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BUCS to Barcelona: Swimming Year in Review

Following a tumultuous 18 months of COVID-era ‘virtual’ competitions, extended lockdown-enforced training breaks and altogether enough time away from the pool to drive any swimmer crazy, the University of Bath’s performance swim squad have been making waves across the country – as well as in Europe! – in their first full season back since COVID struck.

Bath fighting amongst the country’s top university programs

At the 2021 BUCS Short Course (25m) Championships – the squad’s first big meet of the season – 11 medals (4 x gold, 3 x silver, 4 x bronze including a relay) for seasoned veteran and Goldsmith Scholar Will Ryley, star first-year Josh Gammon and national training centre (NTC) representatives (and University of Bath students) Cam Brooker and Leah Crisp capped off a full weekend of impressive displays for the University’s swimmers. That quartet chipped in with multiple medals each, with Markos Iakovidis and Bruno Kempster joining Ryley and Gammon on the bronze medal-winning men’s 200m Freestyle Relay, and several other swimmers contributing with finals appearances. In the final team points table Bath’s men raced to 3rd whilst the overall squad placed an impressive 5th – even with a smaller-than-usual women’s contingent and overall squad size due to limited competition numbers per team. Together with the rest of the squad, who were competing across England from Millfield to Plymouth from November 19th to 21st (and even in Portugal the previous weekend), every swimmer had already achieved at least one personal all-time best or season best time – with some swimmers at an incredible 100 % personal best rate even at this early stage of the season.

Speaking in November following the team’s return from these first BUCS since 2020, in Sheffield, Head Coach Mark Skimming was full of praise for his squad’s performances. “For lots of the team (first and second-years) this was their first BUCS competition, so it was quite a new experience for everyone. Given the place in the season, we were confident heading into the competition, and everyone rose to the challenge. (The rate of all-time or season bests) following this horrible last 18 months shows the commitment (of the squad’s swimmers, and coaches) and fuels our confidence further moving forward”.

Coach Skimming also noted that – with eyes on the heavy competition schedule ahead of them, and the effects on their training cycles and overall season plan meaning it is important to manage peaks in their performance at just the right time – many on the team were not even fully rested: showing that even with potentially more in the tank, the university’s swimmers were already back as good as they’d even been.

Third-year breaststroke specialist and Mechanical Engineering student Tom Beagley (one of those who achieved 100 % all-time bests, and a final appearance) also noted that the heavy training load – upwards of 20-hours in the university’s Sports Training Village (STV) pool for the most committed swimmers, plus personalised gym sessions – that the squad were in the midst of proved to be no match for their ability to swim through fatigue and achieve their bests. Beagley also spoke highly of the standard of the university’s program: “The training program here in Bath has certainly allowed me to develop my swimming as I’d hoped, and I am really enjoying swimming right now. The program blends a professional environment and great team spirit”.

Medallist and five-time finalist Josh Gammon echoed these thoughts. “I feel like the training program at Bath has been really beneficial. I train with a good group of swimmers that push me in training, with an experienced coach who’s helped lots of Olympians. These results give me lots of confidence as well as giving me areas to still work on in training”.

In the long course (50m pool) edition of the BUCS Championships, in February, there was another impressive showing for the team from Bath as they returned home with another array of individual and relay medals, finals appearances and best times. Santander Scholar Leah Crisp clinched the gold in the women’s 800m freestyle to accompany a silver medal in the 400m freestyle, while NTC teammate and Ivor Powell Scholar Cam Brooker returned home with individual bronze medals in the 100m and 200m backstroke. There were further bronze medals in the 50m freestyle and 50m breaststroke for Skimming’s sprint squad’s Bruno Kempster and Markos Iakovidis respectively, as Josh Gammon completed a stellar first year of BUCS competitions with bronze medals in the 50m and 200m butterfly events. Bath also raced to two further medals in the ever-exciting and competitive relays – silver in the men’s 400m freestyle relay, and bronze in the 400m medley relay – with Will Ryley and Miles Drabwell joining Brooker and Kempster in the freestyle event, while Kempster again joined Tom Beagley and podium mainstays Gammon and Brooker in the medley.

Swimmers on the national and international stage

In December, with a further host of high profile meets from English Short Course Winter Championships and Welsh Long Course National Championships to the dizzying international heights of the World Short Course Championships, the university’s swimmers continued to excel. Gibraltar and Angola nationals John-Paul Balloqui and Henrique Mascarenhas accompanied Olympian Ben Proud – who spent much of this and the previous year training with Skimming’s university squad – and his Team GB teammates under the guide of legendary coach David McNulty to Abu Dhabi. Whether in Sheffield, Swansea or the UAE, Bath’s swimmers continued to improve with further all-time and season best times rolling in.

Following their aforementioned BUCS long course championships successes in the new year, Skimming’s squad set their gaze upon the 2022 Edinburgh International Swim Meet: a competition regularly attracting Olympians and world record holders alike, and one which proved to be another positive step in the right direction on the team’s journey to their next fully rested taper meet. They were joined in sunny Scotland by many of the Bath-based National Training Centre swimmers who swam so successfully at the previous summer’s Tokyo Olympics, with the likes of double Olympic champion Tom Dean and serial international medallist (and Olympic and world champion) James Guy – who Bath’s swimmers encounter on almost a daily business in and around the STV pool – sure to inspire strong performances. As ever, Bath’s swimmers did not disappoint, often still finishing high in the results tables despite the calibre of international competition.

As the season continued, one eye remained on an early April return to Sheffield for the 2022 British Swimming Championships – a key hallmark competition in the annual British Swimming calendar. As the entire performance squad descended upon the familiar battleground of Ponds Forge International Sports Centre, expectations were high – and Bath’s swimmers delivered. At a rate of 85 % all-time best times (an impressive feat, especially for a senior training program already performing at an elite level), the team swam to numerous finals appearances and brought home some further silverware to add to their growing medal collections.

During ‘crunch time’ of the university year, with exams and deadlines around every corner, Bath’s performance squad – ever committed – remained hard at work in the pool and the weights room as the summer swim schedule loomed. The first item on the agenda was the squad’s trip abroad to the 37th Annual Porto International Swim Meet, in Portugal. In early June, the Bath bunch charged into a whirlwind weekend of racing that concluded with an impressive haul of podium finishes and finals appearance for many of the group that attended what was a first international meet representing Bath, as Coach Skimming noted that even in the face of fatigue, his swimmers exceeded expectations mid-season. Taking advantage of a new environment, an intense few days of training ensued before returning to the familiar setting of the STV – a trip delayed in its back-end by EasyJet cancellations, but one that helped to further bring the team’s swimmers together into a tightknit group.

No Rest for the Quickest

And it is at the STV that the group have remained so far this summer, with sights set and expectations high for a range of end-of-season meets home and abroad. The squad’s largest contingent is heading to Barcelona for the CIX Spanish Summer Nationals Championship, July 20th to 24th. In the weeks preceding and following that trip to Spain, other members of the team are jetting off to Irish Nationals and British and English Summer Championships hoping to end their seasons on a high note. John-Paul Balloqui (Gibraltar) and Markos Iakovidis (Cyprus) will also be competing at this summer’s Commonwealth Games, with the latter fresh off of a previous showing on the international stage at the Mediterranean Games. And one would, of course, be remiss without mentioning that veteran GB sprinter Ben Proud, following training with Skimming’s university performance squad throughout the majority of the COVID pandemic, brought home World Championship gold in the men’s 50m freestyle in Budapest in June – a meet also attended by university swimmer and Angolan national Henrique Mascarenhas. Proud, along with many of the Bath NTC, will also be competing at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Speaking of his squad’s prospects as the end of the season nears, Coach Skimming is confident that – with the consistent improvements shown throughout the year so far – these final meets of the season will prove no different in eliciting season and all-time bests galore. Speaking in June, Bath’s long-serving head coach felt that, similar to their successes in Porto, the new environments of competing overseas will not only provide valuable learning experiences for his team, but also inspire them to reach the highest echelons of their potential.

As apparent by their ever-improving results, it has been a wholly positive season back in the water for the university’s performance squad, under the guide of Coach Skimming with the illustrious Coach Andrei Vorontsov at his side. Having dealt well with the challenges of both a busy training and competition schedule and of international travel, there is every confidence that the program will continue to move onwards and upwards. “It’ll be sad to lose some of the guys who’ve been around for a while” Coach Skimming admitted, speaking of course of those students graduating and moving on to new challenges. Despite this, he remains excited for swimmers returning from placement, as well as the fresh faces of up-and-coming talents from far and wide who’ll flock to train with one of the country’s leading university swim programs.

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