A Dream Job and a Legacy Built: A Look at the Jacco Verhaeren Era of Aussie Swimming

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FLASHBACK TO 2013: Jacco Verhaeren appointed as the Australian Dolphins Head Coach with president John Bertrand AO (left), CEO Mark Anderson and High Performance Manager Michael Scott, Photo Courtesy Swimming Australia.

When renowned Dutch swimming coach Jacco Verhaeren first arrived in Australia to seal his role as National Head Coach of the country’s famed Dolphins Swim Team it was AFL Grand Final week of 2013.

Verhaeren wanted to come to Australia to present to Swimming Australia on his ideals on swimming but also got caught up in one of the biggest weeks –if not the biggest alongside the Melbourne Cup and the Boxing Day Test Cricket matches – in Australian sport.

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WINNING DECK: Outgoing Dolphins Head Coach Jacco Verhaeren (second right) with from left Dean Boxall, Michael Bohl, Craig Jackson and Mick Palfrey.Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr (Swimming Australia).

Verhaeren had touched down in Melbourne on the day of the AFL Grand Final Parade featuring Hawthorn and Fremantle in the lead up to 100,000 people converging on the MCG on the Saturday.

And as he stood on St Kilda Road waiting for a taxi he wondered why no one would pick him up.

“In Europe we don’t know about the AFL, we know nothing about AFL but apparently I was in town and they have these parades and I was the only one with an orange suitcase tying to get a cab in the middle of the parade,” recalled Verhaeren this week as he looked back over almost seven successful years as the Australian Dolphins Head Coach.

“People kept coming up to me saying ‘Good luck mate’….and I soon realised I was in a throng of around 10,00 people and this was pretty big.”

But Verhaeren’s initiation into Australia and it’s infectious, passionate sporting heritage didn’t stop there…and a day that would eventually usher him into one of the world’s most passionate sporting nations.

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IN THE ZONE: Jacco Verhaeren, a picture of concentration. Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr (Swimming Australia).

That night he was invited to have dinner with Swimming Australia president and yachting icon John Bertrand AO.

“John wanted to talk to me and he said listen let’s have dinner and we’ll have a chat and he wanted to get to know me before Swimming Australia made a decision on the role of head coach,” said Verhaeren.

“We were dining in a Melbourne restaurant (remembering it was 2013) and I’m sitting there, not knowing John Bertrand and literally every three minutes someone would come up and say ‘hey John congrats….congrats John….congrats mate’…and after the fifth or sixth person I asked John ‘It isn’t your birthday is it?” said Verhaeren, who was soon to learn what it was like to be sitting in the company of Australian sporting royalty.

“No it’s not,” said Bertrand “but it’s exactly 30 years to the day, 30 years ago that Australia won the America’s Cup.”

“And I’m sitting there saying like ‘you’re kidding me right’ and realising how massive this is in Australia and still everywhere you go everyone knows John (the skipper of Australia II who beat the US) and what he did and I felt so humbled to sit there with him on the day that he actually won (and probably should have been celebrating with his crew) and my final pitch for my dream job.

“I was in the presence of an Australian sporting legend who was about to make a decision on who would take over as head coach of his country’s swim team.”

It’s history now that Bertrand and the Swimming Australia Board gave Verhaeren the tick of approval to take the reins of one of the most coveted coaching roles in Australian sport – following in the footsteps of men like Don Talbot, Harry Gallagher, Forbes Carlile and Bill Sweetenham.

And after six-years at the helm of the Dolphins through two hugely successful Commonwealth Games; the Rio Olympics and three World Championship campaigns Verhaeren this week reluctantly stepped down from what he described as his dream job to take his family back to their homeland, The Netherlands – a decision he had made from the outset of his current contract but compounded by the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

“In my 30 year long career in swimming I never expected a country like Australia to reach out to a foreign coach let alone myself,” said Verhaeren, saying they wanted a fresh approach and new eyes on the team – and it’s what he delivered.

“It has been an incredible honour and sometimes when you are in Australia you don’t realise how big the name and the brand the Dolphins Swim Team is (on a) world stage.

“Australia as a swimming nation is definitely seen as the number two swimming nation in the world; arguably as one of the best swimming nations in the world.

“I wanted to get the best out of people in swimming and the people leading from within and that is actually happening at this point in time.

“That really reassures me that Australia is in a very good position also for the years beyond to keep performing and keep their focus on performance and not on ‘The Sideshow.’

“The Sideshow will happen don’t get me wrong because that is inherent to what we do but not being distracted by it is a choice we can all make.

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HANDS ON: Jacco Verhaeren in his element at a coaching clinic in Nagaoka – the Dolphins second home in Japan. Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr (Swimming Australia).

“In six years a lot of things have happened; in 2014 it was my first Commonwealth Games ever and to be honest when I took the role I didn’t even know what it was, but at the end of the day it’s a swimming competition. Glasgow was actually quite successful, but being six months in the role I couldn’t really take any credit.

“And of course Olympic titles are very special and definitely retrospective the Mack HortonSun Yang clash (over 400m) in 2016 was very impressive and then Kyle Chalmers of course in the 100m freestyle is the eye-catcher of our sport and to have the Olympic champion after some 48 years (Michael Wenden in 1968 was the last Australian to win it ) is also very impressive.

“To actually get the win in the 100m freestyle was incredibly special as well; I have been really impressed with the women’s 4x100m freestyle; dominating for that long, being the world record holders for that long – it’s not ‘just one success and we don’t see them any more’ they have stuck firm and fast…

“I saw the Top Ten all-time relay performances. I think Cate Campbell is there eight times and then there is Bronte Campbell and then Taylor Ruck the Canadian and that’s it.

“Really showing Cate’s quality as a relay athlete and as an individual athlete; it is incredibly impressive to keep a team for that long together and actually get faster every year.

“What definitely will stick with me and in 2014 I didn’t really know what Commonwealth Games was, but to have the Games here on the Gold Coast it is definitely one of the highlights I have experienced.

“Performing for a home crowd in an exceptionally well organised event; great atmosphere for a Commonwealth Games that was very special and the amount of medals and gold medals was off the chart really it was exceptional and you never get sick of hearing that National Anthem; that was a great show.

“But probably most proud and impressive were these last World Championships actually, because of the team and the team coherence, but also the relay performances getting the wins in the 4x200m men and women in a world record is pretty special on top of all the other performances and medals. Then the race between the giants Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky – that is not easy to forget.

“It is about those races that people go to the pool for and seeing an upset that’s quite big.”

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HAND OVER: Jacco Verhaeren and Rohan Taylor (front) who will take over the reins from Verhaeren and prepare the Dolphins for Tokyo. Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr (Swimming Australia).

Verhaeren paid particular thanks to Bertrand.

“There are many people to thank and I can’t name them all, but I would like to acknowledge and thank John for his support throughout my time as Head Coach,” said Verhaeren.

“He has become a personal mentor for me and contributes so much to swimming in Australia and I am grateful for his guidance during my time in Australia.”

And helmsman Bertrand gets the final word on the life and times of the adopted Dutchman who will never forget the passing parade in that Melbourne restaurant in 2013, proudly acknowledging that Verhaeren had left a strong legacy for Australian Swimming.

“Jacco has left his indelible imprint on high performance swimming in this country. His constant search for new developments and his curiosity has taken our thinking to a new level.

“I thank him for everything he has done for swimming in Australia and wish him and his family all the very best.”

No doubting that Jacco Verhaeren will always call Australia and the Gold Coast his second home, having left the Australian Swim Team poised for something special in Tokyo next year – and never forgetting the day the AFL rained on his parade and John Bertrand won the America’s Cup.

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Cima

    Objectively, Verhaeren’s era was quite a disappointment. No individual gold for either Campbell sister at Rio Olympics, broad failure for many years across many events for the AUS squad, and a lack of transparency by Verhaeren and Dean Boxall (if not an outright attempt at disclosure delay) in the pre-Worlds Shayna Jack fiasco a real low point, leaving Mack Horton in a strange position.

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