Ponds Forge mothballing is death knell for a generation of Yorkshire Olympians, warns City of Sheffield Swimming Club coach

A generation of future Yorkshire Olympians will be lost by the mothballing of Sheffield’s Ponds Forge International Sports Centre.

England's Eleanor Faulkner with her bronze medal following the women's Women's 400m Freestyle Final at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre during day six of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia.She trained all her career at Ponds Forge (Picture: PA)

That is the warning from Russ Barber, head coach of the City of Sheffield Swimming Club, who from their base at the internationally-renowned venue have sent at least one swimmer to each of the last three Olympic Games.

The success rate of the City of Sheffield Diving Club is equally impressive, and one that now faces an uncertain future following the decision by operating company Sheffield City Trust to keep Ponds Forge shut for the foreseeable future.

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SwimEngland had warned in this newspaper last month that 40 per cent of pools may not re-open due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Ponds Forge is the biggest venue so far to fall into that category.

James Kirton of City of Sheffieldat the British Championships at Ponds Forge in 2003 (Picture: Chris Lawton)

Opened in 1991 ahead of the city’s staging of the World Student Games, Ponds Forge has hosted the European Swimming Championships 1993 and countless national swimming and diving championships through the years. There are seven clubs operating at the venue, including swimming, diving and water polo, allowing athletes of elite standing to train alongside recreational users.

It is an iconic building, and for Barber, the decision to keep it shut has sent shockwaves through South Yorkshire’s aquatics community.

“It’s devastating. We accept it was losing money but the amount of people it brought into the city far outweighed that, or at least we thought,” said Barber.

“It seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction and Sheffield has lost a major international venue because of it.

City of Sheffield Swimming Club coach Russ Barber. (Picture: SWPix.com)

“There was no consultation, no discussion, it’s just come out of nowhere and absolutely knocked the stuffing out of us.

“It’s damaging to elite swimming in the city and has far-reaching consequences.”

Since taking over as head coach in 2001, Barber has trained and sent James Kirton to the Beijing Olympics, Eleanor Faulkner, Becky Turner and James Crisp to London 2012 and Faulkner to Rio 2016.

In a similar timespan the diving club had a silver medallist in Leon Taylor in Athens in 2004, and made Olympians of Nick Robinson-Baker, Monique Gladding and Freddie Woodward over the next three cycles.

Leon Taylor, of City of Sheffield Diving Club won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“It’s an entire generation of Olympians lost,” continued Barber.

“It took me seven years to build up James Kirton from a promising teenager to an Olympian. It’s not something that’s done overnight and this will knock Sheffield back 10 years because it’s not just swimmers they will lose, it’s coaches as well.

“If it does re-open, the club will have to rebuild. Same for the diving and the water polo teams.

“Even if they re-open it in say April, that’s no good to the elite athletes who were supposed to be building towards the Olympic trials, they’ll have to find somewhere else to train.”

Tom Owens, head coach of the City of Sheffield Diving Club, said pre Covid-19 around 400 people of all ages came to Ponds Forge every week to dive in some capacity. He added: “It’s devastating news. The club over the past 141 days hasn’t been able to go into the venue and we’ve tried so hard to maintain the momentum.

“The risk is if this happens for too long and we don’t find a suitable plan for Ponds Forge to reopen then it will be a generation of athletes who will lose the opportunity to chase their dreams. It’s a very big hole left in a lot of people’s lives.”

Jane Nickerson, chief executive of SwimEngland, added: “It’s devastating for the swimming, diving and water polo clubs based there, for the staff who work there, for the generation of youngsters who would have learned how to swim there – and for the thousands who have enjoyed taking part in our national events and other major international competitions.”

Sheffield City Trust declined to comment. The organisation, which is a not-for-profit organisation, employs 1,000 people of which 300 are now at risk of redundancy due to the pandemic.

Chief executive Andrew Snelling has said there are no plans to close Ponds Forge permanently. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation and look to open more facilities across our estate as soon as is practical to do so.”

Additional reporting: 
Molly Williams