Their whole world was up in the air. Gráinne’s. Chris’s. Shani’s. Everyone’s.
Their coach, Ronald Claes, had left after Swim Ireland hadn’t renewed his contract for the next Olympic cycle, and as this column reported at the time, the fear among the swimmers down in UL was that high performance swimming would be leaving town with him.
For seven years Limerick had been Gráinne Murphy’s home but seeing her Olympic dream unravel and coach summarily dismissed prompted her to return home to Wexford and reflect on whether she ever wanted to swim again.
European breaststroke finalist Shani Stallard, who had also moved to Limerick in her teens and sat her Leaving Cert there, took up a course in UCD. World open water marathon finalist Chris Bryan feared he’d have to relocate too, with relations between UL and Swim Ireland so strained after the former party had no say in Claes’s dismissal.
Bryan held on to some hope. Swim Ireland high performance director Peter Banks would be based in Limerick for a few months coaching the remaining high performance swimmers there until a decision was made on who, if anyone, would be replacing Claes. In that time he’d get to see first-hand the support structures in place and operating in Limerick.
“We all need to take a step back,” urged Bryan, “and ask, ‘Look, four years from now, where do we want to be?’” A year on and they’re back on track for Rio. Bryan is still where he wants to be – Limerick.
Gráinne’s back. And Swim Ireland and UL are back talking and working smoothly together as well. The family might not all be back together – Stallard was hardly going to uproot again and leave her course in UCD while she’s been joined up there by Killarney native Brian O’Sullivan – but the family environment is back again and with it, a smile on Murphy’s face and a pep in Bryan’s step.
The key to it all was deciding to replace Claes with a coach of similar, even greater, international calibre. Lars Humer has coached for decades over the world, firstly in his native New Zealand and more recently the UK where he coached tens of Olympic and Paralympic swimmers.
He has hit it off with everyone, especially the Limerick and wider Munster swimming community. He’s welcomed their swimmers and coaches into UL with open arms, coached the coaches, urging them to coach each other and even him as well. Under the brilliant but more introverted Claes, there had been something of a disconnect between the high performance team and the wider swimming public. Now that has been bridged, with Humer immersing himself in the wider community, not only attending Munster rugby games in Thomond but taking in a couple of Limerick’s championship games in their march to this year’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final.
He’s hugely impressed by the high performance swimmers too. A couple of months after returning to Wexford, Murphy tentatively returned to the nearby New Ross 25m pool under local coach Fran Ronan. When Humer was appointed he got in contact with Murphy shortly after. Humer was mindful not to rush or push her back to Limerick; Fran is your coach, not me; whatever you guys feel is best for Gráinne, is what’s best. Murphy’s confidence and love for the sport gradually built up under Ronan and now it’s increasing some more under Humer in Limerick. They’re easing her back.
Bryan has also responded well to the new coach. Humer likes a bit of humour about the place; as they all now say, you can take training seriously without taking yourself too seriously.
At any one moment in the pool these days you could have three-time European medallist Murphy, Commonwealth finalist Jean-Marié Neethling from South Africa whose husband CJ Stander is in town playing for Munster, as well as lifesaving world champion Bernard Cahill and Paralympian Jonathan McGrath, and of course the hugely promising Bryan.
The Clareman finished his sports science degree this year but still managed to finish 16th in the world championships. It’s like since London they all took one step back to make two steps forward.
“This time last year I honestly didn’t see myself still based in UL down the line. Now I’m so excited about what I can do out of Limerick with Lars and taking on the rest of the world,” he says.
There’s another wave of youngsters training alongside them: locals Tara Dunne, Alan Corby and Ethan O’Brien, Joe Mooney from Sligo, Emmet Crowley from Cork. Best of all, the college and Swim Ireland are working together too. The future looks brighter for a setup that 12 months ago feared its best days were in the past.