He's just champion
SWIMMING: On the Suffolk swimming circuit, there are a few key faces who rate as the core ingredients in the making of our regional success – and they aren’t always the swimmers. Dave Champion is one of those faces and here, in a rare interview for this highly-regarded character, he talks frankly to DEBBIE WATSON about emotion, motivation and aspiration.
By Debbie Watson
AMONG his competitive peers, Dave Champion quite simply ranks among the very best.
Talk to any swimmer, coach, parent or official – you'll be hard pressed to find a word of professional criticism against this 38-year-old dedicated motivator.
This is the man who has devoted the best part of 15 years to challenging, training, encouraging and improving the scores of Ipswich swimmers who have passed through his sporting grasp. He's the man who, when daylight is scarcely breaking, is fixed with intention at the very end of Crown Pools – spurring forward his swimmers, driving them into contention for greater goals.
He is the man who writes their programmes, aspires to their dreams, determines to reach the grade – and yet never takes the glory for himself.
So what an earth encourages him to pursue this seemingly thankless task?
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"The fact is, you just don't go into coaching looking for thanks," Dave said dryly. "You don't look for the gratitude, and certainly not the money – you do it because you really have this big desire to help someone succeed, and because that gives you all the satisfaction you could ever want.
"This is not a 9 to 5 job, or something you pick up and put down – it's with you all the time, and a good coach appreciates that without regret or bitterness.
"I know that you make sacrifices at the level of coaching that I have reached – and believe me, I have made them. But regrets? No, not at all. This is a great life, and I'm very proud of it."
Originally from London, Dave readily admits that Ipswich has now become his true 'home' and that he is, despite any suggestions to the contrary, "perfectly happy here thank you very much".
Indeed, he has certainly been here long enough to have made up his mind.
His arrival as Head Coach for Ipswich Swimming Club came back in 1988, and as the majority of the county's swimming circuit are already well aware, it was he who was then guarding the future of an aspiring Brighton teenager.
Dave had already begun coaching the young Karen Pickering some two years previously – a talented swimmer who he says "was always destined to go far".
"There was something about Karen's commitment and ability that made you know that she would go places.
"She approached me to coach her and I was keen to give it a go because she had exactly that kind of determination that a coach wants from a swimmer.
"I would write her programmes and she would train in Brighton at a 25 metre pool every morning. Then twice a week, I would meet her at the train station and take her to Crystal Palace to do more sets – before sticking her back on the Brighton train at the end of the night so she could be ready for school the next day."
It was a bizarre schedule, but one that cemented Karen and Dave's professional respect for each other; one that led to the shore of Suffolk.
"When I was first offered the job here Karen came to look around, and after training up here she liked it enough to stay," said Dave.
And, if she hadn't, the county might have been short of not one – but two – of the personalities it is now so very familiar with.
"Yes, I have to admit that if she hadn't have liked it, I probably wouldn't have taken the posting," he confessed frankly.
"You have to understand that there aren't many swimmers out there like Karen. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that she was a fantastic swimmer."
Dave's professional rapport with Karen has seen him feature in all manner of Pickering successes and defeats – from three Olympic appearances, glory as part of the 4x200m relay team at the Japan World Championships, to being a double gold medallist at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
But, aside from being her coach, he also has the responsibility for the potential, development and swimming future of hundreds of other wannabes just like the Brighton schoolgirl.
It must be easy for a coach like him to come under fire for not sharing his attention equally; for putting one strong swimmer above all those other Suffolk individuals who want the glory just as much?
"Sure, you do have to be very conscious of the fact that you are the coach to everyone, and sometimes, that can feel quite over-powering when you realise how many hopes rest on you," he said.
"But truly, I don't think that Karen gets too much of my time. In fact, I often think that she doesn't get enough.
"The fact is, the better a swimmer gets, the more demanding a swimmer becomes. So she has great expectations of me – just as I have them of her."
Dave jokes with a quiet wit that it is actually just as well he doesn't have a family or a wife to contend with at the same time as this demanding job. He says he cannot understand any coach who believes the work stops at five, and adds that the biggest asset you need in this game, is an incredible ability to juggle.
If that's true, then Dave Champion – the man who once aspired to a life in the Royal Marines – must have made it into an artform.
For not only does he have Karen under his wing, he also has hundreds of other swimmers at various levels, and what's more, another massively successful swimmer for whom he is praying for an Olympic place.
"I don't think there is a single swimmer who deserves it more than Zoe Cray does," he said.
"She is a real talent and as a coach you watch swimmers like her and you see how hard they work, and so you want them to achieve. She deserves success, and sometimes it is really painful when you see that someone doesn't attain the goal they obviously deserve."
While Dave genuinely doesn't strike strangers as a person with particular emotional attachment to his work, he admits that the successes and the defeats still manage to impact on him as much as they have ever done.
"I still get really excited when one of the swimmers reaches a particularly important goal for them personally – I'm not going to be cool about it and pretend that I don't," he said.
"You also take it really personally when someone like Zoe or Karen loses. As a coach you walk on a razor blade between being ecstatic and absolutely depressed – and at the bad times, you have to really muster up the ability and the strength to realise that what your swimmer needs now is communication. Ignoring defeat and disappointment would be seriously dangerous."
Right now, defeat and disappointment don't actually appear to exist in Dave's vocabulary.
He and his fellow coach Carol Jellings are both hugely proud of the achievements of Ipswich Swimming Club as a whole, and they know that they have talent on its way up through the ranks.
They also know that swimming is no stranger to change in these early years of the new millennium, and Dave is anxious that swimmers are still being given a system that persuades them into this sporting arena.
"There is a lot happening in swimming and I am conscious that it is becoming more and more about paperwork for clubs. As a coach, that worries me, because, for the life of me, I can't see how it's meant to be encouraging children even more.
"I believe that our club turns out swimmers who are well behaved people, respectful, motivated, disciplined and confident – I want that to carry on in the sport as a whole, and I know that it is becoming harder and harder to get children away from the likes of the Playstation and into a sport such as this."
Clearly, Dave has thought this matter through. Clearly he believes in what he does, and even if he isn't a parent himself, it's little wonder that he is so highly 'respected' by the youngsters he trains.
In his eyes, that is simply because he is 'not a fake'. "Kids spot fake adults a mile off," he smiled. "They want someone they can genuinely respect, and I hope I manage to get about the right approach to make that possible."
Indeed he does. And in fact, in many eyes, he would be sorely lost if he should decide to leave this Suffolk family of swimmers.
"I can't see myself leaving so I don't know why the rumours keep circulating every now and then. I really am very happy here thank you."
And what if his Brighton protégé should decide to depart – might this spur the exit of Ipswich's best known coach?
"Karen isn't about to walk, and, whatever anyone thinks, I am loyal to Karen, but equally to every one of my swimmers – there's still plenty to achieve and no reason to look elsewhere."
It's an affirmation that will no doubt please the ears of so many swimming families, and with a commitment as great as that of those he trains, Dave Champion will surely keep on applying his coaching talent to great affect.