At the 1972 Olympics
In the pool
showing off his physique!
Much is made about sports people carving their success out of adversity. But much less is written about the serendipitous role of good fortune. For David Wilkie, Scotland’s most successful Olympic swimmer, he is the first to admit he was born in the right place, took part at the right time and met the right people all along the way. He fell in with coaches and mentors along his sporting path that were able to mould his innate talent.
Asked how he became a high performance swimmer in the 1970s, winning Olympic gold in the breast stroke, he is very charming and almost matter-of-fact about his significant achievements.
“High performance is a many-faceted area in terms of participating in sport and life. There’s a certain amount of luck involved too. My luck was that I was brought up in a warm climate in Sri Lanka and that was conducive to outdoor activity.”
David Wilkie’s father, Harry, was an engineer and so was his uncle and both worked in Ceylon, the former British colony which became Sri Lanka.
“My life and my sister’s life revolved around swimming. She was a very good swimmer and she could have participated in a higher level had she chosen. We would spend most of our time in the Colombo swimming club, across the wall was the beach, so the environment was excellent.”
“My father was the club captain and he was keen that we took part in the swimming galas. I was competing from the age of eight, although we never did any training. It was a privileged life and one of great happiness. And that’s a part of it too,” he says looking back with great affection.
To become a high performer in sport, Wilkie believes you need to be in tune with your environment and in Sri Lanka the environment involved being around water. “Sri Lanka, being an island, we were surrounded by sea, so we swam nearly every single day. I was in the water from a very, very young age. My environment led me on to become an aquatic baby.”
“If you’re in the water that length of time you tend to be more in tune with the water than with the air sometime. I became a very good swimmer at a very young age. But that’s just the start of it.”
Certainly a privileged lifestyle can give people an outstanding start in life, but that doesn’t guarantee sporting success – that comes from someone else recognising the raw talent and channelling this. In Wilkie’s case, his parents were hands-on.
“My earliest recollection of getting some kind of proper training was when three Australian Olympic champions, including Jon Konrads, came over and gave us a session in the pool. And that to me was really instrumental in the aspect that this is tough and hard work. The ability to learn from these guys was important to me.”
“If you ask a lot of sports people they’ve all had heroes and they’ve all learned from people who are better than them. I think that aspect of children learning from their peers and their betters is really paramount in any sport – indeed in any activity.”
“There is no doubt about that and the balance of lifestyle and my parents’ ability to look after us and take on the responsibilities of someone who is good at something. Then for them to say: ‘OK, what can we do with this youngster who is good at something and shows promise? So straight away, I had not only the environment but the backing of my parents so that I could progress with my swimming,”
But an unsuspecting Wilkie was in for a massive culture shock. At the age of 11, he was sent to boarding school in Edinburgh. His Aberdonian father, originally intended David to go to Robert Gordon’s School in Aberdeen, famed for the great Scottish swimmer Ian Black and his coach Andy Robb, but the school was small and didn’t have any spare space, so Wilkie junior ended up at Daniel Stewart’s school, a fee-paying school in Edinburgh, staying in the boarding house adjacent to the school in Queensferry Road.
Every three years the Wilkies had come back to Scotland for six months, usually to Aberdeen. “Scotland was still very alien to me. I remember flying over from Heathrow to Dyce and looking down at this white stuff – and it was snow. I didn’t touch snow until I was four years old.”
It was so different from the tropical lifestyle in Colombo. Sri Lanka was very relaxed. “It was a manana attitude – everything would be done tomorrow. Yet if someone wanted to become an Olympic champion or represent Scotland they would have to swim four hours a day. I would say ‘Forget it’. It was something I could not physically do but when I came to boarding school at 11, my whole perspective changed.”
He was dropped off with his short grey trousers, his black and red cap and blazer. “I would only see my parents once or twice each year. It was pretty tough. In those days it took four days to fly to Colombo from Aberdeen.”
There was no heating upstairs in the Daniel Stewart’s boarding house, and a homesick young Wilkie initially yearned for the tropical heat.
“I really didn’t like it. The food was awful and the weather was awful. I had to go to school in a uniform, so it was really the first time that I had lived in an environment of real discipline. This was discipline at a higher level and it was a change of environment. It was absolutely necessary.”
Daniel Stewart’s College did encourage competitive swimming though and Wilkie would head down to Drumsheugh public swimming baths at Stockbridge. “We went for our lessons and it was then that one of the life guards saw me swim and he then spoke to the head coach, Frank Thomas, who was the head coach at Warrender, one of the best swimming clubs in the city.”
While his mum and dad were still in Edinburgh, Frank invited him along to a training session at the Warrender baths in Thirlestane Road. It was his first taste of competitive training.
“It was awful. Warrender isn’t the best pool for training Olympic hopefuls. The lane ropes were pieces of strong nylon rope dividing the lanes. There were about 20 swimmers in this freezing cold pool. It was rough as hell and the chlorine was harsh. In those days we didn’t wear goggles, so our eyes were stinging.”
At the end of that session, Wilkie decided competitive swimming wasn’t really for him. But Frank Thomas was an incredible motivator – and he could see something in this raw recruit.
“I have been very fortunate in my life to have met people who have stood by me. Frank Thomas was a swimmer himself – he didn’t represent Scotland himself, but he was a businessman and he ran a very successful surveying business in Edinburgh. He was a good man in the sense that he knew how to motivate people.”
But he couldn’t get his head around Wilkie the waster. He knew there was talent locked away but Wilkie’s attitude would definitely have to change. Thomas thought Wilkie was a lazy little devil. “It wasn’t really laziness. It was just that I hated swimming up and down. It was very boring.”
So how did he overcome this to become an Olympic champion?
“Swimming is a lovely sport. It seems to attract good people who are hardened and able to swim up and down and maintain that level of dedication, because it is a dedicated sport and relatively limited unless you win an Olympic gold medal.”
“You had all these kids swimming up and down, but this breeds good swimmers. It breeds people with discipline and with dedication. It also breeds creatures of habit because you have to do that sort of training. You have to be there from 7 until 9 in the morning and from 2 until 4. And you have to do that six or seven times a week.”
Wilkie maintains that the discipline that you get through competitive swimming helps in later life. “A lot of swimmers who have done well tend to be very successful after their swimming career. They tend to come out and achieve other things in life. They’ve been successful and able to communicate. I think the discipline has a beneficial effect. Of course, it is not just swimming.”
Frank Thomas persuaded Wilkie through a combination of praise and ridicule brought on by sheer exasperation. “I’d turn up to sessions sometimes ten minutes’ late - and he would make a mockery out of me. He’d say: ‘Here stands the greatest non-swimmer’. He was talking to me and saying: “That guy could be world champion... but look at him.”
Wilkie, still only 12, didn’t really believe this, despite being Scottish champion for his age group in the front crawl. “He finally got through to me, but it took him a few years. He bought me an alarm clock to get me up into the morning. He would turn up and collect me from the boarding school at 6am in the morning. He would drop me back to school. He put himself out for me, but I still didn’t believe it. It took me three years to respond.”
After periods of skiving training, poor attendance and non-arrival at events, it was a carpeting that finally made Wilkie wake up to the possibilities. He got caught dodging off to play pinball and snooker when he was meant to be swimming.
“Frank phoned up the house master and said we haven’t seen David for a while. I was caught and the house master and Frank sat me down and said: ‘You’re wasting our time and your time, what are you going to do about it?’ And I didn’t have a response.”
So the decision was made to give Wilkie one final chance with a four-week schedule prepared by Frank. Wilkie was told in no uncertain terms: ‘If you miss any of the sessions, you’re out.’
The teenager, increasingly interested in music and girlfriends, was nearly ready to chuck it all in. But Wilkie’s father, 6,000 miles away, intervened with a plea for him to give it his best shot and try again.
“One part of me said ‘Quit’, while another part said; ‘If these guys think I’m good, then maybe I should give it another go’. I gave it a go and it worked. The motivation came from that four-week schedule and it transformed my view of swimming and what I could achieve.”
Warrender Swimming Club had some very strong Scottish international swimmers at this time. And Wilkie began beating the best and developing as a better all-round swimmer in front crawl and in breast stroke.
“It was in these galas that I began to excel and beat people that I thought I’d never beat. That’s when I learned to love winning. But I still wasn’t 100% motivated. I often look back on my swimming career because it was such an amateur sport at the time, and it was hard to maintain 100% all the time.”
So would today’s more professional approach be more suited to David Wilkie? “Yes, I’m a person who thrives on personal reward. Gold medals were reward enough – but being purely commercial has made it more professional. I would love to have been a professional swimmer, because I was good at it. The amateur laws at the time said that once you turned professional you have to stop something you were good at. I came out of swimming at 22. Am I bitter at that? Yes, I suppose am, I could have had another three Olympics, which would have been great. I’m glad the rules have changed. It is much better for everybody now, because if you want to do well in sport, and get paid for it, it’s good motivation. We live in a commercial and financial world today.”
Yes, the old Corinthian values of sport where taking part and competing was enough were valid, but Wilkie admits that they now have become outdated. Britain was going along the road of “playing by the rules”, when state-run sporting programmes in communist countries was producing streams of full-time professional sports people.
“We lost a generation of sports people in Britain because we weren’t adaptive enough and we didn’t change with the times. If we’d done that 30 years ago we would be a much stronger sporting nation. I look upon Britain as a weak sporting nation, we should be so much better.”
Wilkie’s first international cap for Great Britain was at the newly built Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh in 1969 against the Russians. “They were the top swimming nation at the time, alongside the Americans. And I was picked to swim for Great Britain, swimming again Nicolai Pankin who was the world record holder in the 200 metres breast stroke.”
“I was beaten by half a length and I thought: ‘I’m in a different league to these guys’, yet I was a British international swimmer,” recalls Wilkie.
The Scot could see the gulf between the winners and the Corinthians also-rans. “Even then nobody was telling me how to be a winner on the international stage. The coaches weren’t telling the kids what they need to do to win. That’s the secret to any success. You have to plan to win.”
According to Wilkie, nobody in the UK was sitting down at the time and putting into place the programme and the system that was need to be a winning nation. “Part of this is all about establishing a tradition in a sport. We’ve never been able to establish a tradition in swimming. In fact, there are a lot of sports we’ve managed to establish traditions in, but we’ve never been able to keep the Bill Sweetenham’s ‘tsunami of British swimming’ going. It has always petered out into a wave that hasn’t maintained its momentum. I don’t know why this happens – perhaps we don’t adapt with change and excellence enough.”
But being thrashed by Pankin taught Wilkie something very important about becoming a winner. “I went from 1970 to 1972 still at the Warrender club. Then came the Olympic Games and people forget I was a Scottish-produced swimmer in a minor sport, training in a pool that was Dickensian. We didn’t even have the regular use of a 50metre pool. We had to beg and borrow to get into the Commonwealth pool. We used it every morning for about an hour – which wasn’t enough to prepare an Olympic athlete. We were spending time travelling around seven different pools. There wasn’t an administration and structure back then to support swimmers at an elite level.”
The Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 was a pinnacle for the 18-year-old Scot. “For me, it was a great Olympics and a fantastic experience. Just to go there was amazing. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just being there and doing your best is a great experience. That must be a motivating factor to any youngster in sport. You want to do well in national, UK and world event, but you want to get to the Olympics.”
“It was a nice age. It was a United Nations of sports. Eighteen is when you’re just growing up and making your own way in life. If you’re able to take it on board, absorb it and experience it, then it’s worthwhile.”
Wilkie was ranked 25th in the world at 200 metre breast stroke. He wasn’t expected to do anything. He wasn’t regarded as a hot-shot. There was even surprise in the team when he made the final of the 200 metre breast stroke. When he got to the final, none of the UK coaching team told him what he needed to do to beat the Americans. Then he made the final of the 200 metres as the second fastest qualifier.
“Bells should have started ringing somewhere. They were certainly ringing in my head. Again a coach’s job is to say what to do to win. But nothing happened. There was no planning and plotting.” Yet Wilkie pulled it off and won a silver medal in the 100 metre breast stroke. In itself, an amazing feat for a minor sport. Wilkie was the only UK medallist in the pool – with Mark Spitz dominating with his record haul of seven gold - and it began to change his life. The biggest question was: what would Wilkie do next? Would he stay in Scotland – or would he go to Harvard or California in the US to pursue his dream of gold?
Instead he headed to Florida – and this prepared him for four more years at the very top as a winner. Wilkie choose the University of Miami because of its four-year swimming scholarship programme. It was like returning to Sri Lanka; with the sunshine and the palm-trees. “Did I want to go to Harvard, even although they had Don Gamble, one of the world’s best swimming coaches in the world? But it was in Boston in the north – nice in summer but freezing in the winter. I chose Miami. I had everything, including a 50 metre outdoor pool. Everything was delivered on a platter.”
“It was a transient university and it had a lot of outstanding athletes from around the world. If you are a foreign athlete with a sporting scholarship you have to maintain an academic level to stay on the course. If you fall below a two-point average, you lose your scholarship.”
He began studying marine biology which was hard for Wilkie. “I couldn’t hack it. It was pre-med course. There were four-hour labs and then having to train four hours a day and then spend hours studying.”
He was swimming 10,000 to 15,000 metres every day in the pool. Health and nutrition was emerging as new discipline – although Wilkie’s diet was a mix of chocolate milk shakes, ice cream, brownies and lots of sugary drinks.
“But it was great. Here was a tradition of American swimming which they had for years. The system works. It’s the collegiate system which still pumps out all these phenomenal swimmers. Michael Phelps comes from this system. As did Mark Spitz and Gary Hall.”
Miami suited Wilkie’s temperament. “The Miami head coach Bill Diaz – a Puerto Rican from New York - had a sign up and I was always a bit weary of American signs but it was: Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing. The Americans love this kind of philosophy – but that was his view.”
His first words to David Wilkie were that the university was paying for his education, so there would be certain demands. The swim team comes first, but that academic standards had to be fulfilled. “We’re paying for you and we want success.”
The regime was 7am until 9 every day, then 2 until 4pm, including Saturdays. Sunday was a day off, but it was expected that the swimmers undertake some exercise activity. There would be two-week training camps in Jamaica or the Bahamas with his team-mates and individual coach Charlie Hodgson. It was all geared to producing winners. The training would be very physically hard, up to 20,000 metres a day – which is 400 lengths of a 50 metre pool.
This gruelling intensity of training up to six hours a day drove Wilkie into a state of mental toughness – reaching an even higher level. “You are talking the body into an environment which is alien to it, to maintain an improvement and a standard of excellence you have to swim this hard. Six hours at day to give you that mental strength. Physically, you could get away with two hours a day, but mentally you need six to be stronger. The dreariness and drag is part of the mental process. The biggest part is the mental toughness – that’s why I believe a lot of swimmers might be physically fit they mentally inadequate for high performance winning. To be at the top, you need high levels of toughness like the Australians or the Americans.”
“We don’t seem to have the toughness in Great Britain that other countries have. We are still capable of it but every day that goes by it become more difficult as we dilute the desire to win and to achieve. It’s a problem with our society. It’s a problem outside the world of television, where everybody wants to be a celebrity star without doing anything. If you want to be something in sport, you have to put something into it.”
The Florida experience made Wilkie a tremendous winner with the mental strength that led to Montreal in 1976 – culminating in his gold and silver medals. He knew he had one man to beat – John Hencken, the reigning gold medallist and a Stanford University swimmer. Wilkie’s programme had this one rival in his sights. Wilkie versus Hencken. But the Scots’ success in Canada brought fame and popularity – and helped him become a winner in his business life.
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