Remembering Terry Gathercole

Terry Gathercole's progression from swimmer to professional coach to president of the national body of a major swimming nation was unprecedented in the history of the sport. He will be remembered as the professional swimming coach who showed the world of swimming how a national swimming program could_and should_be run.
By Cecil Colwin

Coach Terry Gathercole passed away May 30, 2001 at the age of 65, after 15 years of ill health following open heart surgery in 1986. He was a remarkable figure in the history of world swimming.

Terry rose through the ranks, first as an Olympic swimmer and a prolific world record breaker, later becoming a successful national coach of Olympic and world champions, then serving as president of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association and, finally, president of Australian Swimming during the 2000 Olympics. He also helped stage the Sydney 2000 Olympics, perhaps the greatest Olympic swimming meet ever.

Seen in historical perspective, Terry's life coincided with the changing fortunes of Australian swimming. He was born in 1935 when Australian swimming was at a low ebb. He reached maturity as a swimmer in 1956 in time to swim for the successful Australian team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where its success was hailed as the beginning of "The Second Golden Age" of Australian swimming.

However, 20 years later, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, there were no women to take the place of 1972 gold medal winners Shane Gould, Beverley Whitfield and Gail Neall, who had retired. Among the men swimmers, Stephen Holland swam valiantly to gain the Australian team's only medal, a bronze in the 1500.

Noting the team's lack of depth, Terry, the head coach, accurately predicted that it would take another 20 years for Australian swimming to regain its former status. One wonders whether an inner voice had told him that as president of Australian Swimming, he would one day be the one chosen to lead his country's swimming revival into the "Third Golden Age."

A Natural Leader Terry was a keen and astute observer, a man of vision and values. He understood the need for people to be coached in critical leadership skills. He believed it possible to draw up marvelous plans but, without inspiring leadership, poor performance would result. He said that, although depth in a program would produce a momentum, the real challenge was to maintain this momentum once it was developed.

Through character and example, Terry filled the office of president of Australian Swimming with much of his own wisdom. What you saw was what you got. He was fair-minded, and he didn't take sides for political reasons.

Terry took his swimming seriously, but never himself. He was a gregarious person who knew how to have fun. His cheerful disposition was part of the Gathercole trademark: "Take time to smell the roses" was one of his favorite sayings.

He possessed an inherent happiness and sense of humor that always managed to shine through even during the last five years, when he was obviously terribly ill and in great pain. Throughout his life, Terry was always "The Happy Warrior."

Although failing health confined him to a wheelchair in the last year of his life, he was responsible for the smooth organization of Australia's Olympic preparation at Sydney in 2000. Moreover, his planning ensured the continued momentum of Australian Swimming as evinced by the national team's performance both at the Sydney Games and at the recent World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

In addition to many notable contributions to the sport, Gathercole played a leading and successful role in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs prior to the Olympics. Gathercole's career showed the great contribution to the sport of swimming that professional coaches can make at all levels_evidence that FINA's existing legislation, perhaps, should be made more democratic to include professionals in every facet of its organization, and not merely as members of token appointed commissions.

Olympic Swimmer from the Outback The Terry Gathercole story started in the small outback town of West Wyalong, 300 miles due west of Sydney. Water was scarce there until the 1930s when water lines were built from the far-off Bland River to remote towns across the parched terrain.

To provide recreation "for the kids in the bush," a 50 meter Olympic pool was built in each town along the water line. West Wyalong's pool was built in 1935, the same year that Terry Gathercole, destined for swimming greatness, was born in nearby Yallinda.

When Terry was 18 months old, his parents moved to West Wyalong where he learned to swim at the age of 3. Throughout his school years, Terry spent many hours in the pool. He became known as "the skinny kid who could really swim laps."

He joined the West Wyalong Swimming Club and competed under its banner with undivided loyalty throughout his long and distinguished international career. The town council showed its gratitude to "West Wyalong's Favorite Son" by naming the pool and the nearby park after him.

Gathercole was a natural breaststroke swimmer who broke world records and won Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals. He coached himself until he won his first national title in 1953, when he decided to use workouts sent to him in the mail by Forbes Carlile. Before national and international competitions, Terry trained in Sydney with Carlile, who was his only coach throughout his career.

Under Carlile's guidance, Gathercole's breaststroke technique became a model of the orthodox surface stroke as it was swum at that time. Terry had large hands and feet, and although only of middle height, his outstretched arms measured 6 feet 6 inches_far above the normal arm-span-to-height ratio. His starts and turns were noted for the distance he traveled underwater before surfacing_a skill that often placed his rivals at a psychological disadvantage.

Terry started racing when breaststroke was undergoing frequent rule changes which were unfavorable to swimmers of the orthodox surface style. For years, progress in breaststroke swimming was hindered by rule makers ignorant of the basic nature of the stroke. The rules they set were easily circumvented by swimmers using such deviations as butterfly-breaststroke and prolonged underwater swimming with a long pull through to the hips.

An unspoken war raged between breaststroke swimmers and the rule makers. Breaststroke was a risky stroke to swim because many officials seemed bent on disqualifying swimmers for the flimsiest reasons. An amazing fact was that Gathercole had so mastered his technique that not once in his career did a judge question its legality.

At the beginning of his career, the hybrid butterfly-breaststroke style was permitted in the same race as the orthodox breaststroke. When butterfly-breaststroke was finally ruled illegal, most leading breaststroke swimmers resorted to swimming long stretches underwater.

Again, the odds were stacked against Terry's orthodox surface style, and he finished fifth in the 200 meter breaststroke in his first Olympics at Melbourne in 1956. The event was won by Japan's Masaru Furukawa, known as "the human submarine" because he was only seen when he surfaced to breathe. Furukawa set 10 world records during a career that ended abruptly when underwater breaststroke was finally banished in May 1957.

A month later, Terry married Carol Fraser, his West Wyalong childhood sweetheart. Terry started married life by breaking the world breaststroke record six times within a two-month period. At the Cardiff Empire Games in 1958, he won two gold medals, but shortly before the start of the 1960 Rome Olympics, he was in a car accident that hindered his preparation for the Games.

Although he was not as fit in 1960 as he was in 1958, Terry's pre-race strategy in the 200 breast was to "take it out hard from the start." He led the field until halfway through the final lap, but his lack of conditioning caught up with him. He finished out of the medal picture after one of the most exciting and plucky races of the Games.

Nevertheless, Terry left Rome with a silver medal as a member of the second-place Australian 4 x 100 meter medley relay team, along with David Theile (backstroke), Neville Hayes (butterfly) and Geoff Shipton (freestyle).

The Olympic Coach Gathercole became a full-time professional coach in December 1960. With his own two hands, he built an indoor short course pool in Castlecove, a northern suburb of Sydney.

Although he was never to win the Olympic gold medal for which he had strived so long, the experience gained during his international swimming career gave him an intimate and intuitive knowledge of breaststroke swimming that he soon transferred to his swimmers.

He produced two Olympic breaststroke gold medalists_Ian O'Brien (1964) and Beverley Whitfield (1972). At the 1991 World Championships in Perth, Linley Frame_yet another Gathercole breaststroke prot‚g‚e_won the 100 meter breaststroke in world record time.

The momentum created by Frame's success, coupled with Gathercole's influence in promoting excellence throughout Australia in this much neglected stroke, started a surge to world-class by Australian female breaststroke swimmers. Soon Samantha Riley, Rebecca Brown, Debby Wade, Brooke Hanson, Helen Denman and Nadine Neumann leaped to the fore, aided by coaches such as Scott Volkers, Michael Piper, Barry Prime and Bill Nelson.

Realizing the need to develop depth in the program, Gathercole helped other coaches by suggesting breaststroke training programs and staging specialized training camps for breaststroke swimmers only.

Among the many great Olympic swimmers coached by Gathercole were Graham Dunn (1968), Denise Langford (1968), Mark Kerry (1976, 1980, 1984), Peter Dawson (1976), Paul Jarvie (1976), Georgina Parkes (1980), Lisa Forrest (1980), Ian McAdam (1988) and Phillip Rogers (1992, 1996, 2000).

The Administrator – In 1968, Terry accepted an invitation to start a swimming team in Midland, Texas. During his five years there, the team grew from 30 to more than 300 swimmers, four of whom qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Terry served on the board of the American Swimming Coaches Association, where he won high respect and was elected president. However, he had to decline the office because of a prior decision to return home to Australia.

Although in Texas just a short time, his contributions to swimming were recognized by a special State of Texas Resolution.

Back in Australia, Terry's WIN Swimming Club won the 1981 Australian National High-Point Trophy, for which he was named New South Wales and Australian Coach of the Year.

By 1985, his consistent coaching successes had gained him worldwide recognition, and he was selected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Terry helped develop model constitutions for the New South Wales Coaching Association as well as the Australian Coaching Association. In 1985, Terry became deeply involved in the drafting of a more democratic constitution for the governing body of Australian swimming.

The new constitution saw the demise of the old Amateur Swimming Union of Australia and replaced by the new Australian Swimming, Inc. He eventually would serve as its president, becoming the first professional coach anywhere in the world to rise to such eminence in a national governing body.

The new constitution of Australian Swimming encouraged anyone_amateur or professional_to enter the administration and be able to advance to the highest office. However, it is worth noting that since the mid-1970s, the constitution of Australian swimming has stated that the presidential term of office shall be four years, after which the president cannot extend his or her term by subsequent legislation.

Even a man of the caliber and ability of Gathercole was restricted to four years as vice president before becoming president for another restricted period of four years. And once that term ended, Gathercole, as retiring president, was no longer allowed any voice or standing on any committee.

One cannot help but compare the Australian process that firmly prevents anyone from obtaining a lockhold on power with the situation in FINA and the IOC, where presidential office seems to become an incumbent's life-term preserve, completely lacking in sensitivity to the selfishness of the situation thus created.

Personal Friendship and Appreciation – Gathercole was one of my best friends. He was an outstanding personality_a kind and gentle man who was dedicated to his wife and family, his friends and the sport he loved and served so well. My friendship with Terry and his bosom pal, John Devitt, who succeeded Terry as president of Australian Swimming, started over 40 years ago.

An amusing story I'll always associate with our first meeting happened in 1959 when an Australian swimming team toured South Africa, where I was coaching.

A large crowd packed the Ellis Park Swimming Stadium in Johannesburg to see the world-class Aussie swimmers perform. John Devitt, who had broken Jon Henrick's 100 meter freestyle world record two years earlier, set the scene when he covered the distance in a time just short of his own world record when, suddenly, a strange little man, wearing a weird headdress and what looked like an Hawaiian skirt, appeared on the pool deck. He announced himself as King Hame-ha-ha of Honolulu, Hawaii.

"I wish to challenge the great John Devitt to a test of speed," he announced over the PA system.

The little man jumped into the pool and grabbed the side of the pool, saying that because of his own tremendous speed, he would allow Devitt to start from the block while he pushed off from the wall.

No one could see that the challenger had secretly hooked a long underwater rope to his belt. The other end of the rope went around a pulley, which was set up in the shadows at the other end of the pool and held by several men standing on the lawn in the dark, ready to pull.

At the start, Devitt leaped into the pool, only to see his challenger whiz past him to finish half a pool's length ahead.

However, the next evening, when the "stunt" was staged again, Devitt's pal, Gathercole, came rushing out of the dark with a large pair of garden shears. Just when "The Hawaiian" was about three-quarters of the way down the pool, the crowd_to their huge delight_saw Terry snap the shears clean through the rope.

A dozen burly fellows pulling on the rope fell flat on their backs, while Devitt went on to win easily.

Leadership Philosophy – In July 1967, I flew from Johannesburg to Perth to meet Terry and participate in a Speedo-sponsored tour of Australia that included swimming clinics in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. That's when I came to admire Terry's leadership qualities.

In Sydney, together with Terry and John Devitt, we conducted clinics at Terry's Castle Cove Swim School. I gave a talk in the Shell Theaterette as a guest of the New South Wales Swimming Association. I stayed in the Devitt and Gathercole homes, and they introduced me to many members of the Australian swimming family, including swimmers, coaches and officials who have remained cherished friends to this day.

Over the years, Terry and I have discussed many aspects of swimming, not least of which was the importance of team building. Many years later in December 1999, when we met for the last time in San Antonio at the U.S. Open, Terry commented on the need to train people who are capable of keeping abreast with change.

Gathercole always stressed that having a good idea was one thing; implementing it was another. He believed that the ability to change peoples' entrenched habits required special leadership skills; in his opinion, this facet of national planning was often underestimated by national planners in many countries. Terry explained how he had produced a system that was virtually self-policing.

He didn't merely put together talented individuals to serve on committees, but he said that a team only begins to drive itself when the greater good is seen to take precedence over individual needs. This fact needs to be the prime motivation.

In such a system, there was nowhere for slackers to hide. Individual contributions and individual participation were there for everyone to see. In such a team environment, the presence and influence of an effective leader was easily demonstrated.

He believed that people needed to be stimulated, motivated and induced_or prompted_to produce success. That was why he was constantly advising people on what he thought was the best way to proceed, a fact that Devitt mentioned in his eulogy at Terry's funeral.

Terry understood that improvement was not possible in any organization without continually improving the skills of the people involved. As Goethe said, "Thinking is easy, acting is difficult and to put one's thoughts into actions is the most difficult thing in the world."

Life and Career Highlights

1935 Born Nov. 25 in Tallimba, New South Wales
1936 Moves to West Wyalong
1938 Learns to swim at age 3
1953 Breaks first world record
1954-60 Listed in Guiness Book of Records (most consecutive national titles by a male competitor)
1956 Olympic swimmer (Melbourne)
1957 Marries Carol Fraser, his childhood sweetheart
1958 Wins two gold medals at the Empire Games in Cardiff
1958-61 Breaks world breaststroke record six times
1960 Olympic swimmer (Rome)
1964 Olympic team coach (Tokyo)
1966 Commonwealth Games team coach (Jamaica)
1968 Appointed head coach, City of Midland Swim Team, Texas
1975 World Championships coach (Cali, Colombia)
1976 Olympic team coach (Montreal)
1981 WIN swim team wins national high-point award
1981 Australian Coach of the Year
1983 Pan Pacific Games team coach (Japan)
1985 Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame
1986 Appointed senior coach of men's swimming, Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra
1987 Selected a life member of the Australian Swim Coaches Association
1987 Awarded the title of Master Coach by the Australian Swim Coaches Association
1988 Awarded the Order of Australia (A.M.)
1990 Chairman of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association
1991 World Championships team coach (Perth)
1992 Olympic team coach (Barcelona)
1992-96 Elected vice president of Australian Swimming, Inc.
1997-00 Elected president of Australian Swimming, Inc.
1999 Chairman of the Pan Pacific Games Organizing Committee (Sydney)
2000 Chairman of the World Cup Meet Organizing Committee (Sydney)
2001 Dies May 30 at the age of 65 (Survived by his wife, Carol, and children Gai, Ben and Tim, all three of whom were competitive swimmers)

Final Tribute

The funeral of Terry Gathercole, A.M., was held in the small country town of West Wyalong in southwestern New South Wales, Wednesday, June 6, where he was buried beside his father and mother. The entire town_or so it seemed_came to bid farewell to "their favorite son."

His funeral turned into a celebration of his life. After the emotional and eloquent eulogies had been delivered, two pieces of music were played: Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," with the sound of booming guns that marked Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, followed by "Pecos Promenade," a rousing Texan song sung by Tanya Tucker. Before he died, Terry had requested this music to be played at his funeral. Those present felt that he was making a last cheerful farewell to family and friends.

The following day, uplifting and emotional tributes poured forth once again as an estimated crowd of 1,000 attended a memorial service held around the swimming pool at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, where Terry had coached with great success from 1991 until 1996.

Present were John Howard, the prime minister of Australia; two ministers of the Commonwealth government; swimmers, coaches and officials from many eras of Australian Swimming; and dignitaries from all walks of life. Representing their respective countries, as well as FINA, were Carol Zaleski, United States Swimming; and Bill Madsen, New Zealand Swimming.

Prime Minister Howard paid tribute to Terry, saying that he had three characteristics that Australians hold dear: he was a sportsman, he was willing to put something back into the community and he was a dedicated family man.

An emotional but eloquent tribute was made by Terry's daughter, Gai, a member of the New South Wales bar; followed by eulogies from former swimmers Richard Cahalan, Lisa Forrest and Linley Frame.

Kieren Perkins and Dr. Peter Fricker spoke on behalf of the Australian Sports Commission. Coach Barry Prime, a leading coach and colleague at the AIS, spoke of Terry's dedication to Australian Swimming, and his courage and perseverance throughout many years of illness that had followed his heart surgery.

John Devitt, a former Olympic champion and Gathercole's successor as president of Australian Swimming, spoke deeply about the loss of his great friend as well as Terry's humanity, leadership, contribution and service to swimming. He talked about their lifelong friendship and the close relationship that had grown between the Devitt and Gathercole families. Devitt also shared that Terry had regarded carrying the Olympic torch through his home town_past the "Terry Gathercole Pool"_as the highlight of his sporting career.

"Terry will always be remembered for his passion and tremendous desire for swimming to progress_not only in Australia, but throughout the world," said Devitt. "He wanted a level playing field, and he wanted success for the true champions of the sport."