Today October 30, we celebrate the birthday of the incomparable Carlile Swimming matriarch Ursula Carlile, by looking back at a her two great loves – Forbes Carlile and swimming.
Given everything Ursula achieved in swimming its hard to believe she was once an adult who couldn’t swim. Needing to complete a swim as the final part of her University degree in Physical Education, Ursula’s parents contacted the man who was regarded as the best coach in the country, Forbes Carlile.
Was it love at first sight? “I guess it was from Forbes’ point of view. I thought about it a little bit more. I think my parents thought about it a lot more. They were thinking, you can’t, he can’t afford to support you. I said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. We going to be off overseas, won’t need to support ourselves.”
Of overseas indeed. Their passion for swimming even hijacked their wedding. A Saturday morning ceremony at the registry office in Sydney was followed by a quick cup of tea and then a dash to the airport.
The honeymoon started in Townsville as the two scientists helped prepare the Australian team for the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.
“What a honeymoon, the Australian team did very well there, and then we went on a trip swimming through Europe. The boys team went one way and the women another. We visited with swimming people all over. They were some of our happiest times.”
Ursula’s career would break down barriers for women and swimming across the globe.It’s a life that honoured earlier this month when she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It’s an honour well overdue and one that she would have accepted two years ago if not for COVID and the international lockdowns it caused.
Ursula’s achievements are remarkable, the first woman to coach Australia’s Olympic team, Ursula was in charge in 1972 when Shane Gould won five individual Olympic medals, three of them gold in world record time. Her Carlile team-mate Gael Neall also grabbed gold and a world record in the 400IM.
“That really was an incredible time, Shane was just so good, but I did feel Forbes deserved more of the credit,” Ursula said.
“I was working with her but as much as anything I was giving her the programs that Forbes had developed, she worked hard, maybe not as hard as some others because she just had so much natural ability.”
Forbes and Ursula would coach all over the world, including a stint with the Dutch National team but one international goodwill tour saw Ursula banned from the sport for three years.
“We’d been invited to go to China to coach the Chinese. This is way back when China was excommunicated and anybody who went and swam with them was also excommunicated,” Ursula said.
“However, we went and said that I was the coach and Forbes was only there as my assistant, so if they disqualified anybody, they’d have to disqualify me. And they did.”
“I wasn’t even able to go on the pool deck at local meets, I remember being warned off the pool deck at Homebush. Because I was a bad person because we’d been to China.”
It was yet another battle with officials Ursula and Forbes took head on.
The two turned Carlile into a dominant force in the world and the most successful club team in Australian swimming history. They also built a business which today provides more than a million lessons a year.
“Ursula is a remarkable woman, with Forbes she pioneered some of the most important innovations in world swimming,” said Carlile director and former Australian champion Richard Cahalan.
“Things like the pace clock, circle swimming and heart rates, they were always looking for an edge.”
Ursula and Forbes would build the first indoor teaching pool in Sydney, knocking down the garage in the home they were renting at Cross street in Ryde.
“We were always going to buy the home anyway, so we went ahead and put the pool in,” said Ursula.
Ursula’s home is still next door to the pool and she is often found on pool deck watching the lessons. Thousands of children have learnt to swim under her expert eye. Does she remember them all?
“Well, you remember the very good ones and the naughty ones,” she said with a grin.
In what was a unique and remarkable coaching partnership it’s fair to say Ursula had the business brains.
“It was really Ursula who understood how important learn to swim teaching could be in terms of a business. A business which would then support elite swimming,” Mr Cahalan said.
Ursula adding “Forbes never really cared about money, we had an amazing life travelling the world coaching, he always felt that somehow the money would be there and inevitably it was.”
Carlile Swimming now operates nine teaching pools across Sydney and is recognised as one of the world’s leading swim schools.
“Ursula motto that ‘no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care’ is at the heart of Carlile Swimming’s success,” Mr Cahalan said.
That success enabled Forbes and Ursula to create the Carlile Foundation which provides funds for their competitive program, now headed by Olympic coach Chris Nesbit.
Asked what she would like people to remember when her name is mentioned Ursula said “Well, it will never be mentioned on its own. It always will be Forbes and Ursula, which suits me very well. He was the scientist; he was the innovator the one who bought scientific concepts not just to swimming but to sports.”
Always modest. What a powerful combination they made and Ursula’s contribution was enormous as fellow national coach Otto Sonnleitner said at a national conference “Ursula Carlile was one of the best on-deck coaches I’ve ever seen. Ursula is an academic. She understands what is going on physiologically and biomechamically. She never stops moving on the pool-deck. She’s moving flat out with those kids, five hours of the day, telling them what to do, telling them where they’re going right, where they’re going wrong. She puts everything into it. That’s what it’s all about, being a top coach.”
Happy Birthday Ursula, swimming in Australia and the world would not be the same without you.