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'Any athlete that wants to compete at senior international level and leaves Ireland now - I think they’re making a huge mistake'

Swim Ireland’s National Performance Director Jon Rudd talks about the changes to Irish swimming since his appointment after the Rio Olympics.

Ireland's Shane Ryan was the stand-out swimmer of the year after his bronze medal success at the World Championships in December.
Ireland's Shane Ryan was the stand-out swimmer of the year after his bronze medal success at the World Championships in December.
Image: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

AS IS CUSTOMARY when the Olympic Games roll around every four years, coverage of lesser known – and lesser celebrated – athletes increases greatly.

For the Games in Rio almost three years ago, Ireland sent four swimmers to compete: Shane Ryan, Nicholas Quinn, Fiona Doyle and diver, Oliver Dingley.

Of the quartet mentioned above, Doyle had based her training out of Calgary where she was continuing her studies. Quinn could train in Ireland with his proximity to the country, but again his search for qualifications meant that he often trained away from home in Edinburgh.

Ryan, who qualified for Ireland through his father (a Co. Laois native), has spent his life in Pennsylvania and the majority of his elite-level training has been based out of Penn State University.

Only Dingley had solely committed himself to training out of the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin.

Nicholas Quinn, Shane Ryan and Fiona Doyle From l-r: Nicholas Quinn, Shane Ryan and Fiona Doyle were three of the four members of Ireland's swimming team that made it to Rio. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the time since the Rio Games, much has changed.

The appointment of Jon Rudd as National Performance Director in the winter of 2016 to replace the outgoing Peter Banks meant that Swim Ireland were putting in place what they called “a vision of a long-term, systemic approach to achieving consistent medal success at Olympic and World level”.

Two years on, the former director of swimming at Plymouth College has helped put in place a system that connects all branches of the Irish swimming family.

“The first thing that stood out was that there was no regional or provincial alignment whatsoever,” he explains.

“Each of the four provinces were doing their own thing, so there was no natural route to what the national programme would look like.

“One of the very first things I did – that was supported in the main, but did cause friction with certain people – was putting a system in place where Leinster, Connacht, Ulster and Munster were all doing similar things at similar times in a similar way for similar reasons.

“Right down to terminology, content, testing and even coaching intervention. These were implemented to forge a way into the national performance programme for Paris and first, Tokyo.”

This period of standardisation was brought about with the appointment of regional pathway coaches who worked with different clubs in certain regions and ensured the same standards were being applied across all levels.

“If you make the most important thing the green tracksuit that walks into the Olympic Games, then every other layer on the way down has to be the stepping stone to it.

“So when you get to that level, you need something that satisfies regional expectation and regional history, but recognises that the new systems that we’re putting in place is going to allow us to develop on that.

“We make it clear how it’s done and make sure everyone is clear as to what the standards and expectations are.”

Mona McSharry after finishing 14th overall At 18, Mona McSharry broke three national records within the space of 24 hours at last December's Irish Short Course Swimming Championships. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

Two years may be too soon to credit Rudd with a lot of the recent successes in Irish swimming, but the ever-increasing number of talented athletes in this country means that he has enough raw materials to work with heading into the next two Olympic cycles.

At 18, swimming prodigy Mona McSharry smashed three national swimming records in the space of 24 hours at last December’s Irish Short Course Swimming Championships in Lisburn.

Representing Ireland on the international stage, 24-year-old Brendan Hyland broke two national records at the World Short Course Swimming Championships just before Christmas.

Perhaps the most impressive result from last year’s endeavors was Shane Ryan’s podium success at the FINA World Swimming Championships. Also at the age of 24 and two years short of the Games in Tokyo, Ryan clinched bronze in the 50m Backstroke.

In order to get the most from these athletes and to have a system in place whereby their talents were best honed, Rudd had to address some of the shortcomings in the existing system.

“In the past I don’t know that Ireland could put its hand on its heart in swimming and say that we have a homegrown and a home-based system that can challenge anything in the world – meaning that there is really no need for our athletes to leave.

“I don’t know if they could have honestly said it before, but they can say it now.

“Our centres are now as good as anything on the planet when it comes to the day-to-day swimming environment.

The athletes who left before, I can perhaps understand why. Any athlete that wants to compete at senior international level and that leaves the country now – I don’t understand it and I think they’re making a huge mistake.

“There’s nothing that will cater for and care for an Irish athlete as much as an Irish programme.

The only place where the agendas are aligned is in Ireland – where what we want and what the athlete wants are exactly the same thing: a world-class, lifetime-best performance, on the day that matters. 

“I can’t say that British universities want the same things for Irish kids. It’s not the case.

“A medal for Ireland is great. But a medal for Ireland that’s come out of Ireland is even better.”

Shane Ryan celebrates with his bronze medal Shane Ryan celebrates winning bronze in the 50m Backstroke at last year's World Championships. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

Stifling Irish Talent

“My biggest worry and fear are for those talented athletes we have, that perhaps they’re not in the right day-to-day environment,” he continues.

“Sometimes it that’s the case and athletes don’t reach their full potential.”

All of the attention will now be focused on the FINA World Championships in July and then Tokyo 2020.

The current eight-member performance squad that includes the likes of Ryan, Hyland and Niamh Coyne to name just a few, will be gearing up for qualification and Rudd insists that qualifying for major championships just to compete has been eliminated from the organisation’s way of thinking.

At the end of the day, we’ve never really been about how many people can we get the Olympic Games to participate. We’re about trying to find contenders.

“I’d be happy to go back with three or four again, but for each of those athletes to be strong enough to get themselves out of the heats, into the semi-final and challenge for a position in the final.

“Then once they’re there, podiums are possible. You’ve got to be able to make the final to do that.

“If someone was to say to me we’re only going to have three or four athletes that can do a job when they get there or would you like to have 10 participants, the answer is really easy.

But I do think we can get a middle ground. The standard that we’re setting now means that anyone who goes is highly likely to be a contender when they get there.

“The team we sent to the Short Course in China, for example. None of them were there to make up the numbers. They were all strong.

Yeah we’d like the biggest possible team and a bigger team than we’ve ever had before and we are trying very hard to secure Ireland’s first swimming relay since 1972.

“Bottom line is, we’re looking for those athletes that when they dive into the heats, they can do a job and get into the top 16. In the semis we’ll have equipped them both physically and psychologically to get into the finals. That’s what we’re looking for.”

The Plymouth native credits the systems in place now with developing talent at regional levels and also points out that, for the most part, Ireland will be gearing up for Tokyo with a fresh team.

“Good youngsters coming through really helped create a new team environment.

“They didn’t carry any baggage. There were some retirements after Rio. Maybe some of those were people who had been disappointed with their swims, but we didn’t have to psychologically repair them.

“We would have done our best if they decided to stay in the sport, but some retired.”

Fiona Doyle Fiona Doyle was one of those who exited the Games in Rio with disappointment. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ireland’s litmus test will come over the course of the next year.

We will once again see the lesser celebrated stars thrust into the limelight, but there can be no doubt that the feeling this time around will be markedly different.

Swimmers achieving medal success at major championships and those up-and-coming stars breaking long-standing records has set a different tone over the last 12 months.

“I think things have progressed – I don’t think there’s a question that they have.

“It’s whether or not we’ve progressed enough and at the rate we need to with the World Championships and an Olympic Games on the horizon.”

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