My Spit Chapter

Growing up a land-locked swimmer: musings on oceans, pools and coaching [published in T. Evans, ed., Swimming with the Spit (Sydney: NewSouth Press, 2016). 

My mum was a poor swimmer. She had migrated to Australia from England in 1964, and remained permanently worried about being ‘out of her depth’. She had heard that all Australian children swam, and therefore fretted even before I was born about how to manage my safety in the water. For this reason I learnt to swim before I could run, and my mother insisted on lessons for both her children until they reached the age of ten. When my brother turned ten, he quit swimming and went on to explore other sports popular with Australian kids in the 1980s: soccer, cricket, and eventually mountaineering. When I turned ten, I received an unexpected invitation to represent the club associated with my swim school at an annual meet with the famous Sydney club, Carlile.

My Canberra-based club was called Burley Griffin; by the 1980s it had risen with meteoric speed to be among the most competitive swimming clubs in the country. Our head coach was an ambitious New Zealander called Bill Robertson. One explanation for how Robertson had lifted Burley Griffin from nothing in 1976 to the second-placed club in both the Australian open and age championships in 1983 was his assiduous study of Forbes Carlile – a key character in the story of the Spit Club, who we first met in the introduction to this book. By the 1980s, Robertson had organised an annual meet between Carlile’s old established club and his own brash young club. In 1984, Bill Robertson was short one ten year old to complete his under-10 relay team. My parents agreed to drive me up to Sydney from Canberra to swim 50 metres for a club I didn’t even know existed.

From 1984 to 1989 I was immersed in the intense world that competitive swimming had become in Australia. At the time, I had no idea how much that intensity had been shaped by the leader of the Carlile club himself, Forbes Carlile. All I knew as a young athlete was that swimming was different in land-locked Canberra. The centre of swimming in my mind was always Sydney – that city of confidence and possibility, with an inextricable connection to the ocean. Most of my Sydney rivals had come to swimming via an alternate route to me, mucking around in ocean pools or challenging themselves with nipper surf lifesaving. It was an experience that seemed to stick with them always, giving them a separate sense of what all our training in the pool was ultimately for. Sydney swimmers knew that the pool was only ever one aspect of aquatic sports; most lived to participate in weekend ocean events even while they committed up to 20 hours a week doing laps in chlorinated water. This chapter looks at both the rise of systematised swimming training in Australia and the unique boost of the ocean for young Australian swimmers through the 20th century. Forbes Carlile is often credited with introducing young Australian competitive swimmers to the rigours and glorious outcomes of systematised training. His association with one of the leading ocean pool clubs of the modern era, the Spit Club, is less well known.


Carlile joined the Spit Club as a teenager in the 1930s, becoming captain of the boy’s team at the age of 14 in 1936. He maintained his association with the club for the next 20 years, enjoying what everyone enjoyed (and enjoys) – the larking about, the improvisation of the racing procedures, the sun and the salt, the friends and the community.[1] But by the 1940s Carlile had become enough of an athlete himself, with an increasingly scientific approach to both sport and life, to see how those same things could also hinder rather than help national swimming standards.

By way of medicine, Carlile had ended up studying human physiology at the University of Sydney under the foremost sports scientist of the era, Professor Frank Cotton. In 1945, Carlile and Cotton had together set up the Palm Beach Scientific Training Group to test out some of their emerging ideas; they went on to work as academic colleagues after Carlile graduated with honours in 1947.[2]

Carlile served as the (amateur) head coach of the Australian swimming team at the 1948 London Olympics. By this stage, he was convinced that Australian swimmers performed less well than their rivals – notably the Americans – because they were confined mostly to ocean pools, to light and casual training, and to a belief that swimming was a strictly summer-only endeavour.[3] As he continued both his studies in physiology and his amateur involvement in coaching, Carlile began to advocate for year-long swimming, greater workloads, and the establishment of more in-ground – and preferably indoor – pools in Australian cities.[4] His advice paid off at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in the performance of John Davies, and spectacularly so at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the successes of Jon Hendricks, John Konrads, Dawn Fraser, Lorraine Crapp, and the Spit’s own Murray Rose.[5]

By 1956, Carlile believed that Australian swimmers had turned around their lagging reputation, in part by getting out of ocean pools and into ones that could be more readily controlled. The previous year, he had quit academia and, with his wife Ursula, set up a professional swimming ‘laboratory’ at Drummoyne. The laboratory was still reliant on Harbour water, requiring replenishment once a week, but at least it provided a slightly more predictable environment for young swimmers.[6] More important than the facilities, though, Carlile believed that Australians had shone at Melbourne because they now ‘trained harder … than their rivals’.[7] Beyond the short season and the variable pool standards, the thing that had most frustrated Carlile in the 1940s was the general belief that over-swimming could lead to ‘staleness’. Certainly, the Spit Club coaches of the early era had shared this common view: most advised swimming no more than one mile a day for fear of ‘weakening’ the body.[8] Carlile’s scientific studies, however, had demonstrated the reverse – that, indeed, ‘swimmers must be driven very hard in their training, almost unmercifully, if world records are to be made.’[9]

Carlile was the first Australian coach to systematically experiment with the idea that increased stress on a body leads mostly to strength rather than weakness. During the late 1950s and ’60s he added other landmark innovations, including heart-rate monitoring (to maintain and predict capacity), racing pace (whereby each quarter of a race is approximately the same pace and not faster), tapering (where swimmers lighten up their workload only in the lead-up to major races), daily logbooks to track consistency, large poolside clocks, a steady two-beat freestyle kick, low-fat diets, shaving down and starting young.[10] Above all, Carlile’s signature trademark was – as his most famous protege Shane Gould recalled – the ‘miles, miles, miles philosophy’, to be enacted in every session, around ten times a week.[11]

carlile 1978 NLA
Forbes and Ursula, 1978, photo from the NLA

In 1961, Forbes and Ursula relocated their laboratory to their first in-ground pool in Ryde, creating the Carlile Swimming Club. The new facility satisfied Carlile’s desire for a more predictable training environment, though it was still unheated – Australian pools were generally unheated until the 1970s.[12] Forbes and Ursula remember often ‘chasing, [and using] bribery and coercion’ to get swimmers into the ‘very cold water’.[13] Despite the chill, however, Carlile’s exceptional results through the 1960s saw his intensified training methods adopted by most serious coaches. His methods were particularly influential on one of Carlile’s own assistant coaches, Bill Robertson.


Robertson moved to Canberra in the early 1970s and established Burley Griffin in 1976. With the benefit of all Carlile’s accumulated wisdom, Robertson could launch his club with a streamlined vision for success. Swimmers had to sign up for a total experience: around ten sessions a week (in a wonderfully heated 25-metre indoor pool in Deakin), predominately aerobic exercise, constant monitoring, constant recording. This agenda led to major national success within five years. At the 1984 National Age Championships, Burley Griffin beat Carlile for top-ranked club overall.[14] By the time I swam my single leg for the under-10s relay in the annual Burley Griffin/Carlile meet, Robertson had five swimmers in the Australian team.

Within a year of that first – and in the end thrilling – interstate race, I too signed up for Robertson’s gruelling regime. My coach, however, was not Robertson but his assistant, Scott Wilson. Very quickly, my world reoriented itself around swimming. When I later read Shane Gould’s description of her life as a young teen in the Carlile Swimming Club, it resonated almost perfectly:

I was often tired and sore. My training sessions lasted two hours (4.45 to 7 am and 4 to 6 pm). Another hour was taken up by travelling and getting changed. Seven hours of the day … were allocated to going to school. I had eight to nine hours of sleep at night. This left me with four hours for eating, doing homework and chores, and watching TV.[15]

My successes, of course, were never in Gould’s league. But they were almost immediate. Very soon, I was winning country and state championship medals. Later, I won a silver medal in the 200-metre backstroke at Age Nationals, a bronze medal in the 1500-metre freestyle at Open Nationals, and in 1988 was selected to represent Australia in a European Age Championship in Germany (where I won medals in all my seven events).

The highs of rapid improvement are, of course, motivating in themselves. I was also buoyed in the early years by the new friendships I was making – not only within Burley Griffin but also with interstate rivals, mainly Sydneysiders. Most of my Sydney swimming friends combined pool training with some ocean-oriented commitments. I recall my backstroking contemporary Johanna Griggs telling me how much more she enjoyed her surfing activities than her pool life, even while she acknowledged that it was the pool that enabled her eminence at the beach. My teammate on the trip to Germany, Mark Ikin, also shared this view.

In some ways (or for some periods), Joh’s and Mark’s ocean swimming might have proved detrimental to their racing performance. My Age Nationals silver medal in the 200-metre backstroke in 1987 had that day consigned Joh to bronze. Similarly, Mark had a poorer meet than me when we were together in Germany, despite being one of the best medley swimmers for his age in the world. Possibly their coaches at the time blamed their more scattered results on their split loyalties between the pool and the ocean. Certainly, my own coach Scott Wilson recalls today some of his oceanside counterparts complaining to him of this problem among their swimmers.[16]

But, there again, both Griggs and Ikin went on to be Australian swimming representatives at open championships, and I did not.[17] Today, I wonder about the extent to which the ocean had in fact enabled, rather than hampered, their ultimate ability to persevere through the relentless training schedule. The ocean may have distracted them from optimal training in the short term, but perhaps it also kept them interested over the long haul. Perhaps it served to remind them through the years – as I discover it had reminded Olympian Lisa Forrest, growing up in Dee Why – of the ‘true’ point and original ‘inspiration’ behind swimming.[18] Certainly, the Spit’s own Murray Rose once admitted that his first love was to ‘crack’ the waves at Bondi – despite his coach’s disapproval.[19]

I quit competitive swimming at 16 – an age now considered still youthful in the sport. In the 1980s, due in part to Carlile’s belief in the need to start early, it was associated with mid-career swimmers. There were many reasons behind my decision, though chief among them was the inevitable slowing of the pace of my improvement and the sheer toughness of my daily routine. When I later compared them, Gould’s regime in the early 1970s turned out in fact to be significantly lighter than mine was 15 years later. Where she had swum 60 to 70 kilometres per week, I was regularly clocking 80 kilometres. Where her sessions lasted two hours, mine often went for two and a half hours. Where her dry-land work was optional, we added in two compulsory gym workouts per week, and so on. Soon, all the other parts of life – what Gould called the ‘school dances and kissing boys’ parts of life – melted into the tiled black line below us. A few personalities (Gould’s evidently one of them) thrive on such a ‘fine organization of time,’ but mine does not. For everyone else, there has to be either other means for achieving success or other rewards along the way.[20]

Interestingly, my story reflects something of the larger story of Burley Griffin. After its initial blooming, the Canberra-based club did not flourish in elite competition quite as anticipated. Thus far, it has placed ten swimmers in the Australian team.[21] Carlile has placed well over 50 swimmers, and has been the driving force behind over 30 world records.

Excluding some important demographic features peculiar to Canberra itself, there are two plausible explanations. The first is the extent to which Burley Griffin took on and ran with the Carlile systemised approach to training. As noted, my training was tougher than that imposed – at least in the 1970s – by Carlile himself. Robertson’s assistant coach Scott Wilson adhered especially to the ‘miles, miles, miles philosophy’ and to the benefits of intense rigour. As a result, all of his swimmers excelled in distance events, and generally as all-rounders, regardless of their other specialties. (This latter point was particularly true of me, who specialised really in the 200-metre butterfly but achieved my best results in other events, and who was chosen for the six-person age-level team to Germany because my all-round capacity would maximise the cost investment.) Wilson was selected as Australian national coach for the 1989 Pan-Pacific Championships. I remember him returning home that year confident that his own swimmers generally out-trained everyone else on the team. Although few doubted the approach in the 1980s, some today think differently – including Wilson himself.[22] Ironically, Burley Griffin seemed to perfect a method that depended, in reality, on not being perfected. It drove a line that some experts now believe can be overdone.[23]

The other reason for Burley Griffin’s track record – vaguer, less quantifiable, but nonetheless obstinately present – involves the land-locked nature of Canberra swimming. It cannot readily draw from, or later tap into, what Forbes Carlile and countless other swimmers knew and cherished as a child – the unregulated, immeasurable and determinedly unsystematic quality of ocean pool sport. Paradoxically, those aspects which most frustrated Carlile in the 1940s at the Spit, as he set out to transform Australian swimming, could be a hidden motor behind national eminence after all.

Obviously, proximity to ocean frolics is not a water-tight argument when accounting for elite swimming success worldwide: plenty of Olympic greats have never had anything to do with the charms we now associate with organisations like the Spit. But in Australia, for those without the extraordinary personal discipline of a Shane Gould, the sea has provided just the lift needed to keep going on the journey towards excellence.


After I withdrew from competitive swimming, I did not touch chlorinated water again for many years. In my twenties, I took up lap swimming in order to build general fitness, but I kept my distance from racing. By my thirties, after some years living overseas, I settled finally in Sydney – that beacon-like city from my youth. One day, two fellow-historian friends cajoled me into joining their club at Balmoral Beach, with the odd name of the Spit. I didn’t know then about the Spit’s link to Forbes Carlile – nor indeed, at that stage, about Carlile’s own link to the kind of coaching I had received through the 1980s. The irony is not lost on me that it is here, in this club which had come to encapsulate for Carlile all that needed reforming in elite swimming, that I rediscovered the simple joys of competition. The season is short, the swell ruins comparability, the time-keeping is all too human, and no one can account exactly for the distance between ends. But the races are still challenging, motivating and, yes, even inspirational.

With next to no training between Saturday races, I stand in little danger of ‘stressing’ my body, or even, frankly, of maintaining standards. With a steady decline in performance from year to year, however, comes what feels like a proportional increase in fun. Ocean ‘fun,’ of course, is alone no recipe for success on the world stage. But its role in creating and then sustaining young Australian swimmers has been perhaps unduly overlooked.

The final word belongs to Carlile himself, that boy from Mosman who has been so important in the elevation of Australian swimming to consistently dominant international levels. For over 30 years, I had heard of Carlile’s rather intense, and somewhat intimidating, mantra, engraved on a plaque in his Ryde Aquatic Centre: ‘Our object is not to produce a champion but to provide an atmosphere where champions are inevitable.’ Only when conducting research for this chapter did I realise that the mantra is followed by a rather more philosophical comment: ‘However, swimming is a means to an end … to build self-confidence, self-discipline, integrity and courage for life.’ The Spit may have long ago produced one of the most significant figures in elite Australian swimming, but in its continued celebration of ocean pool competition the club also represents the vitality a sport needs to flourish in the future.



[1] See Forbes Carlile, ‘A History of Australian Swim Training’, World Swimming Coaches Association Newsletter, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, 3.

[2] See Forbes Carlile on Talking Heads, ABC1, 4 August 2008, transcript <> (last accessed 5 April 2016); see also S. Brawley, Beach Beyond: A History of the Palm Beach Surf Club 1921–1996 (UNSW Press, Sydney, 1996), p. 93.

[3] See Carlile, ‘A History of Australian Swim Training’, p. 3; Carlile, Talking Heads; M.G. Phillips, From Sidelines to Centre Field: A History of Sport Coaching in Australia (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000), pp. 57–68; M.G. Phillips, Swimming Australia: One Hundred Years (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2008), p. 125. Many others noted the poorer ranking of interwar Australian swimmers, but few theorised it as extensively as Carlile: see, e.g., Jack Dexter, The Sydney Sportsman, 7 February 1922, who thought that ‘exhibition swims’ by Americans, along with in-ground pools, might help.

[4] Carlile, ‘A History of Australian Swim Training’, p. 3.

[5] Carlile was the head Australian coach for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. For the pay-off in performances, see Phillips, From Sidelines to Centre Field, pp. 50–51; see also Robert Drane, ‘Forbes Carlile’, Inside Sport, 18 October 2009.

[6] The pool needed to be emptied and refilled once a week with Harbour water. ‘On more than one occasion,’ the Carlile Club historian has written, ‘swimmers arrived for training only to find a sign stating, ‘Saturday Races Cancelled – Dead Dog in Pump’: ‘The Forbes and Ursula Carlile Story’ <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

[7] Cited in Phillips, From Sidelines to Centre Field, p. 54.

[8] See the classic statement on this belief by coach and professor Tom Hatfield in Swimming, By Champions of the World (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., London, 1915). The Spit coach Sam Herford tried to update this view, but also resisted ‘scientific’ findings on increased conditioning: see the entry on Herford in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

[9] Cited in Phillips, From Sidelines to Centre Field, p. 53; see also Carlile, ‘A History of Australian Swim Training’, p. 3.

[10] See other innovations, too, outlined in Forbes Carlile, On Swimming (Pelham, London, 1963); see also Carlile, ‘A History of Australian Swim Training’, p. 5; Phillips, From Sidelines to Centre Field, p. 65; and Drane, ‘Forbes Carlile’.

[11] Shane Gould, Tumble Turns: An Autobiography (HarperCollins, Sydney, 1999), p. 75.

[12] Phillips, Swimming Australia, p. 133.

[13] See ‘The Forbes and Ursula Carlile Story’, <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

[14] See the Burley Griffin Club history, ‘About Us’, <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

[15] Gould, Tumble Turns, p. 76.

[16] Personal communication, 20 November 2015. Note that this theme discussed also in S. Brawley, The Bondi Lifesaver: A History of an Australian Icon (ABC Books, Sydney, 2007), p. 192.

[17] Both made the Australian team in 1989: Johanna Griggs is listed as Australian swimmer no. 376; Mark Ikin is listed as no. 379.

[18] Lisa Forrest (no. 269), cited in Phillips, Swimming Australia, p. 125; see also her discussion of the Dee Why pool online, <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

[19] Sun, 22 January 1955, cited in Brawley, Bondi Lifesaver, p. 192.

[20] See Gould, Tumble Turns, pp. 72, 75, 76.

[21] The most famous being Olympic medallists Michelle Pearson (no. 275), Dimity Douglas (no. 295) and Kim Terrell (no. 308).

[22] Personal communication, 20 November 2015.

[23] For an overview of the recent literature on this, see Grant Smith, ‘Overtraining in Elite Swimmers’, January 2015 at <> (last accessed 5 April 2016). Many still remain sceptical of the concept of overtraining: see Andrew Heffernan, ‘Overtraining: Myths, Facts, and Fantasies’, (last accessed 5 April 2016). One example of a coach splitting the difference, with the view that ‘overtraining definitely exists, but isn’t rampant among swim teams’, is Rick Madge, ‘Overtraining: One of the Perils of Training’, <> (last accessed 5 April 2016).

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