Australia

Australia's first female Olympic swimming coach is still helping kids to swim at 83

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Ursula Carlile will enter the International Swimming Hall of Fame next year. Here, she tells SBS News why she’s still playing her part in helping introduce a whole new generation to the sport.

Ursula Carlile has dedicated a lifetime to pushing others to achieve their best in the swimming pool. 

In the 1950s she and husband Forbes, who died three years ago, pioneered revolutionary training techniques including circle swimming, pace clocks, interval training and heart rate monitored training, all of which are still in use today. 

The key to their success was their ability to run high-level elite training alongside helping young children learn to swim. Thousands of children have since learned to swim at one of the nine Carlile Swimming centres around Sydney and Ursula Carlile still gets recognised today. 

Ursula Carlile
Ursula Carlile was Australia's first female Olympic swimming coach.
Supplied

“Adults come up to me and say, 'Do you remember me?' from when they were seven or eight years old,” the 83-year-old tells SBS News.  

“I remember the very good ones and the naughty ones but there’s a lot in between.” 

The success of the swimming schools helped to underwrite the couple’s success at the elite level and Carlile became Australia's first female Olympic swimming coach. 

Next year she will enter the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

“I was absolutely amazed because I’m sure there are plenty of people who are more worthy than I was,” she says. 

“But absolutely delighted … I know how significant it is.”

Carlile
Supplied

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Carlile oversaw one of Australia’s finest ever Olympic swimming performances when 15-year-old Shane Gould won five medals, three of them gold. It was a career highlight for Carlile. 

“Shane’s exploits at Munich would have to be the highlight. She just had so much going for her,” she says. 

But those Olympics would also be remembered as the target of a terror attack on the Israeli team at the Olympic village that left 17 people dead, with Carlile almost coming into contact with the perpetrators. 

“I used to go out for a run around the whole village early in the morning,” she recalls.

“I must have missed them climbing the fence by a matter of only minutes because they ran past there and then came back to the front entrance. By the time I got there they realised what was happening, and they wouldn’t let anyone in or out. It’s really quite lucky I didn’t run into them.”

Shane Gould
Shane Gould, centre, with Forbes Carlile, right, after breaking a world record.
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The couple’s dedication to swimming allowed them to travel the world. They spent time in China and also lived in the Netherlands for three years where they were central to the country winning the European Championships in 1962. 

But Carlile says their careers coaching children and athletes didn't allow time for much else. The couple didn’t have any children of their own. 

“It’s hard for women if they have a family because the times you need to be at the pool are the times you need to be at home,” Carlile says. 

“Getting breakfast and getting kids off to school … coaching till seven o'clock and then you’ve got to go home and do the main meal … but I do think there are more women coming into it.” 

Ursula and Forbes Carlile
Ursula and Forbes Carlile. He died in 2016.
Supplied

Ursula now has arthritis which means she can no longer swim, but her daily routine always begins with a session on her exercise bike before visiting the pool. 

“I go up to the main pool every afternoon and I’m sort of first reserve,” she says. 

“If the coaches don’t turn up, I’m there, but mainly I look at what’s happening and say ‘yes that’s good, that’s bad, why haven’t you picked up that the kid has his arm in the wrong place?’” 

Ursula Carlile
Ursula Carlile will be recognised for her contribution to world swimming.
John Baldock/SBS News

She’s proud of what she has achieved. 

"This little pool is small but it’s got well over a thousand children coming here a week, and we've got nine schools, so multiply that by nine, it’s a lot." 

Carlile will enter the International Swimming Hall of Fame in April and says she has every intention of travelling to the US for the honour.

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