Tea-time chat leads to a big splash by city clubs

Of the 60-plus athletes representing Yorkshire in Glasgow over the next 12 days, nearly a quarter come from just two of the county’s aquatics clubs. Nick Westby spoke to two men who have been plotting this domination for over a decade.

Sheffield swim coach Russ Barber with Eleanor Faulkner, left, and Rebecca Turner.

What began as an idea around a dinner table in Leeds 15 years ago will come to fruition at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow over the coming days.

Seven divers from the City of Leeds club and six stars from the City of Sheffield club head north of the border to fight for glory in Glasgow’s pools.

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The Leeds divers make up nearly half of the England squad in Scotland, while the Steel City has the nation’s third biggest contingent of swimmers, behind the high performance centres of Loughborough and Bath.

Leeds divers Alicia Blagg and Jack Laugher with coach Ady Hinchliffe

It is a healthy contribution from both squads, and by no means a flash in the pan.

Indeed, the genesis of this large swathe of Yorkshire ducks to water came when housemates Russ Barber and Ady Hinchliffe got their heads together a decade and a half ago.

“We were the very best of friends and we both exchanged some ideas back in those days about our coaching philosophies,” says Hinchliffe, the head coach at City of Leeds Diving Club.

“I remember the conversations we had over dinner. We talked about some very important things that have proved very helpful in our coaching careers.

“I don’t know who learned from who but I’ve been coaching a bit longer than him. I think it was probably a bit of both ways to be honest.”

For the record, Hinchliffe has been Leeds’s top coach for 15 years while Barber has been the head man at City of Sheffield for 13 years.

The most important statistic though is the baker’s dozen they send to Glasgow.

Leeds Diving Club is represented by Harrogate’s Jack Laugher, Wakefield’s Alicia Blagg and Leeds residents Hannah Starling, James Denny, Rebecca Gallantree and Chris Mears.

Sixteen-year-old Matty Lee was going to be in the squad but an elbow injury has robbed him of a dream opportunity.The seventh Leeds member is another teenager, Yona Knight-Wisdom, who represents Jamaica because of his parents.

Sheffield’s swimmers are Ellie Faulkner and Lewis Coleman from the city, plus Rotherham’s Rebecca Turner and Nick Grainger, and Pontefract’s Max Litchfield.

A sixth member, Gareth Mills of Scarborough, represents host nation Scotland due to his parents’ nationality.

“It’s about developing a programme and helping that grow,” says Barber, whose achievement in sending six to the Commonwealths should not be understated, given the budget cuts from the local council and the sport’s governing body that have made life difficult over the past 12 months.

“Like with the City of Leeds, they’ve had the same head coach in Ady Hinchliffe for 15, 16 years.

“I’ve been with City of Sheffield for 13 years. Both he and I know that it takes time to develop a system that works where you are.

“You have to develop relationships with local schools and staff, you have got to put the time in.

“Then when you have those relationships in place, you know how to control training, how to manipulate programmes etc to get the best out of people and to make sure you’re doing the right things for the right age groups.

“That way you get a group of good juniors coming through who then become seniors, and underneath them the next wave of juniors. But it all takes time, and you need a lot of patience.”

Facilities have played a prominent role in the flourishing of both clubs.

City of Sheffield have had use of the international standard pool at Ponds Forge from the day Barber walked through the door, while Leeds divers use John Charles Aquatics Centre, which again is a state-of-the-art facility.

Both are supported by their respective local councils, and Leeds Diving Club will also benefit from a Sport England grant next year that will see an upgrade to their dry land gyms, which are so vital in the development of divers.

As ever in British sport, the next Olympics – Rio in 2016 – is the target, with the Commonwealths coming bang in the middle of the cycle.

These Games come at different stages in the development of the 13 athletes the two Yorkshire clubs are sending, with a host of Olympians like Laugher, Starling, Blagg, Gallantree, Mears Faulkner and Turner all hoping to build on the experiences gained in London two years ago.

For the likes of Coleman, Grainger, Litchfield, Mills and Denny and Knight-Wisdom, it is an opportunity to blossom in the unique environment of a multi-event Games.

“For me, and I always say it, it’s a dream come true to have so many world-class athletes,” adds Hinchliffe.

“Not only are we sending these athletes there but we are also starting to really impact on the competitions.

“With Jack Laugher getting a World Cup bronze medal in Shanghai at the weekend it’s really putting Leeds on the map and obviously it puts us in a good light with the funding agencies of our sport.

“Hopefully, that will continue into next week with some of the younger divers contributing as well and it’s really good to see divers like James Denny in action.

“I think we’d be disappointed if we were not coming home with medals, if not a few golds, and on paper we can do that.

“Obviously you have still got to perform, you have still got to do the dives on the day and that can all fall down no matter how good you are.

“In terms of chances, I think Jack is going to be our strongest chance of winning his individual event, and also winning alongside Chris in the synchro.

“They are well ranked in the world now and they would probably be the favourites for a gold medal.”

Of Sheffield’s prospects, Barber says: “The Olympic experience allows girls like Ellie and Becky to feel like they’ve made that first step.

“They won’t have that rabbit in the headlights scenario that others may have.

“But I’m not putting any extra pressure on those girls than probably they put on their own shoulders.

“What you’ve got to remember is these young adults are all going through different milestones in their life; they’re studying for A-levels, for degrees and they’re moving home.

“They’re all factors you have to take into account, and it shows how mature they are that they can handle these competitions.

“We are looking at Rio for those two in particular so they need to be stepping up and getting in the mix with the best girls.”

Yorkshire’s pool of talent does not end there. Sheffield’s triple breaststroke champion Sophie Taylor – who used to swim under Barber as well as at clubs in Doncaster, Harrogate and the City of Leeds – is among the favourites in her three disciplines.

Across the pool at Ponds Forge, London Olympian Nick Robinson Baker and teenager Freddie Woodward are also part of England’s diving squad.

Yorkshire’s stars of the Glasgow pool

Diving

Jack Laugher: age 19, born Harrogate, represents City of Leeds, second Games appearance

Alicia Blagg: 17, Wakefield, City of Leeds, second Games appearance

Hannah Starling: 19, Leeds, City of Leeds, Games debut

James Denny: 20, Leeds, City of Leeds, Games debut

Rebecca Gallantree: 29, Chelmsford, City of Leeds, third Games appearance

Chris Mears: 21, Reading, City of Leeds, second Games appearance

Yona Knight-Wisdom: 18, Leeds, City of Leeds, represents Jamaica, Games debut

Nicholas Robinson-Baker: 27, Farnborough, City of Sheffield, second Games appearance

Freddie Woodward: 19, Sheffield, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Oliver Dingley: 21, Harrogate, City of Essex, second Games appearance

Swimming

Eleanor Faulkner: 21, Sheffield, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Becky Turner: 21, Rotherham, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Lewis Coleman: 22, Bury, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Max Litchfield: 19, Pontefract, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Nicholas Grainger: 19, Rotherham, City of Sheffield, Games debut

Gareth Mills: 24, Scarborough, City of Sheffield, represents Wales, Games debut

Lizzie Simmonds: 23, Beverley, Bath, second Games appearance

Sophie Taylor: 18, Sheffield, City of Leeds, Games debut

Joe Roebuck: 29, Rotherham, Bath, second Games appearance