CITY of Sunderland Swimming Club has fast become the go-to place for aspiring swimmers in the North East and beyond.
With an elite performance programme in place, and around 200 members young and old, the club is ambitious.
One athlete’s Olympic Games might be a regional final for another, and we just aim to realise the maximum potential each individual has.
It has a vision and a long-term plan, with the wave of highly-rated young performers at the club suggesting the future is bright. Very bright.
Speak to any of the array of exciting able-bodied and para athletes emerging from Sunderland, and their admiration for what the club is doing will quickly become obvious.
It is a happy, yet serious, place to be.
Based in the Sunderland Aquatic Centre, next to the Stadium of Light, it has taken some time for the club to get where it wants to be.
However, its full focus has always been on getting the maximum out of every swimmer who comes through the doors, and for those at elite level, that means the Olympic Games.
One of the club’s most high-profile athletes, Josef Craig, joined Sunderland on the back of winning gold in the Paralympics at London 2012.
The 18-year-old, from Jarrow, had no doubt he was joining the right club.
He said: “I was grateful for the opportunity to work with such a high calibre programme – much higher than I’d ever worked with before.
“Sunderland was perfect for the job – I was at a point in my career when I needed to be challenged more after winning gold at London 2012.”
The head coach at Sunderland is Danny Thompson, and his work was recognised last month when he won the Coach of the Year award at the 2015 North East Disability Sports Awards.
At the same ceremony, one of Sunderland’s swimmers, Matt Wylie, picked up the Male Personality of the Year award, for both his swimming success and his voluntary contribution to the club through coaching, and the 18-year-old credits the club for his development.
He said: “City of Sunderland’s Performance Programme has been instrumental in my development as an athlete.
“As one of the first para-athletes at the club, I’m delighted the club has attracted other elite para-athletes, allowing me to train with both able-bodied and para-athletes of a high standard.
“I believe the growth of the club, as well as excellent coaching standards, are contributing factors to my performances in recent years.”
Craig and Wylie are just two of the success stories to have emerged from the club so far, and there is a clear plan for the future in place.
At the heart of it is a philosophy that every swimmer should behave in the correct manner, regardless of age and ability.
And it is clear that every swimmer is treated the same.
Thompson, the club’s head coach, said: “It has taken us a while to establish ourselves, as there needs to be an infrastructure to get across the philosophy and vision.
“We think long-term in everything we do, as it’s not about making an 11-year-old, for example, a superstar.
“It’s not really about winning at that age, and all we aim to do is give everyone the best possible chance to fulfil their individual potential.
“One athlete’s Olympic Games might be a regional final for another, and we just aim to realise the maximum potential each individual has.
“In terms of our elite athletes, our goal is to prepare them to compete at the highest possible stage, as they want to win medals at a national and international level.
“We are already looking forward to 2020 in Tokyo, and 2024 beyond that.
“A lot of our guys will be at their optimum in Tokyo, and they are aware of that.
“If they managed to get to Rio next year, that would be part of their development, and it would be about making sure they get as much out of that experience as possible.”
For Thompson, there is real excitement that there are now opportunities being presented to youngsters at Sunderland that were not available during his early days as a swimmer.
He added: “The most exciting thing about it is that children can come here at the age of five, stay with us all the way and then go to the Olympic Games if they prove to be of that level, all without having to leave the city.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity, as in the past it just wasn’t feasible to stay in the North East if you wanted to compete on the world stage.
“Certainly since 2009-10, the club has been on a significant rise in terms of the performance level, and has become a much more desirable place for people to come to.
“It has become a little bit of a hub in the North East for athletes and elite level para athletes.”
Those in the elite programme at Sunderland are seriously committed.
An example of this was found on Boxing Day, when four of the club’s swimmers – Wylie, Craig, Adam Taylor and Jack Bridge – travelled to a training camp in Fuerteventura.
Those in the programme will train for between 14 and 30 hours a week, but times are often flexible.
One ‘myth’ Thompson is keen to explode about the sport is that swimmers of all levels must train regularly early in the morning.
Dedication is necessary to reach the top, but Thompson insists there should be no fear for those looking to take up the sport.
He said: “It’s a big commitment for the swimmers, but in terms of the opportunity and exposure they are getting, it’s worth it.
“There’s often a fear factor there with swimming regarding the supposed early morning starts.
“However, at junior level, there are no early morning starts.
“At the top end, the early starts are a necessity, but certainly not for the children at the start of the programme.
“For those at a higher level, particularly international, 6am starts are needed.
“It is vital for when they are asked to perform at the highest level, for example in a national trial at 8.30am.
“You’re not going to be in the race if you’re not used to performing at that time, so it always has a purpose.”
The coaches and swimmers at Sunderland are clearly in harmony, and Thompson describes those he works with as “exceptional young people”.
Some of them regularly give up their time to help coach the youngsters at the club, and there is a clear emphasis on creating role models.
Freya Rayner, another of the club’s brightest prospects, describes the programme as a “fantastic opportunity” for swimmers in the region and talks about a “sense of pride” created by a strong work ethic and dedication.
Rayner is one of the top 10 senior sprinters in the country, and is the second-fastest 16-year-old in history, behind only Fran Halsall.
Adam Taylor, meanwhile, feels he is training with some of the best swimmers in the world, and says he owes any success to his coaches and those he trains alongside.
As well as being Sunderland’s head coach, Thompson has been selected to help coach Great Britain’s para-swimming squad in the lead up to Rio 2016.
There is also a real hope several members of the club will be competing in Brazil, although the main focus is on 2020 and beyond.
The programme is constantly searching for future stars, with a scouting system in place and strong links with local clubs, while it has an open-door policy when it comes to trials.
Those who are interested in requesting a trial, or in signing up at the club, can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Clearly, the club quickly grows committed to every swimmer which comes through its doors, and it has high hopes for a host of youngsters for the years ahead.
A team of coaches is dedicated to getting the best out of each athlete, as Thompson concludes.
He said: “We want to be able to look back and say we have done everything we possibly can.
“If that is good enough, fantastic, and if not, that’s sport.”