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Scotland's swimming ways;Sport

Roddy Mackenzie reports on a new wave of enthusiasm that is sweeping into schools and pools north of the border

Scottish Swimming would appear to be on the crest of a wave. A new National Swimming Academy will be opened in 2001 - provided a pound;1.8 million shortfall can be met - and an elite group of 18 swimmers has recently enrolled at the new Scottish Institute of Sport in Stirling.

A high-profile seminar in Glasgow last week was told that a total of pound;58 million had been invested in Scottish swimming through the Lottery and local authorities. And with the average age of Scotland's swimming squad at the last Commonwealth Games just 20, Chris Martin, the national high performance coach for swimming at the Institute, argues that the future promises much.

But what is happening below the surface? Although swimming is on the school curriculum in England, it still seems no closer to reaching that level in Scotland.

Scottish Swimming has recently commissioned a study by Heriot-Watt University to look at participation levels in the sport at primary schools, but their conclusions will not be ready until early next year.

A total of 3,000 questionnaires were sent out to schools, pools and clubs and the response was encouraging but the level of partipation of primary school children is still unclear.

"Our aspiration is that every primary school pupil in Scotland should receive two opportunities to swim while at school. First, to learn to swim and, second, for swimming improvement," explained Ian Mason, chairman of Scottish Swimming.

"We think there is a good covering at present, but obviously there are more problems with rural areas, where transportation costs to swimming pools are expensive and, because of distance, it can involve taking a half day out of school.

"Swimming can also suffer from the academic pressures of improving literacy and numeracy at primary schools, but we see it as important for the holistic development of the child.

"In the past six months, Scottish Swimming has introduced a new national learn to swim syllabus, as there are genuine concerns that children could leave school without learning to swim as academic pressures increase in secondary school," Mr Mason said.

"In some inner-city areas there are maybe not the same opportunities as in other parts of the country, but learning to swim is important for the development of the child and for self-esteem."

Pippa Murphy, who worked in the role in Northern Ireland, will take over as development officer for Scottish Swimming on December 1 and her remit will be to look at club and local authority developments.

On the competitive front, the number of professional coaches in Scotland has increased from two to 18 in the past four years and Mr Mason believes there have never been more opportunities for young swimmers north of the border to progress.

He believes the structure is in place to pick out the talented swimmers at school and club level and give them the pathway to reach their full potential.

But he stresses that the results will not be achieved overnight and it could take another five years before the current labours begin to bear fruit.

While acknowledging that champion swimmers have to put in the hours, Mr Mason does not believe that a pupil's academic work will necessarily suffer if they choose to pursue a serious career in swimming.

"The nature of the sport is that training times need to be early in the morning or in the early evening and there have been concerns about a child's academic performance," he admits.

"But I think that anyone who is disciplined enough to train like that will also be disciplined enough to organise their academic work. It does not mean their school work will suffer and you can often find that those who are high achieving in sport are also high achieving in their academic work."

Scottish Swimming is now embarking on a new four-year development plan - called Aqua 21 - which will do anything but neglect youth. The three-pronged thrust of Aqua 21 will seek to implement quality provision, quality foundations and quality performance.

It is acknowledged that many of Scotland's 630 swimming pools now need upgrading and the fears of 10 years ago that leisure pools would flood Scotland to the detriment of the more traditional pools are receding, according to Mr Mason.

He points out that local authorites are finding leisure pools expensive to maintain, particularly in staffing costs, and believes the novelty is wearing off.

"The middle-aged and elderly are more into fitness swimming and they see it as a lifelong exercise that can maintain their fitness." When the new national academy is opened in Stirling, Scottish Swimming will have facilities to rival many countries. With that and the Institute, there will be an opportunity that the past generation has not had a chance to experience.

Included in the 18-strong Institute training squad is 15-year-old Cumbernauld schoolgirl and swimming star Louise Coull, who has represented Great Britain at junior level and won a bronze medal at the European Junior Championships in Moscow last summer.

It now seems swimmers who like Louise have ability and motivation will finally get the chance to enjoy unlimited access to proper professional facilities, expert coaching and the right medical back-up. It should lead to Scotland being present more often on the rostrum at major championships in future.

As Anne-Marie Harrison, the executive director of the Institute, points out, Scotland has not won a gold medal at a major championship in swimming since David Wilkie at the Commonwealth Games in 1974, but that could soon change if the Aqua 21 scheme lives up to its promise and delivers improved results.

"With pound;20 million to be invested in four years in Scotland, there can never be the excuse that there is not enough money for us to be successful," she concludes.

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