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Coach Ian Woollard reveals his most important aspect of masters swimming

He was a former national level swimmer but for the past 33 years, Ian Woollard has been head coach to the very successful Barnet Copthall Masters Swimming Club.

Here he reveals what life as a masters coach is like.

Where exactly is the club, Ian? 

North London, at the bottom of the M1 motorway, Junction 2. The pools are on Champions Way, NW4 1PX.

What facilities do you have? 

We are very lucky. We have two 25m pools. An eight-lane racing pool and a six-lane training pool plus a 3.8m deep diving pit. Each pool is in a separate room so if a gala is in one pool, public swimming remains available in the other. Our training sessions are purely masters. We don’t share lanes with children’s squads at any time.

Is your job full time? What’s a typical week for you?

My coaching is part-time, five sessions a week. My day job is working as a surveyor/project manager in Barnet. Our masters sessions are mostly late night, finishing at 10.30pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Weekends are Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon.

Where do you consider Barnet Copthall masters to be in swimming? Who are and have been your top swimmers and why?

I think we do very well and are amongst the more successful clubs, swimmer for swimmer. Top swimmers? One certainly has to be Mark Reynolds. He works so hard in his sport and juggles huge business and family commitments too. He is a very special individual.

Our ladies 200+ relay team swimmers are currently world and British record holders (Christine Porter, Melissa Cannon, Cate Jackson and Lisa Dawson. The fifth member is Natalie Bateson who was part of some of the British record teams) although it’s difficult to get everyone together. 

The Barnet Copthall Women's 400m Freestyle 200+ years age group team of Lisa Dawson, Cate Jackson, Melissa Cannon and Christine Porter

As for other top swimmers, the word ‘top is very subjective. I have swimmers who break records and win lots of medals. I have others who work hard and improve their technique, times and performances. If they keep improving, who can ask for more?

But I have to say that the reality is that all the swimmers in the BCSC Masters team are ‘top swimmers’. They are all special and do their best to balance family, work and their own swimming. They are a heroic band of athletes right across the pool. Sounds a bit cheesy but it’s true. A big thank you to all of them.

How about your swimming career? And your successes? 

I learned to swim when I was nine and went to my first national age groups when I was 12. Over the years, I picked up medals at the age group events (e.g. 200m Individual Medley and 100m Butterfly). I was also a junior and senior national championship competitor on 800m and 1500m Freestyle, Butterfly and longer events.

What do you consider to be your best achievement in swimming?

A best achievement is really difficult to decide. I honestly think mine is to have kept in the sport for a long time since learning to swim and convert from being a competitive swimmer to teacher and coach.

I’m really honoured to be trusted by so many swimmers who enjoy their sport. The children I’ve coached have all worked hard over the years.

Now coaching adults making their own decisions, balancing their work and family life, many with their own children swimming as well as their own swims is all inspirational. Long-term athlete development is taken to a new level when masters swimming is considered.

Why did you move into coaching?

After school and college. Going out to work meant no time to train and compete so I switched to teaching and coaching at the club and becoming an administrator.

Have you always coached at Barnet? 

I did most of my swimming at Camden SC then teaching and coaching there. I moved to Barnet Copthall shortly after it opened in late 1977. The club was established in 1978 making 2018 our 40th anniversary.

How old are you now? Is it the right age for a masters coach?

I’m 64 and counting. I’m not sure there is a right age to coach masters but the older you get, the more you appreciate the full range of masters age groups and what each age group has to face with regard to ageing, becoming a parent or grandparent so I guess one learns through the experience rather than sitting in a classroom.

Ian’s three top tips for masters swimming coaches

  • Keep it simple.
  • Maintain a sense of humour and be nice.
  • Remember the sun will rise again the following morning so don’t fret too much.

Which has been most important, your swimming career or your coaching career? 

Both are important to me and I still enjoy racing but my repertoire of events is limited to short stuff. Coaching is enjoyable, mentally stimulating and rewarding in different ways.

What is your particular coaching style or ethos? Why are you a good coach?

I have a dry sense of humour apparently. I try to convince people to try things rather than force them. You can’t bully a masters swimmer. They have to be willing to try things out.

I really enjoy it when a plan comes together and the swimmer achieves his/her goals whether it be a world record or an improved time or even seeing them compete for the first time. And who says I’m a ‘good’ coach?

What do you consider to be your best achievement in coaching?

Convincing my long-term partner Jeanette into swimming 200m Freestyle in Portland, Oregon, when she really didn’t want to do it. She won a gold medal at those World Masters Games in 1998.

She had suffered a terrible accident and permanent injury earlier that year and had been struggling to even dive in at the start.

Who is the best masters swimmer you have ever seen?

Silly question with an obvious answer. Out of all the ex-Olympic champions and super fast swimmers I have met and watched race, there is only one true super-star. An ELITE swimmer in every sense of the word. Jane Asher (of course!)

And who is the best you have coached and why? 

Barnet Copthall swimmers Mark Reynolds, Melissa Cannon, Christine Porter and Jim Hobsley

As before, I think Mark Reynolds simply for his commitment, organisation and sheer hard work. A real inspiration to the whole team.

What, to you, are the most important facets of masters swimming?

Serious competitive spirit encased in friendly fun.

Tell me about the club’s open meet programme. You run three open meets each year, don’t you? 

Yes we aim to offer the full range of competitive events across our three meets. Distance Meet in July, a Sprint Meet in September and the 1500m Freestyle in November.

Our ‘Distance Meet’ was our first meet. In our early days, we noticed that most masters meets consisted of 50m each stroke, 100m Individual Medley and perhaps 200m Freestyle. The 200m event would have occasional swimmers racing on Butterfly, Backstroke, even Breaststroke and 200m IM. These form stroke swimmers would have a personal time for their 200m Butterfly but of course, it could only be recorded officially as a Freestyle time.

Lindsay Powell and I discussed this and decided to try promoting a Distance Meet offering longer distances on the form strokes plus 400m and 800m Freestyle and 200m and 400m IM.

It was well received and we soon established a busy programme with swimmers coming from literally all over the country and overseas to compete and record a proper official time for their respective strokes.

Last July’s event was our 30th year. Lots of regular faces arrive every year and we still have new people entering. We can always accommodate more swimmers and we try to make people welcome.

As the years went by, the sprinters kept asking ‘hey, what about us’? The ‘Sprint Meet’ was born. We place it in early (ish) September to remind people that summer holidays are over and it’s only 7-8 weeks to Masters Nationals at Sheffield so better get in shape with some 50m and 100m sprints.

Finally, in November, we hold a 1500m Freestyle event. At the time, it was normal to swim two swimmers per lane in any distance events over 400m Freestyle. A very unsatisfactory situation at national, European and world events and a complete lottery in regard to who had in your lane.

It could be a homicidal maniac careering done the wrong side of the lane or just somebody who couldn’t swim a straight line – nobody liked it.

I’m sure our 1500m was the first to offer a guaranteed one swimmer per lane competition. We hold it separately from our other events.

If you want to do a great 1500m, you need to concentrate on your own swim and not have anyone else in your lane. We hold the event over two sessions, one Saturday afternoon and one Sunday afternoon. In 2018, we swam on 24 and 25 November.

There have been many big masters meets at Barnet. Are there any highlights or swimmers you particularly remember?

Many great world, European, British and other national records broken and, in the early days, many records actually established on the record books.

My highlights are mainly based around the swimming characters we’ve seen racing at our pool. Many years ago, the Serpentine Club would regularly send a small band of gentlemen to race at our meets including a certain Chester Kozlowski.

Chester was from Poland and came to the UK as part of the Polish armed forces at the beginning of the Second World War and stayed as the iron curtain came down across Europe after the conflict.

Part of this man’s intriguing past was the fact that he swam against Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) in the Olympic Games in the 1920s. In his 80s at the time, he powered down the length on a relatively slow Breaststroke but with the same grit and determination not to be beaten as he had when he was a young man. Inspirational stuff. 

Flora Connolly was a memorable lady. Charming with fabulous technique on IM and especially Breaststroke.

She came all with way from  Scotland to compete at our meets, usually returning home with a number of records but only one gold medal. The reason? She usually won most of her events so her quite sensible policy was to take one medal from each meet she attended to remember the competition.

Bill Letch, from Exmouth, is my third outstanding swimmer.

Not only an excellent Butterfly swimmer but also gave us the idea for what to do about multiple medallists complaining about how many medals they were winning and how their houses were clogged up with so many medals (I never had that problem!).

He suggested perhaps a charitable donation could be made instead of receiving a medal. Our response was to offer either a medal or a prize voucher to be donated to a charity.

At the time, we had para-swimmers Mark Wood and Giles Long swimming with our team. Both had problems with cancer when they were teenagers and this seemed a natural link to our club. We make our donations to the Teenage Cancer Trust.

The face value of the voucher is totalled at the end of the year and we send them a cheque. Nice and neat and we know how much money the swimmers are donating. Some take medals AND donate cash. The masters swimmers are very generous but they like to know where their money is going.

How much of your club’s success is down to you? Please tell me about the club’s other coaches?

I have been very lucky to have helpful colleagues who step in to cover if I am away at a competition. Sadly, a former colleague and swimmer, Paul Bowe, passed away a few years ago with a cancer. My colleague and fellow masters swimmer, Richard Weatherhead, is a regular stalwart stepping in, substituting and helping every time I can’t be there. Thanks Richard!

Ian’s three most important things that make a good masters swimmer?

  • Be organised
  • Be realistic
  • Listen to your coach. If you don’t have a coach, get one…

What do you do when you’re not coaching?

If I’m not at work, I tend to fall asleep in front of the TV with Jeanette.

And you are still swimming yourself? 

Not as much as I would like. I keep making promises and resolutions to do more swimming myself and get properly fit but I’m not organised enough to make the time.

What are your goals for the club?

To maintain the high standard we have already set for ourselves and encourage more swimmers to compete and enjoy their swimming.

Who was the best coach you have had and why?

It would have to be my very first coach Mike Hendon (former Breaststroke swimmer from Stoke Newington SC).

After I learned to swim, I joined a club at Kentish Town and my parents were approached by  young man who asked if he could coach me at other times of the week in addition to the once a week club night at the baths.

He established a North London Training Squad which traversed London each night finding pools to train. In summer months, even the Parliament Hill Lido early mornings.

The best coach I have worked with would be Rick Bailey, who set up the Barnet Copthall Scheme with Alan Hime. I learned so much from Rick I couldn’t begin to explain.

We recently met up with Rick and his wife Judith at the 40th anniversary of Barnet Copthall Club and many of the original swimmers and even parents attended a great evening. Rick and Judith were on great form as ever. The number of people attending was a real tribute to Rick and Judith’s way of coaching and training.

Are you married? 

Not officially but Jeanette Squires and I have been together for many years and she still puts up with me. She’s been a great support and our swim meets would never happen without her fantastic organisational skills.

Whether it’s taking splits for the swimmers or feeding officials and welcoming swimmers at our home meets, I couldn’t do it without her.

Did you ever do masters swimming yourself?

Yes but only the short stuff due to lack of training. 100m is my ‘distance event’ but I intend to start training (any day now) and extend my range of events.

One of my swimmers filmed my 50m Butterfly in Slovenia a couple of months ago and, unbeknown to me, posted it on the Facebook page so there is evidence to support my claim to swim.

How enjoyable is the coaching profession?

I find it very enjoyable. Masters swimmers should be fun and it’s rewarding when they train so hard and get good results.

Always remember, masters swimmers are their own bosses. They earn their own living and it is their choice to be with you as the coach.

If you allow things to upset you so badly that you stomp around like a bad tempered bear, then you’re in the wrong job.

What gets you out of bed first thing in the morning?

Jeanette, my alarm clock and the dogs. Usually in that order!

What would you say to those thinking of getting into coaching masters swimmers?

Give it a go. It is seriously rewarding, great fun and educational not just in sports but across the full spectrum of human life.