In October 2011, Mount Isa was humbled by the return of one of its most famous sporting identities – Bill Sweetenham, former swimming head coach for Australia, Britain, Spain and now Argentina. Over a weekend Bill ran a world-class swim clinic covering all four strokes, starts and turns, with information sessions. Every athlete walked away with a wealth of knowledge, honoured they had learnt from the best, who was one of their own.
Later known as “the medal maker”, Bill grew up as a fine young athlete in Mount Isa with a mind of his own. At 16 he left home after a disagreement with his father but after a year of living rough he had to eat humble pie and go home.
As punishment his father insisted Bill had to teach a thalidomide child to swim 50 metres in two different strokes and only when he had succeeded in doing this could he move back home. His father’s judgement was good, because Bill found his passion. Always a good swimmer, he had considered the Olympics in 1972 before quitting. This experience called him back to the pool and by 1974 he was teaching several dozen young children to swim.
Bill built a small swimming pool in his back yard where he taught kids including the young Rafter kids. Pat’s accountant father Jim sat on the Catholic school board and he convinced St Kierans to build a 25 metre pool where Bill was able to continue his coaching.
Bill eventually moved to Carina Pool in Brisbane where he coached Stephen Holland. Holland (the future “Superfish”) won gold at the 1974 Commonwealth Games but Bill took him to the next level. Holland won many national titles and broke multiple world records before winning a bronze medal in the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
In 1980, Bill was appointed Head Coach for the Australian Olympic Swimming team at the Moscow Olympics. He was named Australian Coach of the Year for all sport for 1981. In 1983, while on tour with the Australian team in West Germany, he was involved in a bus crash that severely injured his left leg requiring two years of rehabilitation leaving his left leg permanently shorter than his right. Yet Bill was back on deck every day in 1984 coaching his swimmers on crutches.
Success continued to flow and Bill remained the Australian Head Coach for a further two Olympic Games and on the staff for Australia for five Commonwealth Games and voted Australian Coach of the Year for swimming three times. After a stint in Hong Kong, Don Talbot recruited him back to Australia in 1995 to prepare athletes for the Sydney Olympics.
After successfully developing new talent, Bill accepted an offer from British Swimming to become their National Performance Director and Head Coach in 2000. “Britain pursued me pretty aggressively and I wanted a challenge,” he said. “I knew it was going to be tough – I just didn’t realise how tough.”
Bill took a previously poor English team to the 2006 Commonwealth Games where they took home 15 gold medals. Great Britain produced their best ever performances at the World Championships and 2008 Olympics.
Olympic medalist, David Davies (1500 metres Freestyle and Open Water) said Sweetenham was the biggest turning point for Britain. “He changed the attitude, the professionalism, the way people trained, the way coaches worked and thought,” Davies said.
Bill continued doing what he did best, nurturing young talent – athletes and coaches – through a more professional program and approach. “The greatest fear I have when I coach an athlete is that one day they will look back and think, ‘I could have done better’,” he said. “Swimmers are only as good as their coaches, and a winning partnership is required.”