Mixed emotions for Rotherham coach who taught two of Britain’s prospects

Colin Cunningham of Rotherham, with memorabilia of his time swimming at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich'.
Colin Cunningham of Rotherham, with memorabilia of his time swimming at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich'.
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As a swimmer, he raced against the great Mark Spitz. As a coach, he taught a man who will go up against the iconic Michael Phelps.

Two of the great names of Olympic swimming, yet Colin Cunningham throws a starting block in the deep end when asked who is the greatest of all time.

“For my money, it was Roland Matthes,” says the wily swimming coach.

“It’s hard to choose between Spitz and Phelps because they were different times and different techniques. Swimming has evolved so much.

“I say Matthes because he was always so far in front. I was thrilled to be the second man to swim the 200m backstroke in under 2min 10secs in the early 1970s. The big East German did it in 2min 02.8secs.”

The spectre of drug use cast many of the accomplishments of the East German Olympians of the 1970s and 1980s in some doubt, but Matthes maintained his innocence and his place in Cunningham’s memory.

For their astonishing achievements at the Olympics, though, Spitz and Phelps are the revered kings of the pool.

Spitz was the hero of the Munich Games of 1972, winning seven gold medals and leaving Cunningham in his wake in the anchor leg of the 4x200m relay.

That was one of two relay finals a 17-year-old Cunningham reached in his one and only Games.

Forty years on, he will be as keen a spectator as any of the Olympic swimming events, with two of his former pupils bidding to upset the odds and win medals.

The former protege who will square up against Phelps – winner of 14 gold medals including a record eight at Beijing – is Joe Roebuck, the 27-year-old from Rotherham who has come into his own in recent years.

Cunningham will also have a keen eye on 19-year-old Becky Turner, who now trains for the City of Sheffield squad.

Turner competes over the coming days in the 200m freestyle and is part of the 4x200m and 4x100m relay squads.

Like Roebuck, she begins her campaign on Saturday. Roebuck is competing in the 400m individual medley, the 200 IM and the 200m butterfly – all of which are races in which he could come up against the giant Phelps.

“What Joe and Becky and all the British swimmers have to do is concentrate on earning personal bests,” says Cunningham.

“And, hopefully, their best will be good enough to make the semi-finals.

“Because the semi-final is almost like a final. You have to do your level best in a semi-final because the rest of the field will be at their maximum capacity.

“Then if you get into the final, you never know what your level best will result in.

“There’s only Michael Phelps who can pace himself in the heats and the semis and still breeze through.

“In the 400m IM, I would say Joe has to drop two seconds off his best time to make the final.

“In the 200m fly, if he does his personal best then that is a good standard and might just be enough.”

Cunningham first saw the raw talent of Roebuck and Turner around their 10th birthdays.

“Joe came through the house gala system,” he says of a man who has won Commonwealth and European medals in the past two years.

“As a 10-year-old, he won every race he entered at an Easter meet in Maltby.

“Joe was one of those where you see talent and you know straight away he’s going to be good.

“I remember a meet in Middlesbrough when he first realised himself that he would go far.

“He had always been No 2 in his age category in the 400m individual medley.

“I noticed this kid that always beat him struggled on the turns. Joe had a better kick-off and I told him ‘if you put pressure on him coming into the turns, you will beat him’.

“And he did. That meet really gave Joe the belief.

“He stayed with me until he had to further his education and he went to Loughborough at 18.

“I first came across Becky when she was nine, maybe 10.

“She came to the same house galas that Joe had been to and from the outset she was naturally fast.

“She would have been fast wherever she was taught.

“Becky left us around the age of 12 or 13.”

Roebuck, Turner and a strong contingent of Yorkshire swimmers at London 2012 are blessed to compete in a fully-funded, professional environment that is a far cry to the amateur era in which Cunningham competed.

He trained two hours in a morning and two hours at night around a part-time job.

He was a wide-eyed teenager when he arrived at Munich in 1972.

“I was only 17. I was young and naïve,” he recalls. “I remember at the training camp two weeks before I was flying and couldn’t wait for the Games to begin.

Then I got there and I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t swim very well at all.”

Cunningham went to the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in New Zealand two years later, but by 1975, the need to earn a living had become urgent.

In those days, if you earned money through swimming you rescinded your amateur status and your chance to compete in the Olympic Games.

Cunningham learned this lesson to his devastation in 1976 when an attempted comeback for the Montreal Games was aborted by the amateur swimming association because he had previously taken money to conduct coaching sessions.

That heartbreak would at least lead the 21-year-old Cunningham towards his ultimate vocation and, after a number of years spent coaching around the country, he landed in Rotherham in a coaching post.

There he has stayed for 30 years, helping generation after generation not only learn to swim, but to do so to an international standard.

But as he watches Roebuck and Turner compete over the coming days, he will do so not only with a sense of pride, but with a rueful reflection on what might have been.

“It’s one of my biggest regrets giving up swimming when I did,” he says.