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Swimming Australia strategist reflects on successes and challenges

Swimming Australia strategist reflects on successes and challenges
February 29, 2012

Swimming Australia General Manager for Aquatic Strategy Graeme Stephenson has been reflecting on his achievements in his role in the 18 months since his appointment.

Taking up his position in July 2010, Stephenson's brief was to work with swimming clubs, aquatic facilities, coaches and local councils to encourage access to water space for swimming programs around Australia.

Swimming Australia had previously expressed concerns about the apparent dwindling of access for elite coaches and swimmers in Council aquatic centres, and Stephenson’s role was described as being that of a lobbyist.

Summing up his period in post, Stephenson explains "in the first eighteen months since Swimming Australia sought to engage more with the aquatic owners and operators we have achieved some good outcomes. We have created an awareness that we want to work with facility managers and where requested we have provided feedback and advice as well as advocating or negotiated on behalf of the sport where necessary. Our intention is to continue to engage with all parts of the industry and all stakeholders to promote the benefits of the sport of swimming and to encourage opportunities for participation."

However, as Stephenson (pictured below) now reflects "when the term 'lobbyist' was included in reference to my role early days it set some people on the back foot when I sought to engage with them.

"Some Council pool operators and contractors had formed the view that Swimming Australia were looking to dramatically increase existing water space levels for competition swimming.

"While we advocate for swimming programs, we do so in context with the wide range of aquatic markets that a facility provides for (and acknowledge that) fitness swimmers, recreational swimmers, learn-to-swim and gentle exercise, are all important parts of the mix.

"We support a 'cradle to grave' approach encompassing swimming throughout all ages."

Stephenson adds "one of the interesting aspects that I have encountered since commencing in the role is the different attitudes towards swimming programs. Most facility operators have an extremely positive view of the club at their venue and continue to build synergies between the facility programs and the club program. Indeed a number of contractors operating pools under contract have provided great support and expertise to bolster the Club programs and administration.

"I have been fortunate to engage with people who have a very progressive view of the swimming clubs and the physical and social benefits they provide to individuals and to a local community.

"For instance, one Council has a partnership with the swimming club coaching team to deliver key messages to groups of young people in their community. The coaches connect really well with the kids in a difficult environment.

"Another facility partners the local club in delivering a wide ranging learn to swim and life-saving program at their venue. The programs are bursting at the seams and needless to say the facility is more vibrant than any other I have seen in terms of attendances and both Council and the Club have prospered from this.

"Some of the characteristics of our sport make it easier to present a case for competition swimming programs. The sport is inclusive of all abilities, is gender balanced, encourages skills and fitness and requires volunteer family involvement. The Clubs also build social capital in local communities. Yes, clubs take up some lane space that could be used in other ways, but they do provide both tangible and intangible benefits.

"Of the issues common in my dealings with Clubs at present is the charges for the use of lanes.

"Traditionally councils have an allocation of lane space to a club without charge but entry fees must be paid by members, or alternatively no entry fees but a lane hire fee.

"Recently some Councils have been pushing for an entry fee plus a lane hire fee to allow for 'exclusive use' of lanes. This has placed greater financial pressure on Clubs as most have no mechanism for generating income. When we compare the cost of facility access when these two fees are combined it is often up to 10 times the cost of facility access for other sports clubs using Council facilities in the same municipality! - and many of those Clubs have 'exclusive' access of the whole venue on both days of the weekend and up to four afternoons and evenings per week!

"We accept that the costs of operating swimming facilities are greater than other sports facilities, but charges beyond what is realistic will result in our sport being out of reach for everyday Australian’s or worse still, having no opportunity for kids to be at a swim club at all.

"Fortunately when we provide comparative evidence of facility access costs we get a positive response in discussions.

"The dealings we have had with state and federal governments and industry bodies have been particularly positive. There has been a real recognition that swimming as a sport and as an activity can make a contribution towards many of the health and participation objectives of government. Regular exercise to respond to obesity, encouragement of female participation in sport and providing an alcohol free environment for young people are just some of the areas where our sport responds directly to government programs. As such we have been able to support councils to obtain grant funds for facility development as well as for competitive swimming programs."

There are many challenges for the sport of swimming, but engaging with facility owners and operators is helping to create pathways for swimmers from the novices through to the high performance.





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