The Kieran Shannon Interview: Jon Rudd, Swim Ireland and delivering when it matters most

WHEN we meet Jon Rudd on Tuesday, 48 hours before Leo Varadkar addresses the nation in another nation, he greets you with an elbow-bump and a geniality that suggests that if this was any other time and he knew you any bit more it would have been a chest bump or a bear hug.
The Kieran Shannon Interview: Jon Rudd, Swim Ireland and delivering when it matters most

John Rudd. Picture: Inpho/Bryan Keane
John Rudd. Picture: Inpho/Bryan Keane

Swim Ireland’s Performance Director Jon Rudd has set out his stall for a successful Tokyo Games in July. “A good Olympics for Ireland, “ he says, “would be for everybody who is on the team to swim faster there than they ever have before.”

WHEN we meet Jon Rudd on Tuesday, 48 hours before Leo Varadkar addresses the nation in another nation, he greets you with an elbow-bump and a geniality that suggests that if this was any other time and he knew you any bit more it would have been a chest bump or a bear hug.

But this is March, 2020. The sand is all the time-shifting underneath his feet.

As we speak, he, as performance director of Swim Ireland, is still working on the basis that on Friday he and a national squad will be heading to Edinburgh for an international meet, not yet knowing that it will be cancelled. But it’s not as if he’s unaware of such a possibility. In a sport and time like this you need feet that can dance as well as kick while that sand moves beneath them.

“I’m not an expert on this, but it seems as if we’re just at the beginning of this and that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

“So it’s a case of how we can handle it rather than how we stop it. So the primary and obvious thing is everyone just being more vigilant and aware of where they’re going and who they might be mixing with and to practise good personal hygiene.

“And then there’s scenario planning. And already we’ve drawn up a Scenario A, B and C around our own Olympic trials.”

Scenario A for those Olympic – and Paralympic – trials, formally known as the Irish Open championships, was for it to be held from April 1 to April 5. Obviously now that has changed; yesterday Swim Ireland announced that they are to be rescheduled for the end of June.

But what hasn’t changed is the primacy of those open championships. Before Rudd, it didn’t matter what time of the year you swam an Olympic qualifying time. Since Rudd came from the UK to Ireland in November 2016, it matters a whole lot.

Because immediately he started with the end in mind: that Irish swimmers perform at the Olympics, not merely qualify for them. And so, to make the Olympics in an individual event, you have to deliver at the open championships. It’s that simple. He’s that ruthless.

From my perspective, it’s no good someone swimming a time that could have won an Olympic medal four weeks before the Olympics or four weeks after. It has to happen at the Olympics. You can break a world record anywhere, anytime, but you can only win an Olympic medal at the Olympics.

“So if we want to win an Olympic medal, there is a nine-day window where that can happen every four years. So we’ve to create a system where there is a requirement to swim at your best at particular moments in the season.

“That is why we have gone to sole trials. The athletes and their coaches have to learn how to deliver a lifetime best performance or at least a season-best performance in a designated period of time rather than it just randomly happening at some point during the year so that when we go to a major championship, we have a template as to how that happens.”

He suspects that initially some of the Irish community might have been lukewarm and even resistant to the idea: while sole trials were the norm with leading programmes around the world, it wasn’t in Ireland.

Yet he pushed on: to make the 2018 European championships, you had to deliver a FINA qualifying time at the national open championships that April. It was the same to make the 2019 world championships. Now it’s just accepted, the new norm.

And so, while Shane Ryan and Darragh Greene have already swam Olympic qualifying times, they’ve to do it all over again – or even better – at the open championships in the National Aquatic Centre, whenever they may be. The relay teams will get a second bite of the cherry at the European Championships in Budapest (scheduled for May) but again, that is a small defined window in which they’ve to deliver.

Shane Ryan
Shane Ryan

So when you ask Rudd to define what is a good Olympics for Ireland, that’s what he’ll come back to. While he speaks about medals, they won’t necessarily be the measure. Performance – in the truest sense of the term – will.

“A good Olympics for Ireland would be for everybody who is on the team to swim faster there than they ever have before. That is not what Ireland has done in the past. In the past it has numerous talented athletes who have swum world-class times for that era but rarely done it at the competition that actually mattered.”

RUDD has worked with swimmers who have delivered when it mattered most. It was why he was identified as Peter Banks’ successor after Rio and he says it’s why he accepted the gig: so that he could help other coaches experience what it feels like when one of their swimmers touches the wall to win an Olympic gold medal.

He had that rush in London 2012 thanks to the remarkable case of Ruta Meilutyte. She was 12 when she first showed up at his poolside. When she was four in her native Lithuania her mother had been killed in a hit-and-run.

Her father, Saulius, had to travel abroad to make a living while her grandmother reared her back home, but being aware that she possessed a rare talent in swimming, he researched possible programmes that would be the best to nurture it and selected Rudd’s in Plymouth which was linked to a boarding school.

She initially came over for a three-week trial period. Saulius loved it. Ruta didn’t. The only English she had was ‘Yes, no, please, thank you.’ She wasn’t a westernised child, au fait with an IPhone and laptop. She was a homebird, a granny’s girl, a girl of the land as well as the water.

The same year her mother was killed, a photograph was taken of little Ruta with an axe over her head, chopping wood for the family fire.

At first Rudd and Ruta communicated through sign language. Then, as their connection grew, she began speaking and opening up in broken English.

One day she explained what the three colours of the Lithuanian flag meant. The green was for its beautiful countryside and fields. The gold was for the sun that moulded that landscape. And the red, she explained, was for the blood of the people who had sacrificed in the name of saving and building a nation.

Rudd had known from the first time he’d seen her in the water that this was a special talent. After that conversation he knew here was someone with a special, higher purpose.

The following year she won the British 100m breaststroke at her ease. At 14 she won in the same event at the European Youth Olympics in Turkey. The year after that she was in London, ranked twelfth in the world heading into those 2012 Games.

“The last thing on our minds was that she might medal.”

But then she won her heat. “After that, I began to think, ‘If we don’t win a medal here, it’s an opportunity lost.’ But you didn’t tell her that.” Instead they continued to focus on performance; when he had even attempted to mention another heat, she cut him short: “Don’t tell me about the others. Tell me how I can get better.”

And so he did. And she won her semi-final too.

For the final Saulius had managed to secure a ticket but only the one. Which he gave to Ruta’s grandmother while he went to watch the race on a small TV monitor just around the corner. In that final she swam for granny and for red, and the green and gold too, to secure gold.

It sent a nation into ecstasy and the girl herself into shock. Literally and physically. While it was Lithuania’s Katie Taylor moment, this Katie had no idea or aspiration of winning in London.

Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor

“She went into shock the way you would being pulled out of a house fire. She needed a silver blanket, fluids, the lot. And she cried all the way through the podium ceremony. Because never before had the Lithuanian national anthem being played at an Olympic Games. Any time before a Lithuanian had won gold, it had been the Russian national anthem had been played.”

If it was a remarkable achievement for a 15-year-old Lithuanian, it was also a stunning feat for a coach from Hull who began coaching five years before she was even born with no idea or aspiration of the Olympics himself.

Rudd’s people were rugby league people. His grandfather played professionally and his father Harold played too. The only time anyone in the family swam was on holidays.

But then at 11 Jon went for lessons, found he quite liked the water and it quite liked him, and went from a late starter to a quick developer and within a year was training in the morning before school, Harold was helping out as a coach and his mother was a judge and administrator.

Although Rudd wouldn’t be quite good enough to win at national meets or swim for his country – “I was more a workhorse than a thoroughbred” – at least he was at those national championships. He continued to swim in his first year away studying PE in university in Plymouth, about as far away from Hull as you could find, but by that summer felt he had come to a dead end, only for it to turn out to be merely a crossroads. The moment he nearly quit was the time he really began.

“That first year in college I’d had enough of swimming. It had almost been beaten out of me by that particular coaching setup.

But for second year in college I needed to earn money, so it was a case of do you pull pints or stack supermarket shelves? I was flicking through the Swimming Times magazine, looking up on some mates who were representing the country, and I found a small ad in the corner on the back page – ‘Head coach wanted for Plymouth Leander Swimming Association.’

“I didn’t have any coaching qualifications. The only coaching knowledge I had was how I had been coached. But I applied for it, got it and was really pleased with myself. About six months later I learned the only reason I got it was because I had been the only applicant.”

It didn’t matter. By then the spark had been lit, the bug had already been caught.

“Straight away, I was ‘Right, this is going to be the best club in the city.’ At the time there were three clubs in Plymouth and we would have been a distant second. Then I said, ‘Right, I want us to be the best in the county [Devon].’ And then a few years later we won the Devon championship.”

AT the time it was like the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind; the southeast of England was hardly a hotbed for the sport and in retrospect, Rudd’s own coaching at the time was limited.

But he had that ambition. He remembers bringing three swimmers to the national championships and seeing Leeds, a powerhouse in the sport at the time under the stewardship of Terry Denison, with 70-plus athletes in their yellow tracksuits.

“I looked at that and I said to myself, ‘I want that.’”

But over time that’s what Plymouth Leander would become, the strongest programme in all Britain, teaming up with a local boarding school that would build a bigger pool and free him up from teaching PE so he could coach swimming full-time.

By 2012 20 years after responding to that ad, Rudd had over 60 athletes from 27 different nationalities and every continent in his pool.

Although his commitments to the likes of Ruta meant he couldn’t be part of GB’s Olympic efforts, he had by then already acquired plenty of experience and expertise from within that system.

“The big turning point for me was the appointment of [Australian] Bill Sweetenham as national performance director after Sydney. That was when we realised as a nation – and we were one of the culprits in Plymouth – that we simply weren’t doing enough work to be competitive on the international stage.

“So we had to up our hours and our training volumes but more than anything up the development of skill and technique. When I swam, I was a hard worker, but I don’t remember anyone picking me up on how I was swimming.

“And he brought an appreciation of sports science into it, that we couldn’t just rely on us as the swimming coaches being the one and only person that was going to produce top athletes. He challenged coaches on that.

“And a lot of top, established coaches at the time didn’t like it. But the tier below that was a wave of coaches like myself – under 30 – who just lapped it up.”

At the time email was new but Sweetenham’s babies would quickly become accustomed to it, being inundated with daily links and articles from their supremo and mentor. Rudd, being old school, would print them off until he realised his spare bedroom floor resembled a paper Alps. From them he would help athletes reach the summit.

After Rio though, he felt in danger of just repeating himself. If he was going to make a change, it needed to be now, and with no foreign language in his toolbox, it had to be in an English-speaking country.

The PD job in Ireland was perfect for him and he was perfect for it.

Although his status and CV wouldn’t yet compare to Sweetenham’s, he sees similarities between his first three years in the Irish job and the Aussie’s first three in the UK.

Some older coaches have been slower to take on board new ideas but there’s a wave of younger domestic coaches ravenous for more knowledge.

He’s brought in his own team of coaches – like Ben Higson as head coach of the national team and the NAC hub, and then John Szaranek as lead coach for the high-performance centre in UL – and with it a multi-disciplinary, integrated approach.

“When I arrived, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack for swimmers that you could say had the physiological attributes to take on the world. Now when you walk onto a deck at the national championships, you’ll see some real specimen, both male and female.

There’s no doubt in my mind that swimming in Ireland in 2020 is in a better place than it was in 2017 because of the coaching that is taking place nationwide.”

It’s been reflected in Ireland currently holding two relay berths for the Olympics – though they may need to race even faster to secure them, as will two more relay teams targeting a place in Tokyo. Yet the sport here still has huge challenges.

It isn’t rugby which is international but not something the States or China or Russia really do. And some of those superpowers have athletes who dope. And that’s on top of the inherent challenges that go with the sport itself, wherever you are, with its early, long and lonely hours.

But that’s how he sees it all. A challenge. The obstacle is the way.

“I don’t know if it’s any different to any other sport where the commitment level to reach the top is very, very high. We have the advantage that we’re not jogging out onto a freezing rugby field on a November afternoon wondering if it’s going to be rain, sleet or snow that’s going to hit you.

“Our athletes are indoors where it’s comfortable and warm, 24/7, 365 days of the year.

“There is the notion that burying your face in chlorinated water for 20 hours a week isn’t particularly exciting. And it can be a lonely place when you’ve got to stare at the bottom of a pool and the voices in your head are your only company quite a lot of the time.

“But it’s like any sport, where you’re almost putting your youth on hold to strive to see how good you can be in this endeavour. And for me that’s a true road of nobility. There’s true glory in that quest.”

Even in a world of Sun Yangs – or more accurately that produces Sun Yangs? Yes, says Rudd. All the more so.

“I would like to think we have a very strong team identity and culture and that it’s not just something that we preach. And we are explicitly clear that if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to get fast, then we’re going to do it in a wholesome way.

“Ruta had to deal with a Russian girl that had two positive tests but was still in the pool and was booed at the Rio Olympics and it was a sad state of affairs for everybody. But it has just become part of the challenge, like there’s a challenge about getting up at five in the morning to go to the pool or the challenge of disciplining yourself not to eat junk food and instead eat a healthy meal.”

Rudd and his partner Teresa are based in Kells, which works just right for them: close and far enough from Dublin and close enough to the border and Belfast where the shops and speed signs can make them feel back at home.

But the regulars in the local pub have helped that way as well.

“The first few times they would have looked at me very strangely. But then when they found out I worked for Irish sport and was trying to help Irish kids get to the Olympic Games, they were all about me. ‘You’re welcome here, lad.’

“And I get this sense that people are just waiting for Ireland to really hit Olympic sport with a vengeance. I mix with other performance directors and you realise we’re only margins away. There isn’t a doubt with the relationship Sport Ireland and the OFI now have, it’s going to be the most cohesive Olympics that Ireland has ever had.

“And I firmly believe that if it doesn’t happen at this Olympics, it will happy pretty soon – that Irish sport will really make that mark on the biggest stage of all.”

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