In 1980, after four years as club coach, Alan Jones moved to Junction 10. Once again the dual claim membership reared its head. Walsall had an outstanding quartet of boy swimmers – Darren Dyke, Robert Preston, Tim Jones and Nick Gillingham, and two of them, Tim Jones and Robert Preston, followed Alan Jones to Junction 10. Stephen Purchase became coach at Walsall.
The four boys could not have realised, in fact few members of the club would have known, that Walsall had never produced a male swimmer of note – a Midland senior champion or international. To that time the club’s leading swimmers had all been female – Edna Hughes, Sydney Redwood, Val Taylor and June Green. It seemed likely that one or more of the boys would establish themselves at the highest level, and make history for Walsall.
Dyke, born in February 1966, was a year older than the other three, but it was Preston, now a second claim member, who appeared set to be the first to achieve junior international honours. In 1980, in the 12/13 group he won the Midland Championships at 100m (1:01.11) and 400m (4:37.93), and finished 3rd in the 400m at the Nationals at Coventry with a time of 4:35.61. He was invited to join the national squad in preparation for future international matches.
His selection for a meet on the Continent was probable and he was given anti-infection injections. The results were tragic, he showed an adverse reaction to the injections, contracted pneumonia and worst of all, which may or may not have been the result of the injections, lost the full use of an arm through a severed nerve in his neck. His ambitions of top level swimming were finished.
In the 1981 season Dyke, Jones and Gillingham continued their progress and Dyke was the first to junior international status, he swam the 100m freestyle in the 14/15 group in the Italy v France v England match at Chiavari in August of that year.
As the club moved towards its Centenary, there was an event that changed its structure, the amalgamation of men’s and women’s sections. Strangely, it went unrecorded. Neither the minutes of the Executive Committee nor the Annual General Meeting show evidence of this change in the club’s format. In the context of the club’s history it was a momentous change. The only evidence is contained in the minutes of the final AGM of the Ladies’ Section on December 13th 1983, written by the hand of the lady who had been Secretary since 1946, Mrs. Margaret Butler.
As was proposed at the last joint Executive Meeting held on November 1st, 1983, the Ladies’ Section of the club, which was inaugurated on May 28th, 1897, should cease to exist on December 13th, 1983. This was the final AGM of the Ladies’ Section. The section had achieved many successes over the years and its termination was a sad occasion for old members who had served in various capacities for many years.
In fact, it had been more of a merging than an amalgamation. For some years prior to 1983 women had been elected to posts at the AGM without any thought that this was out of place. Mrs. Josie Davenport had acted as assistant Secretary to her husband Barrie, Val Parsons had been Public Relations Officer, and Mrs. Fox and Mrs. Mason had been trustees of the club’s trophies. Then, in 1982, Mrs. Valda Davies became the first woman Secretary of Walsall. The amalgamation of the sections seemed to take place as a matter of course, but it should be recorded that the Ladies’ Section, which existed for 86 years, was one of Walsall’s success stories, it had been extremely well organised by some of the club’s most devoted servants.
An organisation that provided Walsall with much needed financial support was the Parents Association. A large group of parents were always present on club nights and they formed themselves into an association, the aim of which was to assist the club in any tangible way. They ran a Tote and with the proceeds provided equipment – pulleys, work benches and starting pistols, subsidised the travel expenses of club coaches to national events and bought various timing devices. The Chairman was Mrs. Mavis Fox. The contribution of the Parents Association cannot be under-estimated, it helped to keep the club’s annual membership subscriptions remarkably low; in 1981 it was £5 for seniors and £4.50 for juniors. Another occurrence in 1981, although one of little importance in the general context, but worthy of record, is the fact that the club held two AGMs, one in March and the other in December. To fall in line with an ASA ruling all the club’s AGMs would be held at the end of the year from then on.
The club’s President, Mr. Bill Boole, died in 1982. He had been in poor health for some years, and not playing an active role in the club’s affairs had twice offered to resign the Presidency. Walsall would not hear of it; although not able to attend an AGM since 1977, the members knew that Bill’s heart was still in the club.
Tom Longmore was the next President. Another venerable figure, he joined in 1913, was one of the first of the club’s swimmers to use the American crawl, and had served as Secretary from 1946 to 1950. He was first to wear the club’s brand new Presidential Chain of Office.
The polo team brought the Midland League title back to Walsall in 1982. After a two year reign by Camp Hill Edwardians the club clinched the league in the best possible fashion, by routing Aston. The score was 18-1, and there might have been even more goals had Walsall not eased off in the final period. After leading 17-0 at the end of the third period they decided enough was enough. The scorers who completed the demolition job – Ian Davenport 6, Gordon Hodges 4, Bill Johnson 2, Brian Pugh 2, Gwyn Davies 2, Ian Bayley 1 and Richard Brownjohn 1. In the National League Division 2 they found things more difficult, in finishing 5th they managed to improve their placing of the previous year when they were 7th. Locally, they won the Birmingham & District Cup and were runners up in the Midlands Cup. Richard Brownjohn and Robert Seager represented the Midlands in the inter-area under 20 tournament at Crystal Palace, and five juniors – Andy Williams, Shaun Webb, Neil Smith, Simon Perham and Wayne Webb played for Staffs in the inter-counties.
Darren Dyke excelled at the Midland Short Course Championship, winning the junior 100 and 200 and finishing 2nd in the 400 individual medley and 3rd in the 100 butterfly, and for Nick Gillingham, 3rd in the 200 breaststroke. Walsall’s fourth medallist was Marion Buckley who was 2nd in the junior and senior butterfly.
The boys were also prominent at the National Age Group Championships in Leeds in July. Jones won the 100m butterfly in the 14/15 group in a time of 1:00.92, Gillingham was 3rd in the 100m breaststroke and Dyke 4th in the 16/17 100m. Although missing out on a medal in the Nationals, Darren produced an excellent result in an international match in Italy on August 28th, he was 2nd in the 100m and improved his personal best to 54.63.
At the 1983 Nationals all three swam in the 16/17 group in their speciality events and they came home with medals. Dyke’s performance was the best, he won the 100m in 53.45, a Championship best. Gillingham was 2nd in the 200 breaststroke, and Jones 3rd in the 100 butterfly. Among Darren’s performances that year was one that he may not have rated particularly highly considering his success at National level, but was, nevertheless, an achievement that had eluded Walsall’s male swimmers for the 99 years of the club’s existence. When he won the 100m at the Midland Championships in Coventry it was the first time a Walsall swimmer had taken a senior championship.
The 1983 polo season turned out to be one of the best the club had enjoyed since the glory year of 1967. The National League team went through their Division 2 fixtures undefeated, but a number of drawn matches, two of them with Otter, made their chances of finishing top of the table uncertain until the final game. It was against County of York at Barnsley on July 16th
The result of the match decided the League Championship. A draw would have given it to York. It was imperative that Walsall won, and they did, 9-7. The scorers were Geoff Ward 5, Gordon Hodges 2, Ian Davenport and Richard Brownjohn. The club’s history is steeped in water polo and the winning of the Division 2 title meant Walsall would play in Division 1 in its Centenary year – 1984.
There was further cause for celebration. The club won the Midland League, clinching it with a 17-4 win over Nottingham.
And there was more – the B team won the Birmingham League Division 1. A 9-8 win over the other contenders, Halesowen, made the title virtually secure, but convincing wins in the final three fixtures put the issue beyond doubt. Some prolific scoring by Hodges played a great part as the following results show:-
West Midlands Police 13-6 (Hodges 9), Handsworth Grammar School 0.B. 16-4 (Hodges 10) and Heath Town 9-8 (Hodges 8).
Walsall had won three league championships in one season. On Wednesday, September 7th, the players were given a civic reception at the Town Hall.
There was a notable performance that year by Andy Williams for the under 16s. The team finished 3rd in the Winter League and Andy netted 75 of their 109 goals.
1984: One Hundred Years Old
The year of the Los Angeles Olympics was also the year in which the club celebrated its hundredth anniversary. A Centenary Committee was set up to organise the celebrations. The main features were a pool-side party, held on September 11th, the day in 1884 in which the club was founded (although the records show it was actually on August 25th), and a dinner on December 7th at the Co-op Rooms in Bridge Street, to which many local dignitaries were invited. Ipswich, Preston and Colchester also celebrated their centenaries in 1984, and Walsall joined them in a Centenary Gala at Ipswich on July 21st.
The Olympic trials were held in Coventry on May 26th and five Walsall swimmers, Nick Gillingham, Tim Jones, Darren Dyke, William Russell and Marion Buckley, took part. Dyke, the one with the best chance of selection, was given £60 towards his training expenses by the Walsall Sports Council. In the event, none of them were selected for the Games.
Dyke had shown outstanding early season form, he won the Midland Short Course 100m on March 3rd in 52.79, and improved to 51.67 when finishing 2nd in the Nationals in Darlington in April. Gillingham was also prominent in these meets, he won the Midlands 100m breaststroke in 1:05.53 – a personal best, and turned in 1:05.68 when he was 2nd to Moorhouse in Darlington.
Walsall swimmers dominated the Staffs Championships that year with 12 individual wins and three by relay teams, and there were significant performances in the National Age Group Championships in Coventry on August 10th. Tim Jones won the 100 and 200m butterfly, and the medley relay team of Tim Jones, Nick Gillingham, Paul Bates and Robert Preston were also successful.
The winning of Birmingham League Division 1 by the club’s B team the previous year created a problem for the organisers. It meant they were promoted to the Midland League, so Walsall had both A and B teams in this league. The B team was actually the stronger, this resulted from a club ruling in 1983 which said only players prepared to commit themselves to the National League team would be considered for the A team. Some of Walsall’s best players were unable to make this commitment, among them, Gwyn and Gary Davies, Dave Edwards, Gordon Hodges and Mike Whittington. The League’s committee must have been confused as each team registered its players for the 1984 season.
To avoid any hint of collusion, the Committee arranged the fixture list so that each team played the other twice before they played any other teams. These matches were played at Tower St on March 25th and 28th, and as expected the B team won both of them, 13-4 and 14-7. The A team had won the Midland League in ’83 so it seemed the odds were on the B team replacing them as champions. And so it turned out, they clinched it on October 1st in the same fashion as the A team had in1982 – by a resounding victory over Aston. That time it was 18-1, this time it was 17-1, and there was no easing up, they scored six of them in the final quarter. Eight of the players got their names on the score-sheet – Gwyn Davie 5, Gordon Hodges 3, Dave Morris 2, Neil Smith 2, Dave Edwards 2, Bram Stone, Gary Davies and Simon Perham.
A fortnight later three of them, Gwyn Davies, Gary Davies and Dave Edwards played at Tower St for Maindee Olympic as they beat Polytechnic 10-9 to win the ASA Final. To complete the local connection, the game was refereed by Dave Bathurst of Walsall.
With a team that did not reflect its true strength, Walsall found it difficult in the National League, winning only three of its eighteen matches and finishing second from the bottom. The club also incurred a heavy fine for failing to fulfil one of its fixtures – an away game in Durham. Walsall’s efforts to succeed at the highest level had fallen away and this was reflected in 1985 when the team only won one league match and finished bottom of the table. The club immediately withdrew its team from the National League – a decision that did not please some of its former players, Barrie Davenport and Dennis Hale voiced their opinions at the AGM.
However, the 1985 season was not unsuccessful, the club won the Midland Cup by beating Ipswich 18-8 at Coventry, and the A team won the Midland League. Another, though perhaps less notable victory, was an 8-3 win over Sandwell in the polo section of the Black Country Olympics.
Coach Stephen Purchase, assisted by Ron Beddows, raised the standards of the club’s young swimmers, and found them plenty of competition. Walsall toured the area in 1985 and brought back a number of trophies, and they sported a fine line in Tacchini tracksuits.
In May at the second half of the Staffs Championships the swimmers won 18 individual titles and 3 relays. There were triple successes for Lindsey Ruddell and Samantha Phillips, and doubles by Jayne Nicklin, Tim Jones and Stuart Dugmore.
In June the club won the James’ Wines Shield at Shrewsbury, a massive 54 points ahead of Bilston, and a week later won the Braunstone Sprint Trophy. An 11 year old boys’ team of Mark Tift, Paul Manning, Marcus Alsop, Stuart Dugmore and Warren Bradley showed Walsall had plenty of talent in the pipeline. The club won the Lichfield Gala Trophy for the third year running, and also took the Weathershield Trophy at Cheslyn Hay. This was the last appearance for the club of Darren Dyke before he departed for the States to take up a scholarship at the University of South Carolina. Walsall won 28 of the 48 races and Darren turned in 24.97 as he won the 50m freestyle. The gathering of trophies continued through to November when the club won at Milton Keynes, 54 points ahead of Barking. Lyndsey Ruddell was named ‘swimmer of the meet’ on four occasions and the boys relay team was undefeated in 1985.
While Walsall diddies had spent the year competing at almost every opportunity, the stars, now maturing and making their presence felt in senior championships, competed less often but nevertheless very effectively. The Midlands men’s championships that had proved such a stumbling block to previous generations of the club’s swimmers were scooped up quite easily by the new breed. At the Short Course Championships at Nuneaton on February 23/24th they won five of them; Dyke the 100m in 52.26, Jones the 100m butterfly in 58.0 and Gillingham the three breaststroke titles – 50m (30.37), 100m (1:05.55 and 200m (2:23.73).
At Derby in August, Nick appeared in his last Age-Group Championships and made the most of it, taking in four events. He made the finals of the 100m freestyle and butterfly and finished 7th in both, recording creditable times of 55.50 and 59.69. But he made a greater impression in his speciality, the breaststroke, and made his exit from junior competition by winning both titles, the 100m in 1:06.44 and the 200 in 2:25.69. A week later he was in action at the ASA Championships in Leeds, finishing 3rd behind Adrian Moorhouse and Ian Campbell in the two breaststroke races. Later in the year Nick travelled to Canada with a team of local swimmers and turned in a performance that gave the first inkling he might be capable of developing into a world class swimmer. With a time of 2:16.52 over 200m he improved his personal best by three seconds, finishing only .04 behind the world champion, Victor Davis. It made him a leading contender for the following year’s Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
National Cup Finalists
In 1986 the swimmers went some way to changing the club’s image. Until then the appearance of Walsall in a national final meant either the senior or junior polo team, but this was the year the swimming teams made the finals of two national competitions.
The youngsters finished top of the Nuneaton Diddy League and qualified for the Junior Inter-League Final at Oxford on December 7th. The competition was confined to 8-11 year olds and it is interesting to note that by then the term ‘diddy’ was being widely used for the young swimmers. Most of the other teams that competed at Oxford were winners of ‘diddy leagues’ but some used the more prosaic ‘junior league’, and one club, Carnforth Otters, represented the splendidly titled Micro League of the North West.
Walsall’s diddies performed admirably. Michael Bowd won the freestyle and backstroke in the 10 year old category, Stuart Dugmore the free and butterfly in the 12 year olds, Mark Tift the 12 year olds backstroke, and Lindsey Ruddell the 12 year old girls freestyle. Another 1st place was achieved by the 9 year old girls medley team Kate Keibe, Karen Bowen, April Flint and Melissa Bough. The club finished 3rd overall and only four points behind the second placed club, Hillingdon.
The West Midland Swimming League is a competition that combines all the age groups, senior and junior, and truly reflects a club’s overall strength. In 1986 Walsall won it for the first time. The final gala was at Tower St and resulted in a narrow 3 point victory over Stourport. The club thus represented the league in the National Inter-League Cup Final at Coventry on September 14th. It effectively ranked the club among the top eight in the country.
There were victories and a number of creditable performances, but not enough to challenge the might of clubs like City of Leeds and Stockport Metro. The club totalled 159 points and took 7th place. Tim Jones won the 100m butterfly and there were wins by Marcus Alsop, Kathryn Dugmore and the under 11 boys relay team composed of Michael Bowd, Richard Langford, Marcus Alsop and Paul Manning.
Walsall dominated the Staffordshire Championships that year. They were divided into two galas, five weeks apart, and the club took 21 titles in the first gala and 23 in the second. Samantha Phillips, Mark Tift, Stuart Dugmore and Nick Gillingham posted national qualifying times – although for Gillingham that was a formality.
He had shown his potential with that impressive swim against Victor Davis in Canada the previous year, and much was expected of him. At Ipswich on March 1/2 he repeated his treble success of 1985 by taking the three Midland breaststroke titles with marginally faster times over each distance – his 30.27 for 50m was a Midland record. In the Nationals he was still in the wake of Adrian Moorhouse. The City of Leeds man won Short and Long Course championships at 100 and 200m with Gillingham 3rd at 100m and 2nd at 200m in both events.
The major events of the year were the Commonwealth Games, in Edinburgh at the end of July, and the World Championships in Madrid that started on August 13th. Nick was selected for the 100 and 200m at both. Tim Jones also made the England team for Edinburgh and swam the 200m butterfly.
The 200m at the Commonwealth Games was one of the most exciting races. Victor Davis had beaten Moorhouse to win the 100m, Moorhouse’s strongest event, and was favoured to win the longer event at which he was the reigning world champion. Gillingham was given an outside chance of taking a medal.
Against expectations, Moorhouse got home narrowly ahead of Davis – 2:16.3 to 2:16.70. It was an intriguing struggle, but equally interesting was the fight for the bronze as Swimming Times recorded.
The battle for third place was on but again the Canadian men came off worst as Nick Gillingham for England, in his first major games, put paid to any hopes the others may have had as he pipped Alex Baumann at the touch to take the bronze with 2:20.46. The fantastic and majestic aura brought by the presence of the Queen and fortified by the atmosphere it generated made the presentation of the medals all the more special, and after such an enthralling race fulfilled all desire.
Unfortunately, the World Championships in Madrid were an anti-climax for the Englishmen; both were disqualified, Gillingham for a false start in his heat of the 100m and Moorhouse, after finishing first in the final, for using a dolphin kick on one of his turns. Moorhouse was able to produce his best form in the 200m, however, but it was only good enough for 4th place. Gillingham did not show at all, his 2:24.80 saw him eliminated in the heats. But he ended the year on a high note. In the Hewlett-Packard Club Team Championships at Liverpool on December 6th he won the 200m in 2:19.17, and in doing so registered his first win over Adrian Moorhouse. Both had competed in Canada the previous week and Gillingham suggested, rather modestly, that Moorhouse might have been the more jet-lagged of the two. Whether that was the case or not, it was a significant victory.
With the swimmers dominating the club’s activities, the polo teams were somewhat in the shade, but the senior team won the Birmingham & District Knock-out Cup, and Gary Tonks was selected for England. At the AGM Walsall recognised a long-time servant and awarded life membership to Jack Aspinall, a popular choice. Val Parsons became President of the BLDSA – she claimed the honour was the highlight of her swimming career. She and her husband Roger had worked hard to get long distance swimming fully recognised by FINA.
Amendments to the Constitution
To this point in its history, an aspect of the club’s affairs that had been noticeably harmonious was its administration. But in the 1980s there was some friction within the Executive Committee over the balance of its membership.
Rule 6 of the constitution said the members of the Committee should be:-The President, acting President, Life Members, Captain, Polo Captain, Hon. Solicitor, Hon. Secretary, Hon. Treasurer, Hon. Sub Secretaries, and twelve elected by the membership at the AGM. Some of the active, elected members considered the presence of life-members, there could be a dozen or so at any one time, was out of proportion. This was probably true, but the life-members, who had been awarded their membership after years of dedicated service, had a wealth of experience to offer. It was a problem.
At the end of 1983 the club submitted its rules to the ASA for approval. They were returned with a lengthy letter of advice on how they could be brought into line with ASA law and current practice. This advice was considered at Committee meetings during 1984 and a final draft produced for the approval of the membership at the 1984 AGM. A major change concerned the reduction in the number of officers, and the ending of automatic inclusion of life-members onto the Executive Committee. A proposal to accept the new rules was passed unanimously.
So, it was accepted that life-members were not to be on the Committee as of right, but should they be ex-officio members? This was proposed at the 1985 AGM but it appeared the club was almost equally divided; the vote was 15 for and 14 against. A two-thirds majority was needed to amend the rules.
It seemed the club had turned its back on some of its most devoted servants. Some felt this was a poor return for their work, that they still had much to offer with guidance and advice. At the 1986 AGM the club went some way to putting this right. It was resolved that the club elect two Vice-Presidents to sit on the Executive Committee, and the Committee supported the nominations of Mrs. Mander and Mr. Don Burke. It may have been a solution, but it was rather inadequate for it still left a number of life-members, whose hearts were in the club, on the sidelines.
In the next twelve months three of the life-members passed away. Don Burke, Vic Guest, and the President, Tom Longmore. Maud Mander became President – the first woman to occupy this position. It was a splendid recognition for her devotion to the cause, she had been a member for 63 years and President of the Ladies’ Section for 21 years. The two vice-presidential posts were filled by Mrs. Margaret Butler, another life-long servant, and by Barrie Davenport.
Reg Beresford stood down as Chairman and his job was taken by Terry Owles, who was also given the chairmanship of the West Midlands League. The club decided he should look the part and awarded him a chain of office. Ted Penn was awarded the Boole Trophy in recognition of his work with the polo team.
The club had to cope with another administrative problem at the end of 1986 when Stephen Purchase gave up the job as Club Coach and went to City of Leeds. His was a difficult act to follow, he had been with Walsall since 1980 and had raised the standard of swimming considerably. Club spokesman Colin Tromans declared that Purchase had worked wonders with limited resources at Walsall.
Mr. Will Russell took over as coach, but he resigned after some six months in the job. 1987 proved to be a difficult year. Tower St was closed for repair and for the time the club was without a coach it had to rely on some senior swimmers, notably Alastair Coldrick and Neil Morris to look after this side of things. However, Ron Beddows continued to coach and inspire the diddies, and supply the club with plenty of aspiring champions.
The polo team had an excellent year; the A team won the Midland League and the B team were second in the Birmingham League Division 1. The new polo coach, Peter Graham, had revived the interest at all levels. The under 18s won their league and the under 16s finished half-way up their table. Five juniors were selected for Staffordshire, Mike Houlders kept goal for the ASAMD junior team, and Shaun Smith was invited to join the England squad.
17 year old Sharon Southern emerged as the leading lady swimmer, she took four Staffs titles, 100 and 200m freestyle, 200m medley and 200m butterfly and later on in the year produced an impressive 5:0906 for the 400 medley.
The club’s membership that year stood at 153 juniors and 65 seniors, and its finances were stretched. Times had changed, in the 1960s the biggest draw on club funds had been the polo teams travelling expenses, and in those years the club’s abundant membership was able to support them. Now it was the successful diddy team that needed support. The club pleaded for assistance. Speaking to a Walsall Observer reporter Josie Etheridge said ‘Unlike other top squads in the country, Walsall’s diddies receive no commercial backing or assistance from the local authority, relying entirely on club subscriptions and fees paid by the parents.’
The club’s leading light, Nick Gillingham, continued to improve. He was now established as the most outstanding swimmer in Walsall’s history. Nick was now training with the City of Birmingham squad, and press reports showed his championship results as N. Gillingham (City of Birmingham). He was, and is, a second claim member of that squad/club, but he retains first claim membership of Walsall. Certainly the club claim him as one of their own. His sojourn with Birmingham was necessary as it provided him with the maximum amount of swimming time and coaching of the highest quality.
In 1987 Nick aimed to peak for the European Championships in Strasbourg in August. In January, at Leicester, he turned in a personal best, 1:02.69 for 100m, behind Moorhouse (1:01.38). He was always able to push but not challenge Moorhouse at this distance. At the Midland Championships in June he took the three breaststroke titles, as he had done for the previous three years, and won his first ASA championship at the Crystal Palace in July. He was second to Moorhouse at 100m, but when the Leeds man declined to contest the 200m, having already been selected for the Europeans at 200m, Gillingham won in 2:18.18 ahead of Ian Campbell.
Nick made both breaststroke finals in Strasbourg. Moorhouse retained the 100m title with Gillingham, who placed 6th, recording the fastest last 50m – 32.39. He was equal 5th in the 200m with a time of 2:16.82, close to his best ever. Moorhouse swam superbly, taking 3rd place with a new English record of 2:15.78. The two English breaststrokers now turned their attention to the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988.
Gillingham Strikes Silver
Going into Olympic year it seemed likely that Nick would gain a place in the British team, certainly at 200m, and if he showed any improvement on his form in 1987 he might possibly reach the final. As it happened he exceeded all expectations, although certainly not his own, by bringing home a medal with a performance that was probably the finest by a Walsall born athlete in any major sport.
He showed good early season form, a time of 2:20.07 gave him 6th place on the world ranking list at the end of March, but he showed his hand and gave notice of his intentions with 2:16.94 when winning the 200m at a four cornered international meeting at Como, Italy, on April 23rd. At the Midlands in Coventry, spread over two weekends, he did ‘the triple’ again and registered 2:18.51 for the 200.
Moorhouse was pre-selected for Seoul but Gillingham was called upon to prove his worth at the ASA Championships in Leeds at the end of July. There was a major upset in the 100m when the unconsidered James Parrack won the race from Moorhouse with Gillingham 3rd. But Nick’s swimming in the 200 was a revelation; he stormed through to win his heat in 2:15.96 (Wilkie’s British record was 2:15.11) and won the final in 2:16.29. Moorhouse was a distant second. Nick’s Olympic prospects looked bright. There was further cause for celebration in the Walsall camp when Tim Jones clinched his place by winning the 200 butterfly. Before they left for the Games the club invited them to a ‘going away’ party.
The first news of Gillingham in Seoul was an encouraging 2:11.8 200m training spin - taking 10 seconds rest at each turn. It was hardly training, more an exhibition of his fitness, and it showed he had peaked nicely for the most important race of his life.
He demonstrated this effectively, in fact remarkably, by winning his heat in 2:14.58, a new British record, but more importantly, his was the fastest qualifying time. He said; ‘I was completely relaxed in the heat and felt great. The absence of any media pressure helped me but waiting for the final was frightening. I was pleased to receive a telegram of congratulation from my parents before it. My mother taught me to swim at three so I suppose I owe it all to her.’
Terry O Connor described the final in the Daily Mail –
Unfancied Russians Lozik and Alexeev set a fast pace but Gillingham admitted afterwards he was unaware of this and remained in third position ahead of the favourite Szabo. The Hungarian put in a tremendous third length but Gillingham hung on tenaciously. While the Russians and fancied American Mike Barrowman faded, Gillingham tried desperately to pull back Szabo, only to fail by six tenths of a second. He still improved his British record with a time of 2:14.12
With his swimming in Seoul Nick had finally emerged from the shadow of Adrian Moorhouse. He was now a world-class swimmer who would be going for gold in future major championships. Gillingham’s efforts had overshadowed those of Tim Jones, he placed 2nd in the 200 butterfly B final with a personal best of 2:00.32. Both Walsall lads had produced their best when it mattered most – who could ask for anything more.
In March the club engaged Mr. Mike Hepwood as senior coach. He had been coach at Dudley from 1978 to 1983, and more recently had charge of the junior swimmers at City of Birmingham. His methods were based on developing stamina, strength and technique. He declared that his programme was specially geared to an individual swimmer’s needs rather than classing a squad as an entity.
Ron Beddows would make sure he had plenty of material, his diddies placed 3rd in the National finals, a considerable achievement by a club with little financial backing. Some of the names likely to feature in the next phase of Walsall’s history – April Flint Kate Leibe, Neil Fletcher, Richard Gudgin, Robert Kendrick, Peter Vaughan, Lee Chipchase, Simon Hossell, Michael Bowd, and Stuart and Katherine Dugmore.
Darren Dyke returned to Walsall, and although swimming with less serious intent than in previous years, was still able to take the Midland Short Course 200 freestyle, and make three National finals.
Walsall’s 1988 polo season ended with exactly the same results as the previous year; the A team won the Midland League and the B team was 2nd in the Birmingham League. The nucleus of the senior team were the players from the successful years in the 1960s, some of them now turned 40. They showed no inclination to play in the National League, no doubt such ambitions were now behind them. The oldest player, goalkeeper Tony Whittington, decided to retire, he was 47. However, the name Whittington would still appear in the club’s line-up, his sons Neal and Greg were making their marks. It was the year that saw Gwyn Davies, the club’s most experienced international, gain his 100th cap for Wales.
With an enthusiastic but comparatively small membership, finance remained a problem, and the efforts of the Fundraising Committee were recognised at the AGM. Jenny Woodward, Valda Davies and Josie Etheridge were named as those chiefly responsible for raising £1700 in six months.
Walsall – Olympic Champions!
An event of little significance outside South Staffordshire, and a bit of Worcestershire, is the Black Country Olympics. Sporting trivia it may be, but not to the local teams that contest it. It began in 1975 as a point scoring contest between the Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, and it gained the sponsorship of the Evening Mail/Sports Argus. By the mid 1980s it covered 33 sports events. Walsall were dominant in the early years but going into 1988 had not won it since 1978 – and winning meant collecting £2000 to promote sport in the Borough.
In 1988 the club turned out its stars, swimmers and polo players, to reinforce Walsall’s challenge, and after eight days of fierce competition the Black Country Olympic Championship came back to the Borough. Even Nick Gillingham, Tim Jones and Darren Dyke found time to notch a few points for the cause, and the polo team had the distinction of clinching victory. Although they did not know it at the time they went into their last game needing a draw to win the competition and the Championship. The club’s opponents were Wolverhampton.
The manner of victory was reminiscent of the club’s successes in the 1920s, they came from behind. With the match tied at 3-3 Wolverhampton scored with a minute to go. Walsall grabbed the glory with two goals in the dying seconds.
In 1989 Mike Hepwood adopted a similar policy to Steve Purchase, he found the swimmers plenty of competition. One of the club’s excursions was to Darmstadt, West Germany, for a match between diddy teams from 16 countries. It was the youngsters’ first taste of international competition. Certificates were awarded to those finishing in the first ten in each event. 13 year old Michael Bowd got through a lot of work, he collected certificates for 200m freestyle, 200 and 400 medleys, 100 and 200 breaststroke, and 100 butterfly. Other recipients were Alison Cashmore, Kieran Etheridge, Joanne Bowd and Julie Harris. Walsall received an invitation to visit Egypt the following year for a similar match, but the club’s coffers could hardly stand the expense of a trip like that.
The youngsters were providing the club with most of its publicity, press reports covered their every move, winning the Nuneaton Diddy League was now a regular occurrence. But some of the club’s veterans were also active, Dennis Hale came out of retirement to win medals at the British Masters Championships – this was the fastest growing branch of the sport – and Terry Owles became British champion in the over 55s at the Triathlon, a gruelling test of swimming, cycling and running.
Nick Gillingham was busy establishing himself as the world’s best at 200m breaststroke. He went some way by winning the European championship in Bonn in August. In doing so he defeated the man who had beaten him in Seoul, Joszef Szabo, and equalled the world record of 2:12.90. At the World Cup meet in Montreal in December he further pressed his claim by winning the race in 2:09.19, a European Short Course record and the second fastest time ever recorded.
Having now set his standards at the highest level, his performances at the Commonwealth Games in January 1990 were disappointing. He was 3rd in the 100m, behind Moorhouse of course, but also behind James Parrack, a swimmer he expected to beat. In the 200m having set the fastest time in the heats, he went out fast in the final (30.92 for the first 50m) but faded badly on the third length and was overtaken by Jon Cleveland (Canada) just before the turn. Cleveland held his lead right through to the finish while Gillingham lost 2nd place to Lawson (Australia) and almost lost 3rd place to Adrian Moorhouse. Two bronze medals at a major Games would have satisfied most competitors, but Nick was bitterly disappointed, he aimed to be the best at 200m and anything other than victory was unacceptable. The selectors were, however, finally convinced he was a swimmer more likely than not to win medals, and they pre-selected him, along with Moorhouse, for the World Championships in Perth in January 1991. It left him free to concentrate on a 42 weeks training schedule that would hopefully bring him to a peak of fitness for an event that by now had achieved equal stature with the Olympics.
One of Nick’s best performances in 1990 came at the International Cup in Rome in July when he registered valuable points for Britain by winning the 200m. He paced himself to perfection, moved into the lead on the second length and went on to produce a time of 2:14.95. He won the ASA Championship at Crystal Palace with Moorhouse 2nd and Norbert Rozsa of Hungary, a rising star who would shortly put in a serious challenge to be the top man at 200m, in 4th place.
Gillingham was surprisingly beaten by Richard Maden of Aquabears at both 100 and 200m in the ASA Winter Championships at Coventry in November. Moorhouse did not swim and being pushed into second place at 200m must have set the alarm bells ringing. But a convincing win in 2:13.42 at a Grand Prix meet in Scotland showed he was well on course for Perth.
There were a number of notable wins by the youngsters that year. At the ASAMD Age Group Championships Michael Bowd took the 100, 200 and 400 freestyle titles in the 13/14 group, and Stuart Dugmore the 100m in the 15/16. 11 year old Ryan Bird won the backstroke in 36.75 at the Midland Championships. At national level the best placing was achieved by Michael Bowd, he was 2nd in the Age Group Championship 100m freestyle in 57.12.