When a club has been around for 140 years, it’s bound to have stories to share.
That’s what Geelong Swimming Club president Glenn Benson found while going through the club’s old records.
Tucked away in a cupboard in the club rooms at the Kardinia Aquatic Centre was a world record.
Club member Tony Strahan had combined with six-time Olympic medallist Murray Rose, Bob Windle and Allan Wood on the Australian national team at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth to break the 4×220 yard freestyle relay world record.
The certificate commemorating the achievement is now proudly displayed by the club.
It’s one of the many stories the club is hoping to recognise and share when it celebrates its 140th anniversary next week.
The club is calling for all past and present swimmers, coaches, officials and members to celebrate the milestone at a function at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday, May 14.
“I’m not a Geelong local, but it feels like nearly every third person I speak to was connected to the club at some point,” committee member Jessica O’Brien said.
“We’re trying to bring all those people together to celebrate what is 140 years of aquatic history in this town.
“Not only have aquatic sports developed dramatically over the 140 years, so has the club … and we want to bring the community back, to reunite to share those stories.
“There will be a lot of stories over that 140 years that people won’t remember or have even heard before.”
The club’s history traces back to 1882 when the Geelong Western Swimming Club was formed.
Bathing houses were first established on the Geelong Waterfront in the 1850s, and by the 1870s six bathing houses were in use – leading to the formation of several swimming clubs, including the Geelong Western Swimming Club, based at Western Beach.
In the early days, there were separate clubs for men and women – the Geelong Western Ladies Swimming Club – which combined in 1959.
The club then changed its name to the Geelong Swimming Club in 1970 and established its base at the Geelong and District Memorial Swimming Centre – now known as the Kardinia Aquatic Centre, where it still resides today.
“Back then [at the start] they were swimming in the cold ocean, so it was much more of a summer sport, whereas nowadays we train all year round,” Ms O’Brien said.
“Back then they also did synchronised swimming and diving, and one point the club also had water polo team. We’ve covered a lot of different aquatic sports throughout our history, whereas now we are about competition swimming.”
Mr Benson said the club had always been strong performers in the pool throughout its history.
“The club’s got quite a strong performance background,” he said.
“We’ve had the Victorian Australian champion diver; with the synchronised swimming, we’ve had some champions in that; we’ve had some members compete at Commonwealth Games.
“The Commonwealth Games captain was our club member Peter Doak and he was also an Olympian.
“He held a world record, and so did another one of our members Tony Strahan, so we have had some good performances in the pool.
“But more important than that has been our role in the community to bring people with aquatic hobbies together in an environment where they can enjoy themselves.
“Whether that’s for people who want to be competitive swimmers or people who just want to be part of the community and go for a swim before work a couple of days a week.”
Mr Benson said the region’s love of the water had played a huge part of the club’s continued success over 140 years.
“There’d be a dozen surf clubs within a half hour drive here and so swimming – decent swimming, not just surviving in the water – is a big part of the Surf Coast culture,” he said.
“If you want to do triathlons or any of those other aquatic sports, you need to be reasonable swimmer.
“We’ve catered to that and provided that opportunity for anyone who wants to get better at swimming.
“We’ve want to make Geelong Swimming Club the centre of excellence of the G21 area for swimming. So if you’ve got a child that wants to do any of those sports or underwater hockey or surf lifesaving, we want to be the place where they come to swim.
“But the other reason [we’ve manage to survive for so long] is in general, we just love our sport.
“Within the egalitarian society, sport brings everyone to the same level. We have doctors and specialists and all sorts of people with really tricky and difficult jobs, but once they get into the pool and swim their two kilometres or three kilometres, everyone is the same.
“There’s a real camaraderie between swimmers in a kindred spirit kind of way.”
Mr Benson said maintaining and enhancing that community feel of the club was his key focus as president.
“When I got this role six or seven years ago, what I wanted to improve on was the pathways to get people into the club and keeping members involved with the club for longer,” he said.
“We found that as our younger swimmers were getting towards the end of school and heading off to university, some were starting to drop off, so we purchased a swim school.
“That swim school has now got over 1300 enrolments, and would have over 40 employees.
“The kids get an opportunity to go to learn to swim, and either go into a fitness squad, whereby they’re not a club member, or they can come into the club.
“They can start their training, go through all the different squads to get to the point where either they don’t want to commit anymore or they’ve got to their pinnacle of what they want to achieve in competition, and then there’s the opportunity to employ them as learn to swim teachers.
“So now we have a pathway for our kids to continually join and learn to swim. Once they’ve finished their training, we have a person that’s ready to teach.”
Along with its in pool success, the club has also seen a lot of success outside of the pool.
In 2020, the club received three awards at the Victorian Disability Sport and Recreation Awards.
Swimmer Phoebe Mitchell took out Female Sportsperson of the Year, Sadat Hussain was awarded Coach of the Year, and the club was awarded Team of the Year.
Ms O’Brien said the club had put a strong focus on inclusion, which would be celebrated at the 140th anniversary.
“We’re about participation and inclusion – that’s what’s really important and it’s something we take great pride in, because those pathways for people with disability are needed in sport,” she said.
“That’s why we established our foundation alongside the club, because a person with disability has additional needs that can be more expensive.
“To participate in sport a person with disability may have to travel with a carer or other things like which can create barriers for participation in sport.
“So that’s where we have our foundation up and running, so they can achieve their goals of going to wherever they need to go, or competing at meets that they want to compete in or have qualified for.
“So it’s really important that we’re supporting them along the way, and they do us incredibly proud.”
The club was also awarded Swimming Victoria’s Club of the Year last year, which recognised its success in and out of the pool.
Mr Benson said it was an achievement the club was immensely proud of.
“To win the club of year award is a real feather in our cap and something as a whole club we’re very proud of,” he said.
“Our performance side has gone well too, we’ve got an age group Australian record holder, that individual won two gold medals recently. We’ve got a state age champion, which means that individual has earned more points at the state championships than any other individual in Victoria.
“It’s been a wild ride, but it’s all culminating in our 140th year – so it’s good time to get everyone together and celebrate the club.”