A phoenix from the ashes: How Hackney Aquatics swim club shifted its fortunes from brink of bankruptcy
- Credit: Hackney Aquatics Club
Hackney Aquatics was on the verge of collapse three years ago. Last month, it was awarded the Jeff Cook Salver at the London Swimming Awards for its contribution to sport. Jeremy Tobias-Tarsh tells Emma Bartholomew about its turnaround
Three years ago, Hackney Aquatics Club’s motivational head coach Callum Doyle was head-hunted by a big rival team after nine months of “wowing everybody”.
He’d been hired to move the club from being “just a very local club with one or two good swimmers” to being a really good competitive club – but now it had no one to lead it.
“He created a lot of expectation of what an amazing swimming coach looks like,” Jeremy Tobias-Tarsh, whose daughter Lara trained with Callum, told the Gazette.
Jeremy offered to help find a new coach and joined the committee. But when he looked at the accounts, he realised there was a serious problem.
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“By the time we got to September 2015 we were looking at a shortfall of £3,500 a month,” he said. “It was quite a scary time, as we would have had to close the club. If you point out that you there’s a financial problem people say: ‘Well, how are we going to fix it?’ meaning: ‘How are you going to fix it?’”
Jeremy, who had financial experience heading a City firm, went on to become the club’s chair and realised the club’s woes stemmed from a decision to focus on competitive swimming by closing down the club squad.
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“Your club squad is full of people who are profitable and swim infrequently, but your competitive squad consists of a handful of people who come all the time and require a lot of coaching,” he said. “They had shifted out the profitable bit and maxed out the unprofitable bit.”
The first task was to find a head coach – and then to work out how to pay them.
Rick Hall spotted the ad from Dubai, where he was living at the time.
“Rick had a vision he would turn the club into something a lot more impressive,” said Jeremy. “He’s picked up the club up and walked halfway up Everest with it on his back for a fraction of the money he’d have got had he just been financially motivated.”
Jeremy, Rick, and others on the committee sat down to work out how to make the club “incredibly attractive” which would in turn make it profitable.
“Swimming is very intense and even if children are average they go three or four times a week,” said Jeremy. “The competitive swimmers are doing seven or eight times a week, even during GCSEs. We felt they make an Olympic effort as kids, and we owed it to them to make it one of the best experiences of their lives. It couldn’t just be about swimming but about life skills, and teaching them really strong values like team work and supporting each other.”
Parent volunteers have now been drafted in to teach classes ranging from yoga and mind coaching to life skills and pilates.
Vice chair Ruth has also been a “tour de force” in the club’s transformation. A former director for corporate responsibility at Tesco, she devoted three days a week to implement systems for financial transparency, set up a desk every Friday at Clissold Leisure Centre to encourage enrolment, and drove a project to reach out to communities, offering grants for those unable to afford fees, which can be as high as £78 a month.
The council and GLL have also been indispensable, providing discounted pool time while the club built up a critical mass of swimmers.
Numbers exploded, more than doubling from 153 in 2015 to 385.
The club also trains its older members to be junior coaches who help out as volunteers. Instead of one coach trying to keep an eye on up to 30 kids, every child gets plenty of attention.
“For most swimming clubs it is one of the biggest issues, but we cracked that problem in trusting kids to teach kids, and that’s an absolutely critical part of the ethos,” said Jeremy. “You also create a powerful learning environment where everyone takes responsibility for everyone else, and you get team spirit and a togetherness.”
The young volunteer programme saw Avian Durcan and Isabella Rose pick up a prize at the London Region Swimming Awards last month, where the club also picked up the main prize for its overall contribution to the sport in London.
Hackney Aquatics had never had a trophy cabinet before. Now it’s full.
“It’s not just about a fortunate cohort of successful swimmers in the pool,” said new chair Chris Ogden, who took over from Jeremy this month, “but more about the way we have reached out to all the communities in Hackney and brought them in to the club, as well as using swimming to deliver a whole wellbeing and life-skills training, and top class swimming teaching and coaching.”
Jeremy added: “Swimming clubs can be quite sadistic and tough on the kids, and you hear a lot about bullying in sports, but we wanted a completely different culture of respecting the kids and the culture of trusting the kids while setting very high standards.
“The club has perhaps empowered the kids, but it is them who turn out and do the hard yards at 5.30am and 9.30pm, supporting each other, having a laugh even while working their socks off, still staying on top of their school work, being role models for those coming up behind them - so they deserve the most credit, each and every one of them.
“They show what all young people, whatever their background can do, if they have the chance.”