Echo Sport Replay: Williamson recalls gruelling path towards Olympic Games and breaking ground for Irish swimming

By Stephen Leonard

KEVIN Williamson was among the handful of competitors who continuously broke ground for Irish swimming throughout the 1970s and into the '80s.

A two-time Olympian, the former Terenure Swimming Club Head Coach recorded a multitude of National Senior titles, including 10 straight wins in the 1500m Freestyle, nine over 400m, eight at 200m and three over 100m as well as the 400m IM.

Former Terenure Swimming Club Head Coach Kevin Williamson2 1

Two-time Olympian Kevin Williamson stands as one of the great figures of Irish swimming both as a competitor and coach at Terenure SC Photo by Paddy Barrett

Yet, more remarkable than the all the honours and records he accumulated over the course of his career was the sheer intensity of a journey that led him to the Montreal Summer Games as a 17-year-old in 1976 and Moscow four years later.

Propelled by his father, the late Larry Williamson, a hugely respected coach in Irish swimming who led the Ireland team to Montreal, Kevin pushed his body to the very limit in an effort to reach sport's highest stage at a time when resources in this country were nowhere near good enough to facilitate a serious drive for Olympic success in the pool.

Still the young man who grew up in Butterfield Avenue before moving to Clondalkin and later Knocklyon, continued the pursuit of his dream both here and in the US, setting new national records that would stand for decades.

His impact as a swimmer would later be mirrored as a coach, as he guided some of the nation’s emerging talent to great heights including Stephen Manley, who became the first Irishman to swim under 50 seconds over 100m and David Malone who would medal at three of the four Paralympic Games he contested.

It was as a 10-year-old that Kevin himself first made his presence felt on the national stage with a clean sweep in Mosney.

“Myself and my brother Niall were swimming with Marian Swimming Club and I ended up winning my first National Junior title.

“It was the Coca Cola Irish National Age Groups Under 10, winning the four strokes- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and front crawl. That was my first breakthrough. That was a big thing.

Kevin Williamson and Chalkie White 1

Kevin pictured with fellow Irish international swimmer Chalkie White

“But then my father's butchers business went and he ended up as the manager of Terenure College Swimming Pool which was opening up in 1972.

“So when we got there, myself and my brother were the first two swimmers for Terenure Swimming Club and the next thing, my father decides that he's going to be our coach. He developed the club in Terenure which expanded rapidly.

“I ended up going to the European Senior Championships in Vienna in 1974 as a 15-year-old and just before that, I had been in Malta for the Catholic Student Games.

“I was going towards being a distance swimmer from a young age. My father entered me in the Leinster 800m Championship when I was about 11 or something. That's 32 lengths of the pool. It was an event that I loved.

“But when I went to the Catholic Student Games that was a shorter [distance] event.

Kevin Williamson is now manager of the pool in Swan Leisure 1

Kevin Williamson is now manager of the pool in Swan Leisure

“Because I was doing so much swimming in Ireland, I was good at the 100m even though I'm 5'8". I was tiny. In this day and age you wouldn't get a swimmer swimming a 100m or 50m at my height, but I won a gold medal there in the 100m Frontcrawl in an outdoor pool.

“I went from the Catholic Student Games in Malta into Dublin Airport where we met the [Irish] team that was heading out to Vienna and we changed into our blazers and we got photographs taken for the press leaving to go the European Championships.

“I was 15 going to the European Senior Championships. I was a junior still and I made an Irish Junior 1500m record which was 17 minutes 35. Kids would be going a lot faster now, but don't forget swimming has evolved so much.

“My father wanted a better life for me. He wanted to give me an opportunity, because there wasn't really that opportunity for me in swimming here at the time.

“Chalkie White was a very well-known Irish swimmer who would have been older than me and I would have looked up to him and Donnacha O'Dea.

Kevin Williamson gets great height into his dive without the use of a starting block in Terenure Swimming Club 1

Former multi-National Senior champion Kevin Williamson gets great height into his dive without the use of a starting block in Terenure Swimming Club

“Chalkie ended up at Villa Nova University and this was what we were going to do. We were going to try and make the Olympics and go away to America on scholarship.

“At this stage, I was evolving rapidly as a swimmer and my father brought me to the University of Alabama for a training camp in January of '76.

“I was now swimming with one of the best swimmers ever in the world, Jonty Skinner who was the second man to go under 50 seconds for the 100m. There was another fella there called Robin Backhaus who had got bronze in Munich.

“I was there for about two and half to three weeks and they were in full training.

“So I came back to Dublin and the question was 'How am I going to qualify for the Olympics and in what event? It would have been the same event as Chalkie unfortunately- the 1500m.

Kevin Williamson is now manager of the pool in Swan Leisure 1

Kevin Williamson is now manager of the pool in Swan Leisure

“So my training, from when I came back from Alabama, really revolved around swimming three times a day.

“I was training in the morning and then I was training for the last two classes of the morning before I went home for my lunch and then I was back training in the afternoon.

“So during this period I was doing 13km Monday, 13km Tuesday, 10km Wednesday, 13km Thursday, 13km Friday and about 8km on Saturday.

“That's up around 65+km a week and during a lot of that I had a band around my legs and for some of it, I had cut-off trousers which created resistance.

“We had an international at home in Galway. I think it was a Tri Nations event and I had tapered for this and I had a phenomenal taper.

Kevin Williamson swimming for University of Michigan in 1978 79 1

Kevin Williamson swimming for University of Michigan in 1978-79. Photo by Robert Kalmbach

“I smashed the Irish record in two events- the 200m Butterfly and the 400m Front Crawl.

“The following week we were heading over to Leeds to the Coca Cola World International Meet and I swam the 400m and 1500m long course in a 50m pool.

“I got third in the 400m and I got fourth in the 1500m. I went 16 minutes 11 and the A time for the Olympics [1500m] was 16.20. I was after going nine seconds inside the A time.

“After that I got marvellous write-ups in the newspapers and I won the 'Levi Junior Sports Star of the Year' on the basis of that performance.

Kevin Williamson represented Ireland at the Olympic Games in both Montreal in 1976 and Moscow four years later 1

Kevin Williamson represented Ireland at the Olympic Games in both Montreal in 1976 and Moscow four years later

“But when I got to the summer holidays, my father, in his wisdom thought 'The more the better.'

“So we ended up doing six hours a day, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, four on Wednesday and two on Saturday.

“It ended up I was doing 24km a day Monday and Tuesday, 16 on Wednesday, 24 Thursday, 24 Friday. Every session was like 8k, but I was doing three of them a day.

“I nearly get sick thinking about it.

“I actually worked it out that it's nearly the equivalent of running 92k a day, because I work out that the ratio between running and swimming is one to four. That's if you're to go by the world record for the 200m in running is the same as the 50m in swimming. The same times basically.

“But this ended up that I suddenly started to get sick. I started to get swollen glands, lymph nodes and athlete’s foot, and the infection is going up through my leg.

“So I didn't get to do a proper taper off that distance and when I got to Montreal for the Olympic Games I was exhausted. I was shattered.

“My father, I guess he didn't understand, but I was so tired. He wanted me to do the 200m before the 1500m, which I did.

“I did 2 minutes [for the 200m] at the Olympics and that was slower than my 200m record, but an hour and a half later I was now doing the 1500m.

“I was exhausted and I was way off the pace. I got terrible write-ups from newspapers. One journalist actually said I should have been swimming in Butlin’s paddling pool.

“When you think about the thousands and thousands of metres that I'd swam, and bear in mind I was only 17. I had to go back to school to do my Leaving Cert the following year.

“When I was at the Olympics my father was getting feedback after the swimming and he wanted me to train for when I got back to the Irish Nationals and I was having none of it.

“It led to a stand-up row between him and me in a swimming pool in Montreal because at this point I was devastated and I had done a year [of intense training].

“All I wanted to do was just chill and enjoy the village.

“I was devastated because I had done so much training, but also, I had failed to improve on my personal bests and I had gone backwards so I was dealing with that myself.

“And then I was dealing with the newspaper articles and my father was upset that they were writing that about me and he wanted to rectify it.

“But rectifying it within four weeks at the National Championships wasn't my idea of doing that. But I did train because I didn't have a choice to be honest.

“When I came back to Ireland I had been presented with a Raleigh five-gear racer from the swimming club.

“I had a friend down in Wexford and I walked down the stairs the next morning, filled my rucksack and went out and cycled to Wexford on my bike. That was the day after I had travelled back.

“I had to get away from my dad and I had to get away from going back to swimming in the Nationals.

“But I did swim in the Nationals, I defended some of my titles and I lost one of them.

“I had wanted to go to Alabama or Miami [on scholarship] but Michigan recruited me so that's where I was in September 1977.

“As a swimmer, I was holding up my own in dual meets and I was setting Irish records there. So I was still progressing Irish swimming with Irish records.

“American swimming is divided into two seasons- short course and then long course in the summer. But a lot of swimmers just do college swimming and then they work the summers to pay for their education.

“Really what should have happened was that I should have stayed out there to train long course in a 50m pool and go to the US Nationals, but I couldn't afford it and I had to come home.

“I ended up training in Ireland with a panel of swimmers for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

“I’d train in Terenure in the morning and I had a part time job in Stewarts Hospital. I was cycling out Palmerstown.

“I'd work six hours a day. Now that was too much of your training, but I had to get money.

“My training basically for the Olympics was in Dublin which wasn't ideal at all.

“What’s more, after the Olympics in '76 my father was diagnosed with Nephritis which is a kidney problem. His health went seriously downhill and he ended up in hospital, needing a kidney transplant. My auntie, his sister, she gave him a kidney.

“But I was in Moscow when he was in hospital and he was my coach, so I went there and I didn't even PB. My father was in hospital and that was always in the back of my mind.

“But for me, the Olympic Games was the goal, to get there. Now guys should be actually trying to get to finals and a medal would be phenomenal.

“After Moscow, I ended up realising I needed to finish my degree because there was nothing for me here. There was recession. My scholarship was left open for me so I joined back up with the Michigan team in January of '81.

“I was trying to make it to the 1984 Olympics. I graduated in December '82 and I came back to Ireland.

“My father was in a bad way and he died in May '83. I ended up taking over as coach at Terenure Swimming Club.

“So in 1984 I was coaching the swimming club in the morning, I was managing the pool and staff, I was teaching 20 classes a week to the school, I was teaching two adult classes and I was trying to train myself for the Olympics.

“That will tell you how swimming was in those days. This was my time to understand that life takes over.

“I tried for '84 and that was more or less the end of my swimming career.

“I started playing water polo and I think that saved me in a way because all the work that I had done as a swimmer, I was now still training for this sport.

“I played water polo until I was 39. Now I didn't make it to international. I won an Irish Cup medal and runner-up medal with Half Moon and Sandycove. It was such a tough sport, but those were some of the best days of my life.

“I'd end up training for water polo or a sea swim. I had been doing open sea races from a young age.

“I took over the club in Terenure so my passion was then trying to get people to do what I wanted to do and that was to become an Olympic champion.

“The first guy I really worked with was a fella, Brian Nealon and he ended up captain of the University of Illinois.

“Over the years, I probably sent, from my programme, 10 or 12 swimmers to the United States on scholarships and one of my swimmers, David Malone, made it to four Paralympic Games, winning gold in Sydney 2000.

“I was assistant coach at World Cup meets, Grand Prix meets and I was Head Coach to the Junior European team in Russia and in Dunkirk and I was also the Youth Olympics Team coach in Madrid. I was assistant coach to the Irish team in the European Short Course Championships when they were held in Dublin in 2003.

“I coached in the swimming club up until 2004. On the 16th of July 2004 I walked into the swimming pool and there was no water in the pool. Most of it had gone overnight and this was just before our National Championships.

“There was a burst mains pipe underneath the pool and it had emptied out overnight.

“I had the swim team in that afternoon and I said 'Guys, this pool is not going to open for about six months.' They just thought I was being dramatic.

“Believe it or not, that happened on the 16th of July 2004 and we opened again on the first week of February 2007.

“I was out of work for that whole spell. That was probably the toughest time of my life. Everything had been turned upside down.

“In 2007 it reopened under new management and I was told it would be a conflict of interest to coach a club and work as the manager of the pool. None of this made sense to me, but I got on with things. Because I hadn't been coaching the club, there was no club there.

“Then parents, Dr Aoife Kavanagh, Ursula Keogh and Mary Bryson formed a committee and organised with the school to get the club back up and running which we did.

“So it started in 2014. Now I was going to morning sessions where I had just two or three swimmers, but it slowly started to build. It took two years and in 2016 there was the foundation there of a club.

“But I was called into the office in 2016 and I was told my position was no longer there. I was being made redundant.

“So I coached the swimming club for another year, not working as the manager of the pool and I applied to Swan Leisure in Rathmines.

“One of the criteria of going for an interview was that if I was to go to Rathmines, I wouldn't be able to coach Terenure Swimming Club because that would be a conflict of interest.

“So they took me in in 2016 and they have been amazing to me, Clodagh Kilmurray, CEO of Swan Leisure and Gavin Finn who is Director of Operations.

“I'm the manager of the pool down there now and we have a Ukrainian head coach there, Volodymyr Zhyvytskyi.

“That club is now doing five mornings a week and a couple of afternoons a week. They have qualifiers for Division One Age Group and we're now trying to promote our Centre of Excellence for the teaching of swimming.

“I'm just trying to make it that the teachers who are there become better educated in the world of swimming and we're looking to develop this Centre of Excellence for the teaching of swimming.

“There is a high level of swimming in our clubs in this country and it takes an awful lot of work to get to the level that they're at. Right now we're just slightly below the best, but there's not much in it.”

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