Queen of the pool
Everyone has heard of Adam Peaty. But how many can tell you the name of the woman behind his success?
Mel Marshall is her name. Olympian and multiple times international medallist turned UK Coach of the Year, Mel has guided Peaty from young amateur swimmer to Olympic champion.
And what’s more she’s Loughborough through and through.
Mel’s love affair with Loughborough started back in the year 2000, when she arrived as an 18 year old student to study Applied Sport Science.
“That was before the 50m pool was built, so we were training in a 25 yard pool,” laughs Mel.
“I was lucky enough to be able to stretch my degree over eight years, which allowed me to focus on my swimming, where I went to two Olympic Games and won 20 international medals.”
Whilst Mel has transitioned from student, to international swimmer, to world class coach, the Loughborough swimming programme has also been on its own journey, from start-up to world class. But what makes it stand out?
“One of the things that makes Loughborough the very, very best is its holistic approach to athletes. It’s not just about the athlete’s performance but about them as people.
“At the heart of everything is a passion for making athletes and sport better and that’s a message that you feel and experience as soon as you walk through the door at Loughborough. That’s something that’s unique and very inspirational.”
Having a degree from Loughborough University and 12 years of international performance based experience you could say Mel was always destined to be coach. But that didn’t mean it was handed to her on a plate.
“I started out as a coach at Derby, where I had next to nothing. But what I did have was the non-technical skills that Loughborough had taught me; how to be resilient, how to make relationships and how to network with people. That stood me in good stead to build a similar philosophy with a limited environment.
“I was there for eight years and adopted an ‘anything is possible’ attitude, which was exactly right as a man called Adam Peaty walked through my door. Eight years later he’s the Olympic champion and I’m back at Loughborough University as the Head Coach of the National Centre.”
Pressed on her first impressions of Peaty, a question she must be sick of answering, Mel’s answer was simple.
“The first time I saw him breaststroke I knew there was something special.”
“Female coaches bring a different dynamic, and of course men and women see some things differently, and I think that’s important. With anything in sport, the more dynamics you have, the more equipped you are to move forward.”
Discussing her impact, something her modesty doesn’t allow her to dwell on for too long, Mel said:
“Someone said to me the other day, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, that I was the first female British coach across any sport to produce an Olympic gold medallist. If that’s true that’s quite exciting!”
What is it that makes her a successful coach then, especially as a female who’s coaching elite males, something that’s still pretty rare in the sporting landscape? One reason is that towards the tail end of her career Mel was in a training group with 16 guys.
“That gave me such a unique insight into the male psyche and motivations, and that’s really helped me with Adam. Where you’d have a conversation in a certain way with a female, you wouldn’t have that conversation in the same way with a male.
“Female coaches bring a different dynamic, and of course men and women see some things differently, and I think that’s important. With anything in sport, the more dynamics you have, the more equipped you are to move forward, so I think it’s really positive for women to be involved.”
Does Mel want to see more female coaches and more women in senior positions like her role as Head Coach on the Loughborough National Centre?
“Yes! Things are moving forward in terms of leadership positions for women in sport, but it’s our responsibility. I think things are fair and equal, so it’s just a case of getting stuck in.”
With Rio 2016 already becoming a distant memory, Mel, Peaty and everyone involved with swimming at Loughborough have to move forward with a new set of goals. But what does success look like to Mel, and for the National Centre she is now tasked with leading?
“For me success over the next four years is a move forward from where we are. Loughborough has got to the top of the mountain but now it’s about how we fly off and achieve more.”
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