Jon Rudd: Meet the man charged with transforming Irish swimming

Newstalk.com speaks Jon Rudd, Swim Ireland's newly appointed Performance Director about his role with the organisation and his ambitions for the years ahead

Jon Rudd

Image: Tim Goode / PA Archive/PA Images

Four of Ireland's top athletes represented the country in aquatics at this summer's Olympic Games in Rio.

For the first time in 68 years, the country was able to send a diver - Oliver Dingley - to compete in a team that also featured Fiona Doyle, Shane Ryan and Nicholas Quinn.

Their achievements for reaching the competition was in itself remarkable and Ryan and Dingley in particular shone brightly in Brazil - Ryan reaching the semi-final of the 100m backstroke and Dingley finishing eighth in the final of the men's 3-metre springboard and achieving a personal best along the way.

Much was made of their feats and the task now is to build on the result, to help Ireland become one of the finest swimming nations in the world.

With a population as small as Ireland's (approximately 4.8 million people) this notion can seem more like a fantasy than an achievable goal. However, Swim Ireland's newly appointed performance director says that developing networks within Irish swimming and around the globe is the key to harnessing all talent on offer.

"Ireland has two national centres in Dublin and Limerick, as well as a really strong Ulster programme as well, working in conjunction with the South so that there’s a strong connection between the two nations," Jon Rudd tells Newstalk.com.

"There’s also some coaching experience and some talent out there, that’s for sure. Having met some of those people and spent time working with them, I think they only need a little bit more guidance and a little bit more structure. The help can ensure that athlete pathways are put in place so we can find the talent and expose them to the right people in the right places.

"That’s why I’m so excited about it. You're not too far away from where you need to be. It’s just a case of structuring it in a more cohesive way. Developing a network among all of the Irish swimming communities so that we’re all working as one and that everybody feels that they’re part of that process."

Rudd appears to have the pedigree to do just that, having coached 2012 Olympic gold medallist RÅ«ta MeilutytÄ— and British world record holder Ben Proud.

His role in Plymouth Leander, one of the Britain's leading swimming clubs, and director of swimming at Plymouth College has earned him a reputation as being one of Europe's elite coaches.

"In that time, I’ve coached a medal winner in every international event there is, including the Olympic Games. I’ve coached three world record swims."

The two bodies work in tandem in an attempt to achieve what Rudd describes as a "playground to podium" pathway, with the focus on nurturing young promising athletes.

"I’ve always thought that Ireland was an underachiever in swimming. There’s always been good junior kids and more so now than before. There’s good junior athletes in Ireland and I’ve always wondered why they don’t quite make it to podium level in senior and Olympic events.

"When the opportunity came along, [I realised] I’m at the time of my life where I’m ready for a new challenge and it just seemed to be a good fit what they’re looking for and what it was I was looking for.

"I like the idea of taking something that’s got all of the jigsaw pieces present, but not necessarily put together in the right places. I think that’s where my skills come in."

Oliver Dingley finished 8th during the final of the three metre springboard at the Olympics. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan 

Rudd boasts 27 years of experience in the field, 11 of those coming in his dual role with both club and university, and admits he was impressed with what he saw from Irish swimmers at the Games.

"I was pleased to see that there was a clear approach to the performance. Three swimmers, one diver. That makes total sense to me. Most nations of your population size would do similar and pretty much everybody swam on their best.

"One semi-finalist and two of the swims in the world top 20. You can’t go far wrong with that. I think Peter Banks and his team did a great job there. Also, with Oliver [Dingley] reaching the [diving] final, that’s a robust and a sound set of results. It’s one of the best in results for Ireland in aquatics at the Olympic Games.

"It gives us a good start and what I’m thinking now isn’t just where we can get some medal prospects for Tokyo, but how can we make that a habit so that we don’t just have a good games in Tokyo. We want to create something that it happens on a more ready basis."

With Tokyo 2020 the next target for many Irish athletes to focus on, Rudd believes that top results and even podium finishes aren't outside the realm of possibility.

"An Olympic cycle is a long time. Particularly in female swimming, you can find high quality athletes at a younger age. So those medallists might exist now already, we just don’t know who they are or where they are. If they do exist, we’ve got to make sure they’re resourced with everything that they need.

"No stone unturned is my philosophy. It’s not unrealistic. It’s a tall order and it’s a massive challenge and it’s just a case of how quickly we can get our feet on the ground and hit the ground running. Getting a team of key personnel around me will be my first point of order from the beginning of February.

"It’s important we have a group of world class personnel to help whoever we feel are the athletes who can stand on the podium and those who are 2024 ready and so on.

"It’s not just a one-Olympic cycle prospect, it’s how we keep something bouncing to one four-year period to another."

The template is to identify athletes globally and to see what resources Ireland can offer them, and furthermore, the level of talent they can bring to Ireland.

"You’ve got to identify the swimmers first. The system in Plymouth, we’re not restricted to finding athletes from one nation. I work with 27 different nationalities at this moment at time in this swimming programme. My chances of success are higher because the world is my population.

"In Ireland that isn’t the case. The first thing we have to do is find out where these athletes are, who they are and who they’re working with. There are Irish athletes all over the world who need identifying and engaging with to see if they want to represent Ireland. It’s not necessarily just those of us who are in the country at this moment in time.

"We’ve got to spread our wings and think laterally. Once we’ve found them, I’ve got the notion in my head about what they need. We’ve got to find them first."

But before this work is done, Rudd says he needs to examine the systems currently in place within Swim Ireland.

Quinn (who trains in Edinburgh), Doyle (who trains and studies in Calgary, Canada), Ryan (Ireland's American born swimmer, originally from Philadelphia) and Dingley (who had previously represented Great Britain) all represented Ireland wonderfully this summer.

Their success underlines the importance of networking to find talent around the world and nurturing homegrown talent.

"What’s been done before, there’ll be great lessons to learn. There’ll be some things that worked that we’ll want to keep and there’ll be others that weren’t done in the way that I expect or the way that I want. Those are the things that will change.

"We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bath water."