Swimming World Championships, the Edinburgh University squad are approaching this season with new belief, putting behind them a couple of years of restrictions.

Head of Performance Swimming, Chris Jones, explained,

“BUCS was a pre-curser to the international phase of this season. We’ve not been able to go off much the last couple of years so I look at this season as a fresh start or a transitional year back into the sport. There’s a lot at stake, a lot to swim for and we’re keeping an open mind on it.

“We’ve got a lot of athletes who have really, really stepped up. Kara Hanlon is an incredibly determined athlete and that senior record for 100m breaststroke at BUCS (Kirsty Balfour had held the record since 2007) has been on the cards for a long time. We’ve had girls who have come close, like Kathy Johnstone and Corrie Scott but who didn’t quite get over the line. I’m delighted for Kara. She’s worked so hard on herself, on her preparation and all the fine detail and it just shows how consistency and perseverance can pay dividends. The same can be said for Scott Gibson. He’s been there or there abouts on that 50m back record for some time, and Andy Figgins did a phenomenal job with Scott at East Kilbride. For the last 3-4 years he’s got his head down and has worked hard and he’s producing great results. Both Kara and Scott are coached by Mat Trodden, and he's done an outstanding job with them both, pushing boundaries with the athletes and they are rising to the challenge."

It’s easy to focus on the last couple of months and forget the hardship that the last couple of years has brought and Jones was quick to highlight the darker times. He said,

“It has been tough on everyone and for some Edinburgh University athletes who started their studies in 2020, it is only recently they’ve met all their Edinburgh team-mates. We were very much siloed because we had to be due to Covid. Mat (Trodden, Assistant Head Coach) would have a group here, I would work with another group and Ross (Douglas, Performance Swim Coach) would work elsewhere and we’d never intermingle because we needed to limit contact and limit the risk of any of us getting Covid. Some international athletes had to stay here on their own over Christmas in 2020, and it was a really challenging year for the University programme, because not only did you have the performance element, which was super important, but you had this duty of care to people as well. I was phoning round on Christmas morning to those who were stuck in Halls because they couldn’t leave, making sure they had everything they needed.

“Covid also impacted hard on our para-athletes. Mat has done a great job in connecting with Quiny (Scott Quin). Both are season ticket holders at Hibs (for their sins) and they meet up at half time, catch up over a cup of tea, it’s been great for both of them.

“I’ve got a really good relationship with Cleggy (Stephen Clegg), and lockdown was difficult. Here’s a guy with a degenerative eye condition which is very isolating. So I spent a bit of time walking with him, talking with him. I’m really impressed at how they managed their own situations and have come out of Covid stronger than ever.”

Taking learnings from the last couple of years living and working within strict guidelines, and with a busy schedule and calendar of events ahead including National, World, European and Commonwealth Championships, Jones is now looking at supporting athletes and coaches from beyond the pool deck, he said,

“As coaching staff, we felt it was important to have as much safe integration as possible this year so we’ve changed our way of working a little bit. I’ve taken a little bit of a side-step to have this holistic view of the programme this year. I want to be able to support the mechanisms to get this team environment back in place, using recent results from the latter part of 2021 into 2022 to re-establish the team ethos. And of course, I’m still there to support Mat and Ross in the day-to-day stuff as well. For me, this fresh approach has been a catalyst for us as a team to be able to strive forward.”

“Obviously there are individual aspects to allow us to progress, but since I set the programme up one of the fundamental elements that sits high up in the programme is that of ‘team’. We’ve done interviews historically when I’ve talked about team and how important that is to me, to the programme, to the ‘boost’. We all sat down and talked at the very start of this cycle, asked athletes what it was to be an Edinburgh swimmer, and we all agreed, “let’s bring back the boost”. The whole team, the athletes, the coaches, the support staff have all bought into this and that was important.

“It just transpires that you’re sharing in someone’s goals and aspirations, whatever that is, whether Commonwealth Games, Para World Champs or Europeans, whatever the aims are, everyone can buy into it. The reaction to that across the squad was a fantastic team performance at BUCS short course in November and BUCS long course last month. And we were able to bring everyone together to do that and it was good fun.”

This weekend the squad will be in action at the Edinburgh International Swim Meet at the Royal Commonwealth Pool, a Meet that Jones has always enjoyed, he said,

“The Edinburgh International is always a good meet. It’s the last big test before Trials so you are refining your race processes, looking at all the little bits of detail you can squeeze out of your swims. The athletes are obviously not 100% rested but you want to make sure you are on it in terms of processes and preparations. It’s like a rehearsal and trying to make it the best rehearsal you can give. This meet is important preparation and we’re excited for it.”

Next month’s British Swimming Championships act as a Trials event for the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games and Jones is aware of the high stakes for the athletes. While some will celebrate securing a place on their respective teams, others may decide to call it a day on their swimming career. He said,

“Between the other coaches and I, we meet with the athletes at the start of the year and you map things out. And its then you get a feel and a flavour of whether retirement is on the cards or not. Over the past couple of years we’ve had some big members of the programme retire or move on, including Jack Thorpe and Nick Quinn.

“We’ve had that happen, so we do feel there’s a freshness about the here and now. But inevitably there may be one or two who feel it’s their time, but you know you keep the door open, and again, another part of what’s really important and what Edinburgh have done really well over the years is have an exit process and maintain that relationship with the athlete. It’s not a case of you’ve stopped swimming so see you later. It’s how can we help with the next chapter so to speak.

“I met up with Jack Thorpe for a coffee the other day and was on a call providing Nick Quinn with a reference for a job, and these guys still want to give back to the sport. Your relationship with them ends up at a point where they can be really helpful. We’ve had athletes come back and speak with the younger athletes about what it’s like living in Halls of Residence, how to manage their nutrition, be a first year student and all the pressures that come with that. I think we do a really good job with that, keeping an open dialogue and the relationship between coach and athlete evolves and you become friends.

“In the same vein as people moving on, the exciting part is seeing the new wave of athletes starting at Edinburgh. Not only are they fantastic athletes they are high achievers in what they study, very smart and very driven kids. They want to excel both in the pool and at what they’ve chosen to study, so for me as a coach you play a multi-faceted role that you can help with all those elements, both in and out of the pool.

“We’ve a couple of athletes coming through for the Edinburgh International and they’ll stay on for a couple of days, check out the academic element of the University, check out the swimming element of the University, check out the city and come and train with us a bit. We’re constantly having these conversations with young athletes about their decisions, you just have to talk it through with them, but fortunately for Edinburgh, the city does a lot of its own talking. It’s a perfect fit as an academic institution that has a superb swimming programme running alongside it and the University should take a lot of credit here as they allow us to do our job. We greatly value being able to train here at the RCP and to have someone like Jim Aitken (Director of Sport and Exercise at Edinburgh University) at the helm is a real showcase of the calibre of the team behind the team.”

For Jones himself, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games could see the Brummie coach return to his roots for his fourth consecutive games in Team Scotland colours. He said of the opportunity,

“I’m still a coach and still ambitious to be part of Birmingham, that’s where I’m from. I’ve been part of the team for Delhi, Glasgow and the Gold Coast. We’ll have athletes at that Games and Mat, Ross and Jen Davis, who joined the coaching staff last September, are doing a fantastic job in the programme. I’m hoping that at least one of us will be involved in some form or other, but that’s down to the selectors in due course. Of course I’d like to go down and see our athletes compete and challenge for medals. For Edinburgh Uni to continue to compete at this level, it’s exciting. We’ve produced some fantastic results over the years.”

While the Games are still four months away, immediate thoughts are with Edinburgh International and then Trials and the mood in camp in a positive one. Jones said,

“We will head into this weekend and into Trials buoyant around performance. Whatever happens we feel strong as a squad and united in our values in that ‘team’ is everything to us. The #boost is back.”

The Edinburgh International Swim Meet is taking place at the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh from 11-13 March 2022.

The event is being live streamed. Please find the links HERE.

BBC Scotland will be streaming the finals session, full details HERE.

Full information on the meet can be found on the Edinburgh International Swim Meet website.