Luke Greenbank, Sean Balmer And Success Born In The 25m, Four-Lane Pool In Cockermouth

Luke Greenbank at the Youth Olympic Games
Luke Greenbank - Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Fei Maohua

When Luke Greenbank stood on the podium at last year’s World Championships as the crowds cheered, flags were waved and God Save The Queen was sung, the contrast with the four-lane 25m pool in Cockermouth where he started out on his journey could not have been more stark.

Greenbank won gold leading off the Great Britain men’s 4×100 medley relay in the final event of the week in South Korea following bronze in the 200m backstroke.

The 22-year-old is now coached by Mel Marshall at Loughborough, sharing the water with the likes of Adam Peaty and Siobhan O’Connor.

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Luke Greenbank and Adam Peaty at the World Championships in Gwangju – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

As well as the top facilities, he has the best in sports science, strength and conditioning, sports psychology and nutritionists to hand.

It is a far cry from the pool in Cockermouth, Cumbria, where up to 12 swimmers jostle in a lane and the poolside floods.

But that is to overlook a club whose success rate far outstrips its facilities and competitive numbers and where the coaching staff led by Sean Balmer – all of whom work on a voluntary basis – instil accountability, self-awareness and honest appraisal.

The club has only 60 swimmers to draw upon –  which led to some participating in three age groups at the 2019 north-west Arena League finals – but it has an astonishing success rate where at least two Cockermouth swimmers have made national teams – junior and senior – every year since 2013.

Twelve of those 60 competed at nationals last year, 25 at regionals and every single one of them at county level.

Greenbank joined the club – situated in the ancient market town with a population of roughly 9,000 on the edge of the Lake District – when he was about 10.

The pool and club are at the heart of the town and their absence will have been keenly felt during lockdown.

Greenbank told Swimming World:

“It is a focal point and it was incredibly important to me growing up. I was there every day: I’d go training in the morning, leave my stuff there, and then come back to training.

“It’s very important and Cockermouth swimming club has got some amazing volunteer coaches who put their heart and soul into the club. It’s a really good set-up there and really important to a lot of people.”

Balmer, Cockermouth And The Power Of Positive Thinking That Helped Luke Greenbank

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Eleanor Walsh Photo Courtesy: better.org.uk

The club was founded in 1978 by Eleanor Walsh who had petitioned for the pool to be built with Balmer joining the coaching staff in the mid-1990s after he had moved to the town.

He works up to 20 hours a week on a voluntary basis alongside his full-time job as operations director at construction company Morgan Sindall having previously worked as commercial director at the Ministry of Defence and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Balmer swam competitively  in the north-east of England – at times battling Dave McNulty who has guided Jo Jackson, Michael Jamieson and Jazz Carlin to the Olympic podium and Kev Renshaw, coach to David Davies when he won Olympic 10k silver in 2008.

He moved from competing to coaching at 16 at Stockton Aquatics under Dave Bance, working with 1984 Olympians Sam Purvis – fifth in the 200 fly – and IMer Stuart Willmott, also the father of two-time Olympian and Commonwealth 400IM champion Aimee.

Balmer believes in the power of positive thinking and of aiming high which in turn leads others to do so.

He told Swimming World:

“You don’t set off in a club believing we’re a small club in the market town of Cockermouth.

“You start off believing that there are kids in that pool that can be the best swimmers in the world.

“I think there’s an attitude thing as well. I’ve got a saying ‘you get what you tolerate’.”

That is echoed by Greenbank, who said:

“One thing that is good is that Sean instils a bit of passion into the swimmers.

“Every time I go back the kids are all really professional.

“They enjoy what they’re doing, they’re having a laugh but they push each other to be the best they can be.

“And that was the same when I was there: I had a good group of lads around me who I’m still friends with now and I think we pushed each other a lot more than maybe if it was a smaller group or we were training individually.”

He added with an awareness Balmer would no doubt appreciate:

“He is really passionate about the sport: I’ve not worked with many coaches but he is one of the best I’ve worked with.

“Not just in swimming but he has taught me a lot about the real world.

“Everyone at the club is very grateful to have coaches like Sean and Eleanor there to bring the swimmers on and the history they have got at the club exceeds the population of the town and how small the club is.”


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Self-Awareness, Education And Learning To Succeed By Doing What You Dislike

Sean B

Photo Courtesy: Sean Balmer Twitter

The club has a track record of producing junior and senior GB internationals and, as well as Greenbank, open water international Tom Millburn and Ed Baxter, former Commonwealth youth champion and now partner in Adam Peaty Race Clinics, are among recent alumni.

So too is para-swimmer Jacob Leach – who competed at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Commonwealth Games – to be found there.

Balmer puts an emphasis on education in and out of the water, instilling a sense of self-awareness with the swimmer responsible for evaluating every element of their training and all the dynamics that affect what they do and how they feel in the pool.

He explains:

“We do a lot on education. It’s not just swimming education, it’s everything.

“We do an awful lot on the mental approach and If I’m honest, it’s one of the things that I don’t think swimming does very well, particularly not with its junior athletes, its youth athletes.”

Each year they ask the swimmers to fill in a commitment sheet – in essence an annual appraisal – which also asks them to identify their goals in the short, medium and long-term and what they are prepared to do to achieve this.

Then comes a weekly log book which captures the training, comments by both swimmer and coach, fatigue level, soreness level, rest, sleep and diet. Also perception of the team’s attitude to training and overall satisfaction.

“It’s about understanding your emotions as a swimmer. When that kid is 15 they know themselves inside out.

“Choices, excuses, entitlement, reality; ownership is the swimmer’s, not the coaches or parents. It’s theirs: all the coaches do is advise and encourage.

“The only two things you are in control of in your life is your attitude and the effort you put in.

“Everything else has its externalised factors to it but your attitude and effort will dictate that.”

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Photo Courtesy: Singapore Swimming Federation

Honest conversations are par for the course at the club – to the point and direct but with only one intention.

Greenbank found this out in 2014 after he had been crowned European junior champion over 200 backstroke.

Next up were the national championships at Ponds Forge, Sheffield, where due to there being heats, semis and finals, Greenbank was due to swim up to 22 races in backstroke, fly and IM.

The then-16-year-old could not abide the 200 fly and after qualifying in sixth for the semi, Balmer sensed he would willingly withdraw.

The pair had words, some of which upset Greenbank only for the teenager to return to speak with Balmer who then instructed him in how to swim the race and in committing himself to doing something he did not wish to.

The following day he made it through in second to the final which he went on to win – a valuable lesson in applying yourself as much in non-favoured events even though the motivation may not be there.

Balmer said:

“He came back and of course he’s overjoyed then and I said don’t forget what happened the other day because that’s a really important lesson for you, I said that will define you in the future.

“The going gets tough – are you packing in and saying I’m a chump or are you saying no I’m having this?

“And that’s a big difference.”

Looking On From Afar As Greenbank Finds Himself In Choppy Waters

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Melanie Marshall – Photo Courtesy: Action Woman Twitter

When Greenbank left Cockermouth to join Marshall, he was the world junior 200m backstroke record holder with a time of 1:56.89 from the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan.

It would not be until April 2019 that Greenbank would set a new PB as he found the transition from junior to senior waters a difficult one.

Balmer looked on from afar as the swimmer failed to get near his 2015 PB and make any individual podiums.

The swimmer found the situation stressful and it was Balmer who wrote to British Swimming and Marshall and spoke to the latter about Greenbank’s training, after which she vowed to change his programme while just asking him to have faith in her.

Balmer recalled:

“Mel absolutely took it on the chin as she always does and we chatted about what made Luke Luke from his training perspective. And that is what we changed.

“Basically he reverted to what he did at Cockermouth. He’s not a big lad, he is barely six foot tall.

“So he is pretty much the same as (Evgeny) Rylov but you go in against the big Americans the only way you can compete against them is skills.

“We took the basic tenet of what we were doing and converted it to a senior programme rather than a youth programme. And the results were phenomenal.”

July 2019 and Balmer was leading the Cockermouth club at the national championships. With Greenbank competing in Gwangju and Pierce Greening at the European Youth Olympics in Baku, there was plenty of juggling to be done between concentrating on the competition, checking results or tethering phone and iPad.

There was much cause for celebration in the Greenbank household with youngest child Sam winning the 50 back before Luke paid a long-awaited visit to the podium in South Korea.

Balmer beamed as he said:

“He won’t get as lucky again: you’ll not get a bronze medal with a 1:55. You’ll need better and I think he knows that.

“But you can only race the people that are there. And it’s not bad when you are stood on the podium and the world champion and Olympic champion are the only two people to beat you.”

There is of course no Tokyo 2020 so Greenbank will have to wait until July 2021 to make his Olympic debut.

He had already gone 1:57.51 over 200 at the McCullagh International in Bangor, Northern Ireland, in February.

The pair spoke about Luke Greenbank’s hopes for 2020 before the pandemic.

“I think he said 1:54 so I said ‘are you going to the Olympics to not get a medal?’ Because 1:54 won’t get you a medal, 1:53 might but there’ll be two of you on 1:53.

“Rylov is likely to go 1:51/1.52low, and then there’ll be somebody after him, maybe one of the Americans.

“Again that is a mindset thing. What target are you setting? What do you know you can do?

“I think you’ve got to get away from the stuff of going ‘oh, I’m going to be Olympic champion’.

“’I’m going to be Olympic champion’ but then I’m fat and I’m old.

“You know you are really, really good but are you doing the work that substantiates that?”

Inspiring The Next Generation At A Hole In The Ground With Water In It

Inspirational is a word oft-used these days but having a Luke Greenbank can only bring good things for Cockermouth as he has shown what can happen if you follow Balmer’s three As – attendance, aptitude and ability – and do what is asked of you, learning in and out of the pool.

“Absolutely. The great thing about him is that he is such a nice person. He is nice as nice can be. He does everything you ask him to do when you ask him to do it. I think that’s why Mel loves him so much as well.”

So too does the success of Cockermouth demonstrate that top facilities are not essential in moulding a champion.

Balmer said:

“I always say to people that the poolside floods don’t bring trainers bring flip-flops.

“It’s not a great facility but it’s a hole in the ground and it’s got water in it and that’s all you need really.

“That comes back to attitude again: you can have the best facilities in the world but if you’ve got the wrong attitude forget it.”


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2 comments

  1. avatar
    Sean Balmer

    Such a lovely article, and a great chat, thank you Liz Byrnes.