Passing the flame on the GB way
The lowest point of the Olympics so far came in the BBC studio. No, it wasn’t Colin Jackson and Denise Lewis leaping around, screaming, and cheering Mo Farah to victory. It was the moment when Gabby Logan dangled the imaginary carrot of an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing in front of Rebecca Adlington.
The two had been discussing the future for the 23 year-old swimming star and the prospect of training for another four years to face a fresh crop of teenage pool prodigies from China and the USA in Rio.
Will the future for this proud winner of two Bronze Olympic medals at a home Olympics find a new routine as a pantomime trick pony on prime time telly?
Let’s hope not. And if Rebecca needs any inspiration for what to do next she could do much worse than to go back to her roots and the story of the woman who first spotted her talent.
Maureen Arnold’s big day in swimming came 58 years ago at the Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. In the summer of 1954, Maureen came a very creditable fifth in the 110 yards backstroke, beaten by a teenage sensation from South Africa, Joan Harrison.
Fifteen years after that Maureen was coaching and had erected a 25m free-standing pool in a disused church in her home town of Mansfield Woodhouse. The Kingfisher Swimming Club was a very special place for me and for two brothers whose father drove us there every Friday night for training. That was where we learned, at the feet of an international swimmer, to fly, back, breast, crawl, refining our technique with every length. On an old tracksuit top I still have all the badges, culminating in the 1600m Individual Medley, the last remaining proof I have that I was once able to clock up a quarter of a mile of butterfly. If Maureen was our guiding light and our inspiration in those early 1970s days, Mark Spitz was our hero. The height of fashion for any young swimmer with international aspirations in 1972 was a pair of stars and stripes Speedos.
The Kingfisher Club was where my serious swimming ended. After a brief encounter with county training in Nottingham, I realised I was out of my depth and hung up my racing goggles. The two brothers I had swum with at Kingfisher were made of sterner stuff and for several years of secondary school they were easily recognised by their broad shoulders and chlorine-bleached hair. Once their swimming days were over, the two brothers followed their father into the coal industry.
Fast-forward a few years and the Kingfisher Club was closed and my star-spangled budgie-smugglers had long since perished in the wash, but our coach Maureen Arnold’s dedication to swimming coaching was undiminished.
She was still working at a local swimming pool in Mansfield Woodhouse in 1989, the year that Rebecca was born. These were dark days in the history of a town built on textiles and coal. The colliery in Mansfield had closed a year before and by the time Rebecca was born, Sherwood pit at Mansfield Woodhouse had also shut. My friends would both emigrate to Australia, a land of sport and thriving heavy industry. Mansfield was not a well-spring of hope in those days.
But young Rebecca was fortunate, because Maureen was there. Decades after her own retirement from international competition, Maureen spotted Rebecca’s talent and guided her into the county team, by then known as Nova Centurion, and the coaching regime of Bill Furniss.
So, Britain’s most decorated swimmer had a fortunate start, and two fantastic coaches. But young Rebecca Adlington was also a very special individual and has grown into a very special champion.
And that is perhaps the point of this story. The legacy of the Olympics will not be a matter of bricks and mortar or Government-backed initiatives, it will be about passing the flame onto the next generation through people. The competitors, their coaches and their families have the power to spread the word and encourage the young, just as modest, dedicated Maureen Arnold has done for almost six decades.
With two bronze medals and two gold medals to her name, Rebecca Adlington could do so much more with her future than join the ranks of B-List celebrities . I’m sure she’s sensible enough to realise that, and that she’ll be happy to stay in the audience for Strictly Come Dancing and champion the cause of swimming in Great Britain in any way she can.Tagged in: London 2012, Maureen Arnold, olympics, Rebecca Adlington, swimming
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