Candid Conversations: Sport in Today’s World is a series exploring what sport looks like during the current season we are in. Sport is such an integral part of daily life: from general fitness and exercising, to keeping mentally healthy; socialising and creating community with others, and even just for the sake of enjoyment – be it watching live fixtures on TV or taking part yourself. During this series we will be talking to different people from across the sector about their sporting experiences in a real, raw and honest fashion, to understand what their sporting life looks like in today’s world.
Jane Nickerson is the CEO of Swim England, the National governing body of Swimming, Diving, Water Polo and Artistic Swimming. She stepped into this role in 2017, and her years of competing with City of Coventry Swimming Club, managing both England and Great Britain’s Swimming Teams and prior involvement with the governance of the sport, she has a deep understanding of the issues faced by aquatics and is well equipped to take on the challenges her role brings. In her free time, Nickerson enjoys swimming for leisure and dedicates time each week as a Samaritans volunteer. We were lucky enough to have a chat about the impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on the sport and what moving forwards will look like.
Where did your love of swimming come from?
As a child I was always drawn to water – as a little one I apparently use to always go to the river and throw myself in! My family thought that it might be good if I actually learnt to swim. So as a tiny, tiny tot I learnt to swim and then it’s the same old story of learning to swim and then joining the local club and you just keep going. As you get more invested so do your parents and they get involved too. Soon it’s taken over your whole life – it’s as simple as that really! [I used to train, at City of Coventry] but before City of Coventry came together, there used to be a number of swimming clubs in Coventry. My home club was Leamington Swimming Club originally, and then Three Spires. Three Spires was one of three clubs in Coventry to amalgamate together to form City of Coventry Swimming Club.
You used to compete at the national level. How did you make the transition from being an athlete to working in the governance structures and the daily running of the sport?
Well, it’s really quite a strange story! I volunteered in sports, so for a long time in Swimming I was on the district board among other things and then I became district secretary. My career was in hotels. For 20 years I had worked at the Metropole hotel at the National Exhibition Centre and volunteering in swimming was something I did on the side. Two things happened next: the ASA [Swim England’s former name] who had about 20 employees at the time were looking to grow and funding was becoming available. They were looking for a head of administration. At that time, Hilton bought out the Metropole chucking out all of the senior management and so I was made redundant. I applied for the job in swimming and ended up getting it! I LOVED IT! And from there I proceeded to work my way through swimming. Hilton ended up offering me my old job back but I said no – I turned them down.
What are some of the current challenges faced by the aquatic community?
There are lots of different challenges. Finance is obviously one of the huge ones. Although pools can open, and some have been open in between the first and second lockdowns, they have had the problem of much less footfall. [Swim England] have had to write the guidance which was signed off by Public Health England. This has meant that far less people can go into the pool because of social distancing. Pools aren’t the best revenue earners anyway, apart from Learn to Swim which is the golden cash cow. The impact that has had is massively financial on the operators and the leisure sector who need funds to support them. It’s had a massive impact on clubs because water time has gone down while costs are going up and they haven’t had open meets where they are able to raise funds. It’s had a massive impact on us as a governing body because in this quadrennial with Sport England we had 20% funding and 80% of our own income. This trading income has stopped when the doors shut. That’s £400,000 net income per month that we are losing at the moment. It’s just huge and these are but some of the financial challenges being faced at the moment. If you add that on to the health and wellbeing challenges which many people are facing, as many use swimming to help both their mental health and their physical health, the impact is immeasurable. Some people can’t exercise on land but can in water and so that would have had a huge impact there. But even among our club swimmers who are desperate to swim twice a day because that is what they do!
I know of some pools that have failed to recover from the impact coronavirus has had on them. To what extent do we see this across the country?
A minimum of 200 pools have permanently shut because of the pandemic. They were vulnerable anyway. There were ones which probably would have closed anyway. The pools in this county are aging and there are many issues we’ve got with pools. There needs to be a huge infrastructure programme if we want to keep swimming pools alive in this country, and this is something that was needed before COVID hit. Coronavirus has brought forward what we were expecting to see happen in ten years as it is happening now. Pools we expected to last between five and ten years more have already closed for good.
In November last year, we saw the release of the Value of Swimming report which details the huge benefits that swimming boasts. There are a few things in that report which you’ve already touched on such as the enormous benefit the sport has on mental and physical health. Could you speak into this a little bit more about the impact at an individual level?
We get stories all the time, for example, people who have musculoskeletal problems and find that life is very painful for them. But swimming helps them – it eases their pain, and this means of pain control has gone completely out of the window. People who suffer from anxiety and depression who went swimming to help ease their symptoms have also completely lost that over the last few months. The number of stories like this is huge and it is just case by case by case. You can see some of the stories which we too have shared in our #LoveSwimming campaign in which people have written to tell us the impact it has had on their lives and these stories shared. Swimming alone saves the NHS and social care £357 million each year on just the management of six conditions.
What about the governance of the sport? How has Swim England internally been affected by the current context?
We’ve undergone some restructuring as we have lost 30% of our team. We restructured down and that is a big thing. We have streamlined some of our departments also. For example, we had a club development officer in each of our regions which is no longer in place. We’ve just had to find smarter ways of working. Some of it, I think, we will do really well from as it’ll teach us to do things differently. We will learn and perhaps not go back to everything as there has been some good aspects to all of this. For example, our education – we were already offering blended learning which is a mix of some face-to-face teaching and some online, but this wasn’t really picking up, but now all of a sudden, it is what people want. I don’t think this will ever change. I think that now people will do a lot of their theory-based content online and only the practical elements at the pool. We’ve also changed the partnership team. We have an engagement team now which is more business focussed and I think that it will help us to bring in some more money as we move out of the pandemic. But to go back to my first point, to lose 30% of a great team is really very sad.
There are some news stories that say Swimming as a sport has been one of the hardest hit as a result of the pandemic. To what extent do you agree with this?
Everyone will tell you that their sport has been the hardest hit. I think that what has hit us hard is that we were making so much of our own income and therefore we weren’t reliant on funding. If you’re a sport which is funded 95%, then you’ve lost nothing, or very little! You’ve still got your funding and you probably haven’t done very much so you will have more money in the bank. Or you probably have just been able to continue as you were. Those kinds of sports haven’t been as impacted as the sports which were making a lot of their own money and putting their own money towards the Sport England programmes, such as swimming. I have talked to a few people and we are unique in this position – we have the fully funded sports, and then the big ticketed sports who received the sports package bail-out but swimming sits between these two categories. The sports bail-out package was no use to us whatsoever as we didn’t fit the criteria for the injection of cash.
The government is now allowing pools in all tiers to be open. What does this mean for the swimming community?
For everyone aged under 18 in tiers 1, 2 and 3, it is business as usual – everything can take place, subject to the guidance restrictions that [Swim England] put in. The social distancing restrictions are still there. But anyone aged under 18 can do everything, be it Water Polo, Artistic Swimming, Swim training, recreational Swimming, Aqua Aerobics – you name it, and they can do it. For over 18’s there are restrictions in place which limit what they can do.
Finally, what you say to someone who wants to get involved with Swimming or volunteering?
Just come along and do it! I’ve had too many years which have just been great because of involvement with swimming both as a volunteer and now working in the sector. It is a family, and we are a community. Does it have its little arguments from time to time – of course it because it’s a family! But everyone looks out for each other and you can see that in the way people have come together during this whole season. This is especially true during the first lockdown when the weather was a lot nicer and spirits were generally better. So many people had paddling pools in the back garden and were sharing great ideas. I’s not so easy this time with the miserable weather but it is a family, and it is a great family. There is so many volunteering jobs to do, just loads and no matter what your skills are there will always be something for you! It can give you new skills too! I think for young people especially it can provide a great platform to develop you into all sorts of things. Swimming has allowed me to be who I truly am.