I count myself as fortunate to have spent a fair amount of time over the years in Australia and count many Aussies as close friends. This association began in 1985 when I went to work for an Australian in Southern California by the name of John Bainbridge. An innovator in learn to swim, especially infant aquatics, John became my mentor in swim teaching and acted as my introduction to Australian culture.
Through casual visits, attending conferences, and working in Australia I have become exposed to what I consider to be the greatest swimming culture in the world. This is not meant to be traitor’s statement or to deny the swimming dynasty that the US has enjoyed through the years. It is, however, meant to acknowledge the societal roots of a country fanatical about swimming that, while being much smaller than many other countries, has maintained a significant presence in international swimming over the years. The recent successes of the Australians in the Sydney Games and World Championships are a testament to this success, which may be argued, is proportionally more significant than that of other countries with a much larger “pool” of swimmers to draw from.
Australia and the US share many similarities in their origins. Both countries had their basis in exiles from England finding a new life in a new land and both countries share a similar tragic past in dealing with their original native inhabitants. Both the US and Australia have become a refuge for large numbers of immigrants over the years. Sharing a rather dubious distinction, both countries have a terrible problem with pediatric drowning. However, in how the cultures relate to the water, there are significant differences.
With 90% of the Australian population living within an average 25 miles of the ocean, they are very much a water and beach oriented society. Up and down the east coast of Australia you will rarely find a popular beach without at least the historical remnants of the requisite “rock pool”. Many of these pools are indeed still in use. These pools were constructed using various methods. Some were chiseled into the tidal rocks while others were shaped with the help of concrete. While some depend on the daily tides to refresh the water supply, others use pumps, but all use ocean water to fill the pools, which range in size from small wading pools to full 50-meter competition facilities.
Australia has enjoyed a proud tradition of competitive swimming and has been an innovator in the training methods and equipment developed through the years. An example of this would be the icon of interval training found on most every pool deck around the world, the pace clock, which many credit to Forbes Carlile, an Australian legend in his own right.
Growing up in Southern California I came to recognize that positions as a local beach lifeguard were well paid and highly sought after. It was quite different when I became familiar with the tradition of Australian Surf Lifesaving Clubs with their largely volunteer lifeguards and nippers programs for getting even the youngest children involved in the “sport” of surf lifesaving.
I was also amazed to find swimming lessons included as part of the curriculum for most school children and every school having a swimming carnival, which is basically a big swim meet.
On a recent trip to the Sydney area I was impressed by an ad used by local real estate agent who advertised, “we can find you a new house between swimming lessons and dinner.” What struck me was that swimming lessons would be considered such an expected part of the daily routine that this agent chose mentioning them to demonstrate how conveniently and quickly he could help someone find a new home.
On numerous flights to and from Australia I have been impressed with the use of water, swimming, and related images used in the airline’s in-flight magazines. Most memorable was a recent photo shoot featuring the Sydney Dance Company where the dancers struck creative poses underwater.
Arriving in Sydney within six months of the Olympics, most people could not have avoided seeing the Westpac ad campaign featuring giant images of Aussie swimmers all over buildings in the central business district. Not that ads featuring swimmers is anything unusual in Australia, but to an American, the commercial presence of swimming in Australia is amazing.
Before the Olympics I was witness to Ian Thorpe making a personal appearance at a local shopping mall and was amazed to see his “rock star” status with a police escort protecting him from the fans trying to grab at him as he moved through the crowd. Ian’s popularity was amazing, but that could have been any one of the top Australian swimmers and there would have been a similar reaction. To see the swimming competition at the World Championships get prime time coverage on national TV across Australia is evidence of the country’s love of the sport.
A promotional poster produced by Swim Australia with the help of their sponsor MILO (a chocolate flavored drink mix made by Nestle), epitomizes the Australian vision of swimming. It pictures Olympic silver medallist Liesel Jones, with her medal, in the water holding a baby in her arms. The baby, seemingly mesmerized, reaches out for her medal. It isn’t like there’s this great pressure to push all kids into competitive swimming. They don’t need the pressure, because there’s a dream that exists. Many kids already think, “maybe one day, that could be me – I want to be a swimmer!”
I have gone to great lengths here to give examples of the swimming culture I have been witness to in Australia and I have only scratched the surface. This culture plays a big role in providing large numbers of swimmers that eventually make their way into competitive programs.
So what things do you see in swim schools around Australia? Well, of course, swim schools are not the same everywhere you go in Australia. Even in this great swimming culture, there is variance with very good and very poor schools being found. However, I will identify some of the trends I’ve seen.
In general, groups are taught differently in Australia with less one on one focus and more group-oriented teaching. There is a tendency toward more structured lessons and a significantly higher amount of movement, even in beginner level classes. Year round programs are common and there is a concentrated focus on freestyle with fundamental skills, such as kicking and streamlining emphasized more than I generally see in the US.
For a longer time than in the US, I think swim schools have been seen as viable businesses and many owners have been applying business principles to what they are doing. Consequently, some of the most commercially successful swims schools in the world are in Australia. There are a few companies, which have grown quite large. One has a dozen locations, each grossing over a $1,000,000A per year. And these are learn to swim facilities operating mainly out of 6 lane, 25-meter pools.
There has also been a significant call to action in response to the drowning problem and need for water safety education. The Kids Alive program, promoted by Laurie Lawrence, is one of the best examples. Laurie has won sponsorship by McDonalds nationally in Australia and has a touring pantomime show that is getting the message out to kids. While it has taken longer than it should have for the problem of drowning to get the attention it warrants in Australia, we have yet to address this issue in any large scale public way in the US.
So, what can we learn from these schools and this culture? Well, we can’t change our culture, at least not very quickly, and don’t know that we should. There are some wonderful things about our culture, but in a grass roots way, there may be room for greater recognition of the multifaceted benefits of swimming and for ways to make it a more integral part of the American lifestyle.
Might swimming become part of the school curriculum? I think we are a long way off from that happening, but that would start with the public recognizing the basic need for swimming, seeing it as a necessity, and not seeing it as an option, like any of the other activities they may choose from. The tactic has been to scare parents into getting lessons because of the fear of drowning, instead of promoting it positively, which is a much better long-term motivator.
Improvements can definitely be made in the way group lessons are generally taught in the US, offering a one on one focus when warranted, but with a greater utilization of group dynamics, peer relationships, and group movement. I think the greatest strides can be made not in what we teach, but in how we teach it. How the teacher presents themselves, the lesson, and the skills is of great importance. Dealing with issues such as the consistency of lesson quality and the standards that are set and maintained contributes largely to what can be expected from a program on a regular basis.
In many situations, running better businesses with a real focus on customer service is an area where improvements could be made. Ultimately, we need to be ourselves and not try to copy anyone, but some of the ideas discussed here may be things that can become a welcome part of the American swim school scene and change the face of swimming into the lifestyle status it deserves.
We can’t go out trying to manufacture great swimmers, but as Forbes Carlile once said, “Our aim is not produce champions, but to create an environment where champions are inevitable.”