Duncan Goodhew became a household name when he won Olympic Gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, swimming 100m breaststroke. Famous for his bald head (he lost his hair when he fell out of a tree aged 10), he is the President of Swimathon, a charity that has raised over £38 million for Marie Curie Cancer Care. Here he talks about the Olympic legacy, the future of swimming and this year’s Swimathon.
What made you get into swimming in the first place?
I think I was really lucky to start outdoors when I was about five years old. My Dad dug an old grass tennis court up that wasn’t being used at our house in West Sussex – he always used to win on it because he knew where the holes were! It was really one of the first DIY pools. I spent a few years in there with flippers on, in the sun, rain, you name it. I was fortunate that I was able to get such good feel of the water. At the age of seven the flippers were surgically removed by a PE teacher and I learned how to swim breaststroke and that was the massive change.
Was breaststroke always your favourite stroke?
Yes I am a breaststroker. They used to laugh at me because my freestyle looked so ungainly. I went out to Paris and they put me in an international for the 50 metres freestyle. I came out and because I was so angry and pumped up I broke the British record – but it only lasted 20 minutes until one of the freestylers broke it again. The other event that I can swim well is the 100m Individual Medley, but obviously they’ve never had a 100m Medley in the Olympics because it’s four lengths of a 25 metre pool.
How many times were you training at the height of your success?
It depended which coach I was with. It was about 27 hours in the water and about 5 to 7 hours in the gym per week. Today’s athletes don’t do much more than that. For two weeks we did 20,000 metres a day. I never wanted to that. Even now most of the swimmers won’t do anything more than we trained because it’s counter productive. What’s really changed in the 33 years since I swam isn’t that they are working any harder, just they are working a lot smarter. There is much more knowledge about fitness. In my day we trained the whole year round and I felt exhausted the whole year round. Now they know that little mini rests increase fitness levels because you dip down and test the body a little bit and then just as you are getting into exhaustion they’ll let off and then rest you a little bit then hit you again. So it’s giving the body real chance to recuperate where we didn’t have that.
Was it difficult when you stopped competing?
Yes everything you do is about that one minute race. You get up and you are going to work harder than anyone else because that’s the only way you win. It’s about being more diligent about what you do. And when you take that away suddenly you don’t have the whole purpose of life. For any top sportsman or anyone in a high pressured job that demands a lot there’s a real collapse afterwards. And for me not having the routine of knowing that I was getting up at this time, having dinner at this time, going to bed at this time that was the hardest thing.
How often do you swim now?
A good day is a one swim day, a great day is a two swim day. I swim three to four times a week, usually between 5 and 7 hours a week. Over 12 million people swim regularly and it’s the number one sport in this country by a long way. If you ask inactive people the vast majority would consider swimming above any other kind of sport. It’s the sport with the most latent potential to bring people in.
What attracted you to Swimathon? You’ve been involved since the 1980s haven’t you?
Well I was asked to come on board to help out. It seemed obvious that if we could have an event like the London Marathon in the water then it could pull together the attitude of swimming and be there to promote our sport and get more people engaged. It really wasn’t about fundraising, it was about getting people involved. There had been a pilot in 1986 and I came on board in 1987. Our big problem was how do you get more people engaged because with a Marathon you can get loads of people taking part whereas you can’t get that many people in a single pool. There was a big debate in the early days about making it a relay swim. But to get the best results you need to do distance. What we didn’t want to do is get people swimming two lengths.
What is the future of Swimathon? Are there any plans to introduce longer distance events like a 10Km event or perhaps an open water swim?
Some people do a 10Km swim unofficially. I even met one gentleman who had done five 5Km Swimathons over the course of a weekend. So people are being creative about it. A few years back we did put a 10Km swim in, but we have to find a balance between being a challenge event for people who are really going for it and an event that appeals to a lot of people. We’ve looked at open water events too, I like open water swimming and swim in the Serpentine and really enjoy it. But at the moment everyone knows what the Swimathon is. That it’s 620 pools around the country and everyone knows what events are available.
Do you think it’s a shame though when you hear about pools being shut down or not being built that we’re not fulfilling the Olympic legacy?
It’s patchy. Unfortunately swimming is still a bit of a postcode lottery and some people are catered for better than others. There is a big debate on whether you should consolidate the older pools and make bigger new pools. What we have seen is far more 50m pools being built around the country. It wasn’t long ago that you could say there were more 50m pools in Paris than the whole of Britain. We now have way more 50m pools in Britain. There has been a real drive to build them and some of them are stunning.
Which is your favourite pool?
One of the weird ones that I used to swim in for training was Crystal Palace. On a sunny day in the summer, the sun coming in there was stunning. But it’s an old pool so it’s on its last legs. For me it’s about the atmosphere and the feel of the water. The ozone treated pools are fantastic. I swam the opening length in the Olympic Pool for London 2012 and that was pretty special. It’s going to really interesting seeing the Olympic pool in its Olympic legacy mode because they are taking the stands off and there’s going to be a lot of glass on the sides of the pool so you will be able to see right down the canal as you are swimming.
Do you think the swimmers at the Olympics were disappointing?
The swimmers didn’t hit their target. Had they swam as they swam in the trials they would have hit the medal targets so that was the real disappointment. The feel is that the trials were probably too early. Having them so far off the games meant that you don’t get enough race experience. I suspect that wasn’t the only factor though – there were other factors. If you look at Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton they got amazing psychological support from their teams and even under mindbuckling pressure they still performed. There were a few disappointing swims early on and that can affect a team’s confidence too. If you look underneath this though there is something we should be upbeat about and that is that we got second equal in terms of number of finalists. Interestingly, we were second equal with Australia who also misfired. I think it’s a shame if the current attitude that funding is cut is carried on. It makes no sense. It is the second sport in the Olympic games and should be funded properly.
This interview was first published on Goggleblog.com