John Szaranek has been appointed Head Coach of the National Centre, Limerick, completing another part of an impressive performance puzzle in Ireland’s new drive led by NP director Jon Rudd.
Last year saw Ben Higson appointed as Head Coach of the National Centre (Dublin), a dual role alongside that of National Senior Team Head Coach. He became the fourth member of Ireland’s Performance Senior Leadership Team, after Rudd, National Performance Services Manager John Watson and National Performance Pathway Manager Andrew Reid.
Szaranek will start work at the University of Limerick on April 23 and lead the Centre athletes through their final cycle of training this season into the European Championships, the World Youth Olympic Games and the European Junior Championships.
Szaranek’s work will be backed by Emmet Crowley, Cormac Powell, Fiona Doyle and Bernard Cahill as assistant coaches, as well as Lorna Barry leads on the strength & conditioning programme and Scott Murphy in position as Centre physiotherapist. Former National Centre (Limerick) Head Coach Lars Humer left the position in January to return to his hometown in New Zealand to undertake a new coaching role and Crowley has served as interim Centre Head Coach since then.
Swim Ireland, which held its first selection trials last week, noted: “For the last three years, Szaranek has been an Assistant Coach within the Performance coaching team at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to this, he served as the Head Coach at Carnegie Swimming Club for eight years. Szaranek has represented Scottish Swimming as the Lead Coach of both the Scottish Youth Development Squad and the Scottish Youth Squad and he was also a member of the Scottish international coaching team at the most recent Celtic Tri-Nations Meet. Additionally, Szaranek has undertaken Lead Coach roles on Scottish Swimming Stroke Camps and has also been selected to coach on a number of British Swimming Stroke Camps in recent years.
“During his time in Scotland, John was presented with the Scottish Development Coach of the Year Award in 2010 and the Scottish Para Coach of the Year in 2013. Carnegie Swimming Club also won the Top Club at the Scottish National Age Group Championships during his tenure as Head Coach of the programme.”
Among Szaranek’s achievements: his pupils have represented their countries at the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2011, 2013 & 2015, the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2011, the European Junior Championships in 2013, 2014 & 2015, the World Junior Championships in 2013, the Commonwealth Games in 2014 & 2018, the World University Games in 2017 and the World Championships in 2017.
Szaranek said: “I am very excited to have been given the opportunity to work for Swim Ireland at the National Centre in Limerick. I am very much looking forward to supporting the Senior Leadership Team as they strive to deliver success at World and Olympic levels.
“I am particularly looking forward to working with the coaching staff and the athletes through the fantastic facility in the University of Limerick. These are exciting times for swimmers in Ireland and I want to be a major factor in what helps them to be able to fulfil their dreams and ambitions. I strongly believe that we have a team in place to see this nation truly deliver on the world stage”.
Rudd welcomed the latest addition to a strong leadership team: “We are thrilled to have John on board and for him to join us at this exciting time. It’s just over a year since this new Performance team started to assemble and John brings something extra to the table in terms of both his coaching and his life experience outside of the pool environment. We knew that it would always be a challenge to replace someone with a track record as impressive as Lars’ but in John we have achieved that and then some; you always know things are moving in the right direction when the strength and depth of your applicants goes through the roof – as it did in this case.
“To be able to offer Irish athletes the chance to work with John and his team on a daily basis in a world class resource at the University of Limerick and UL Sport is a major string to our bow and one that I look forward to seeing develop over the ensuing months.”
Putting the Team In Place – 2017
By appointing Higson, who placed University of Stirling swimmers on Olympic and World-Championship teams and coached Ross Murdoch to European and Commonwealth titles, Swim Ireland’s separation of the Performance Director and Head Coach roles was in place for the first time, a move described as “a keystone within the new Swim Ireland Performance Strategy”.
On Higson, the federation noted at the time: “With an exceptional international coaching pedigree and level of experience behind him, Higson was a prime candidate for the position, with numerous senior international medal successes to his credit at Commonwealth, European and World levels. In leading a thriving National Centre in Stirling, Scotland for a number of years, Higson brings the leadership skills and coaching credentials to the role that will allow him to work with Ireland’s leading athletes on a daily basis to help underline the National Centre in Dublin as one of the best daily performance environments in the world.”
The first box on Rudd’s leadership wish list was ticked when John Watson was hired as Head of Performance Support and Strength and Conditioning Practitioner.
Watson was a big catch from Bath University’s Britain performance centre, home to the likes of Jazz Carlin, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, Chris Walker-Hebborn and Andrew Willis and the new base from this season of James Guy. Michael Jamieson, the 2012 Olympic medallist, was also based at Bath during Watson’s tenure.
Rudd, National Performance Director, told SwimVortex that Watson is the “best strength practitioner, the best in the business”, his work at Bath and with teams at centre and international level on national teams in the Commonwealth, World-Championship and Olympic realms proof of that.
Swim Ireland created the post of Head of Performance Support and Strength and Conditioning Practitioner at Rudd’s behest. The former head of Plymouth Leander and mentor to the likes of Ruta Meilutyte and Ben Proud, Rudd told SwimVortex at the time he was appointed Ireland’s top man that building a team of experts around him was key to a long-term strategy of lifting Irish swimming to a new level. Swim Ireland noted today:
“This role is a totally new role for the organisation and is further demonstration of the particular emphasis on the holistic development of the athlete which is a keystone of the new Swim Ireland Performance Strategy.”
Watson lead and co-ordinates all sports science and sports medicine support services for the Dublin National Centre at the National Aquatic Centre and for other identified athletes within the Swim Ireland system.
Steve Beckerleg and Bethany Carson
Coaches Steve Beckerleg and Bethany Carson are also a key part of Swim Ireland’s bid to catch a faster wave in world-class waters.
The two assistant coaches work at at the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin.
When they were appointed, Swim Ireland noted: “Beckerleg was an intrinsic member of the senior coaching team at Plymouth Leander in England, working alongside Ireland’s National Performance Director Jon Rudd when he was in Plymouth himself, coaching Olympians Ruta Meilutyte, Ben Proud and Antony James with Rudd on a daily basis.
“Beckerlegs’ personal swimming achievements include England representation at the Commonwealth Games alongside a garnering of medals at the European Youth Olympics, World Schools and European Schools Championships in his youth. A multitude of British National titles and National Youth records were held by the 27 year old en route.”
Carson, 26, is a former Irish international athlete at both senior and junior levels, having competed for the nation at World University Games and European Senior & Junior Championships and Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland. Swim Ireland cited her “inside knowledge of the Centre” as key to deeper “understanding and perspective” at the Dublin-based team. Her appointment was supported by Sport Ireland under the Women in Sport initiative.
The start of a new voyage
From the Archive – May Day, 2107:
In an interview with SwimVortex this May Day – or more to the point, International Workers’ Day in some parts of the world – Ireland’s performance director Jon Rudd – still well shy of his 100 days – reveals what a tour of programs and people he’s just completed in his first two months at the helm told him and how Swim Ireland’s performance team will leave no stone, Blarney, heritage or otherwise, unturned. The priority is to build success onshore – while being open to the opportunities of offshore, be those through Irish athletes based overseas or athletes who may not yet have realised they could be racing for Ireland.
Má chailleann tú uair ar maidin beidh tú á tóraíocht i rith an lae, as the Irish say: if you lose an hour in the morning you’ll be looking for it all day.
Jon Rudd set the alarm clock for an early awakening in Irish swimming the moment he arrived as performance director in February. There’s no time to waste and neither opportunity nor Blarney stone nor whatever else it takes will go unturned.
Rudd’s first mission in Ireland was to put his gift of the swimming gab to the test on a tour of regions, clubs, their coaches, swimmers, parents and officials. His were not just words: Rudd is a man who means what he says and says what he means.
He guided Ruta Meilutyte to Olympic gold for Lithuania, Ben Proud to Commonwealth crowns for England, kids from several nations to the Olympics at the Plymouth Leander program where the building blocks of success are highly relevant when it comes to unlocking Ireland’s potential in the pool.
Lessons from Leander will count. Think much more than swim club: Leander has a sister school, Plymouth College, it built partnerships with two local universities with a view to providing a home for swimming life, through development and on to the transition from junior to senior career, education of brain and brawn a tandem for constant progress. Plymouth College became home to athletes like diver Tom Daley, bullied for standing out from the crowd in ways that included the assets it takes to dedicate your time and energies to sporting skill and ambition.
At Leander, Rudd placed traffic cones around a small area of tiled floor on his deck (right) to ring the sin bin for cheats and dopers and folk who thought that turning to illegal means was the way to get one over on rivals. He left Leander after almost 30 years able to boast with pride than the danger zone never had a single one of his charges in it.
Beyond the commandments of clean-sport, athlete welfare and related issues, there are no limits to where and how Ireland might find new swimming speed.
That extends to a treasure trove beyond the shores of Ireland but within the bounds of what it is to be Irish. If your business is finding talent and helping to unlock its potential, then an Irish diaspora of between 80 and 100 million people, depending on your counting criteria, and including 36 million Americans, is a resource worth mentioning.
Let’s be clear: Rudd does not want Ireland’s swimming solution to come down to pre-prepared and packaged imports that simply require a switch of sporting passport.Indeed, when the matter is raised in an interview with SwimVortex, the man whose work at the helm of England Schools and then England big time at the 2014 Commonwealth Games including “making the English feel about England the way the Scots feel about Scotland” answers with words that speak to the important role a sense of national pride and belonging can play in sporting success:
“A medal for Ireland will be great; a medal for Ireland that comes out of Ireland will feel even better.”
Think high. When Rudd mentions medals, he’s talking Olympic Games, World and European Championships.
When he’s talking the nuance of leaving no stone unturned, he’s tapping into the mindset and mirth of the likes of Bill Sweetenham, who at a time when the Thorpedo was firing on all cyclinders said: “If I were in charge of the Australian program right now, I’d be making sure Mr and Mrs. Thorpe were treated to as many candlelit suppers as it takes to keep the romance going.”
Never let a chance go by. The raw resource counts for much in a world of Thorpe, Phelps, Ledecky, Peaty, Adlington, Manaudou and all the way back to Janet E, Mary T, Gross, Gould, Spitz, Meyer, Matthes and many more. Says Rudd:
“I’m conscious of the fact that my priority is right here in Ireland but that should not mean that we’re closed to possibilites: there are lots of folk out there who may not know they are eligible for Ireland. And if they have Irish heritage and respond to the call and culture, we should welcome them.
Rudd will operate an “onshore strategy” as much as possible. He, his world-class staff and the Swimming Ireland governance backing them will seek to make the Irish program so attractive that there will be no need to leave for bases in Britain and the United States in what has often felt like time-honoured tradition. Nor will there be any holding back of those who feel the call of a foreign adventure must be answered. Says Rudd:
“I want a system where swimmers can choose to leave but don’t feel like they have to. If they want a lifestyle and cultural change by going to the US or wherever, then go for it. That’s fine – but I don’t think that’s for national medallists looking to make senior international teams in the future. We want to create a situation at the National performance centres in Dublin and Limerick where athletes get to 18 years of age and there’s a strong viable option for them to stay on shore and not to feel like by staying home they are compromising whatever poetantial they have.”
TAKING HIS MESSAGE ON TOUR
Rudd went on tour of Ireland’s four swimming regions, which include three in the Republic and Ulster in Northern Ireland. He met coaches, parents, atletes, technical officials and shared “initial thoughts” with them.
Ireland has a long and exciting journey ahead but there was no scary stuff in Rudd’s opener. Why not, given the steepness of the curve ahead? He tells SwimVortex:
“Bill Sweetenham always said that when you take on something new, aim to change 5 per cent in the first year and then 95% of things in the second and subsequent years, otherwise it can prove too much for people all at once. Even so, I’d like to go in for more than 5 per cent in the first year because there’s no time to hang around: I was in place in February, we had most of the leadership team in place by late April, with some appointments to come, and we’re just three years away from the next Olympics. So, I want to be zestful, shall we say, when it comes to the pace of change.”
Ireland has had four centres of performance training in recent times. That’s now down to two: Dublin, which will focus on 2020, and Limerick, which will focus on 2024 and beyond (but neither of those things exclusively, where Dublin may be the best place for a swimmer with a post-2020 focus and Limerick may be the best place for a swimmer gunning for 2020, says Rudd).
Why only two centres not four or more? Size matters. Ireland, Rudd notes, does not have the club structure that exists in Britain, the USA, Australia and elsewhere, and serves as the pool that feeds and supports the excellence centres/college and elite units at the helm of national programs.
“There are some performance clubs in Ireland but not many,” says Rudd. “There’s a rural population, a big geography, no huge conurbations with great resources around every corner – and some of the facilities that are there are very much in the dark-ages.”
A systematic review of those facilities and which work for elite, performance sport, is underway and Ireland’s swim boss will seek to marry athlete with a programme fit for purpose. That may well mean that some swimmers get a recommendation to up sticks and settle where the swimming best suits them. As Rudd puts it: “They’ve got one career so you’ve got to give them what they need at that particular time of their development and training.”
On tour, he perceived “no preciousness in keeping hold of athletes just for the sake of it” among coaches and clubs with swimmers of the calibre likely to raise the question: would this athlete be in a far better facility and in schooling and living conditions if they moved from X to Y?
First 100 Days…
Rudd’s first 100 days are not yet up but one of Rudd’s key changes is already in place: Ireland has seen its last season of selecting international teams across months of several meets.
“Next year we move to a single trials focus. Some athletes were able to chose from two or three mets when it came to qualifying; and others had a series of four and even five meets to aim at, spread across six months.”
A more “funnelled, bottlenecked” system of selection had to come, says Rudd as he explains why:
Rudd was in place in February (2017) and made only a slight tweak to the selection process, reducing to two events, the Dave McCullagh Memorial meet and the Irish Open, at which home-based swimmers could qualify.
“The notion of learning how to swim a lifetime best on the day that counts is missing. They have to learn to swim that best on the day that matters: Irish athletes have to walk into the arena and race a lifetime best in Olympic heats: if they can’t learn to do that, we’re not going to see any change. The broad and expanded way of qualifying didn’t teach the athlete, nor did it educate the coach, how to produce peak performance at a specific moment.”
He allowed offshore athletes, mainly in Britain and the United States, to nominate a meet so they did not have to return to Ireland to qualify. That deal is now spent. Says Rudd:
“Those athletes now have a 12-month warning that that will not be the case next year. We will have a five-day meet in April next year, a singles trials event at which everyone must race.”
The 2018 season holds no global long-course challenge and the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast unfold in April. How will that work for the Irish? Says Rudd:
“Day 1 of trials will be day 1 of the Commonwealths. The swimmers from Northern Ireland who’ll be out on the Gold Coast can qualify at the Games for the European Championships and the other long-course targets, European juniors and probably World Youth Olympics.”
The 2017 season is something of a “baptism of fire” for all, the first worlds selection meet unfolding on the day Rudd arrived in Ireland. Change takes time but the idea that good things can and will start to happen when the switch is flicked on belief backed by an understanding summed up by Andy Warhol when he said:
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Rudd sensed an Irish swimming community ready to embrace that approach. He was told that you could feel the buzz and the focus at the Irish Open this year and that it was stronger than ever before. Says the mentor to the likes of Lithuanian Olympic 100m breaststroke champion of 2012 Ruta Meilutyte and Britain’s Ben Proud, double Commonwealth champion for England in 2014 and fourth in the Olympic 50m free final in Rio last year:
“There was good tension and the level of stress was tanglible. Stress is not a bad thing, only when its over-stress. There was a good response from coaches and athletes and I already feel like I’m taking the nation with me. Its happening in a transparent, honest and open way. I wanted them to know that they can challenge me, expect me to bat it back if I’ve got an answer but appreciate, too, that if they make a valid point I will listen and change as necessary.”
That, he says, tends to limit the “backroom grumbles” that are a part of manageable life up to the point where they can be destracting and destructive.
“We have to change the program in the right way and not too quickly. It has to happen in a calm, considered and challenging manner,” says Rudd. “We will have an onshore strategy as much as possible. Irish athletes who are in the top 16, 12 and 8 in the world and then feel they need to leave and spent time overseas, can do so. Most have been based in the USA and some in the UK. The Scottish education system, for example, is very attractive.”
The point is to make Ireland just as attractive. That’s starteing to happen, the Dublin and Limerick performamnce centres both cases in point. The Dublin base sits on a site of hundreds of acres hosting dozens of sports, with housing blocks, training facilities, medical and administration centres all in place.
The one-stop-shop intensive training centre is complete with education options – schools and universities – in both Dublin and Limerick. Rudd notes that the “only part of the jigsaw that is different is that the Limerick centre will be where the kids of school age will be. Those kids will be encouraged to go and work with Lars in Limerick, where there are some fantastic state and private day and boarding schools among the options open to those who need to move away from home because they simply can’t get the same training options there.”
Dublin will be aimed more at older athletes with further education in mind, though Rudd returns to his dislike of locked doors when he says: “There’ll be some kids for whom Dublin is the best place, just as some older athletes will find that Limerick suits them better – and we’ll accommodate those kinds of needs if that’s the best for those concerned.”
He takes the same view of the diaspora:
“There are significantly more Irish folk living outside of Ireland than in it. My first port of call is to look after Irish people onshore: the people who stood in front of us in clubs and at centres and in schools we’ve visited on tour. We want to enhance their opportunities first and foremost.”
Even so, no opportunity should be overlooked on a two-way street to win-win, Rudd suggests. He explains: “There are a number of nations setting qualification standards at very high levels. For those nations, that’s quite right: they have a critical mass and are very much driven by performance, medals and medals tables and where they stand in the world as a nation in high performance sport. Ireland is never going to be up there in that league. There are athletes out there who never get the chance of international representation because they’re third, fifth, sixth in their nation. That may mean that they’re world top 10 but have never get to race outside their own country because their nation is so strong in the pool. Top 2 go, that’s it.”
Ireland sets its standards at the FINA A time and Rudd notes:
“There may be athletes out there with Irish heritage who keep just falling short and have a sense of Irishness about them, they have related family values and culture and they talk about the past and where their grandparents came from in Ireland. There is that opportunity with us and if they feel like they would want to explore it with us, then they would be very welcome.”
He rejects the notion of “poaching”, emphasising that the chance is only there for those with “genuine Irish links who would like to explore the chance so representing Ireland … there’s a mutual benefit there”.
It comes down to this: Dúchas (said DOO-hass) – birthright, heritage, native place, innate quality, with a deeper meaning that translates as “the drive within”, a good way of describing Rudd’s approach to progress in the pool on the way to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.