The father of modern Australian swimming, Olympian Forbes Carlile, has died

Forbes Carlile. Source: supplied

Forbes Carlile, MBE, the country Victorian who taught a nation to swim and helped lay the foundations for the success of Australia’s Olympic swimming team using science, has died. He was 95.

Carlile died this morning in Sydney’s Concord hospital following a short illness.

Born in Armadale, Victoria, on June 3, 1921, he is the only Australian to have represented at the Olympics first as a coach and then as an athlete. He was a pioneer on several fronts, becoming the country’s youngest Olympic coach in London in 1948, then as Australia’s first-ever Olympian in modern pentathlon in 1952.

Carlile coached 52 members of Olympic, world championship and Commonwealth Games squads, who set 31 individual world records and won 12 Olympic medals, including five gold. He was head coach in 1956, the team’s scientific advisor in 1960. In 1964, he was head coach for the Dutch Olympic team and remained part of the Australian team up until 1980, when he was head coach but withdrew as part of Australia’s boycott following Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. He counted Shane Gould, Karen Moras, Gail Neall and Terry Gathercole among his charges.

Gould at one point simultaneously held the world records for all freestyle distances from 100 to 1500 metres, an unrivaled feat at a time when Carlile’s scientific approach married with the Sydneysider’s astonishing natural talent.

The Australian Olympic team’s chef de mission Kitty Chiller, also a former pentathlete, offered her condolences on behalf of the team.

“The passing of Forbes Carlile is incredibly sad and our thoughts are with his wife Ursula,” she said.

“He was a true legend in Australian Olympic history as both an athlete and a coach.”

Chiller said they caught up just a month ago at an annual reunion for the Helsinki Olympics, where he asked her about the pentathlon event in Rio.

Carlile grew up in Mosman in Sydney and confessed to at first being “an unwilling student” during swimming lessons at Balmoral rock pool. But he came to love the sport and
studied human physiology at the University of Sydney under Professor Frank Cotton, who is regarded as the father of sports science.

Carlile was a uni lecturer before leaving to start Australia’s first commercial swimming school at the Drummoyne pool, which was filled from the harbour on a daily basis.

While his method was for all ages and levels, he introduced scientific rigour to modern swimming, and training techniques such as tapering, log books, warm-ups and shave downs. The pace clock was a Carlile creation. His swimming program became part of a university degree and his 1963 book, Forbes Carlile on Swimming, became the bible on freestyle.

He relocated to the Ryde Swimming Centre in 1961 with his wife Ursula, also a swimming coach, but it was unheated and a few years later they built a 12.5 metre indoor pool in the backyard of the house they rented nearby. That garage was the start of year-round swimming lessons and the back of the Carlile family house at continues to teach children to swim five decades later, including the great grandchildren of his original students. It’s one of a number of Carlile Swimming venues around Sydney.

Carlile was inducted into the International Swimming Hall in 1977, the same year he was made a Member of the British Empire. He was inducted into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame 12 years later. Last week he became Australia’s oldest living Olympian following the death of fencer Helen Joy Hardon. Carlile is survived by his wife, Ursula.

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