Joe King, the 86-year-old Australian swimming coach, is probably the world's oldest swim coach. He's not only the oldest, but also one of the sport's feistiest and most successful.
You'll have no problem spotting Joe King at a swim meet. Just look for a white-haired, suntanned gentleman in a maroon track suit. Yes, always a maroon track suit. Not for Joe King the designer golf shirts worn by fellow coaches, most of whom are about two generations younger. Wearing his familiar track suit is Joe's way of showing that he is there to do a job; to be always in the thick of things, just like his swimmers.
And, when warm-up time is over, Joe stands on the deck, radiating enthusiasm and good humour, cheerfully chatting to coaches and swimmers alike. You'll rarely see a coach so obviously enjoying every moment of a swim meet.
I spoke to Joe last year at the Australian Olympic trials at Homebush, Sydney. "If anyone had told me that I would one day coach, or manage, an Australian Olympic swimming team, I would have said: You're stark, staring mad. In fact, I had been very ill with ulcerative colitis, and I was in a bit of a mess as a result. I was as thin as a whip. Mahatma Gandhi would have looked like 'Jake the Fat Man' compared to me."
Joe took ill in 1949 and was in poor health for a few years, but it was about this time that he became interested in swimming. One of his twin daughters contracted meningitis at the age of seven weeks and, as a result, she became totally deaf. When she was older, Joe decided to enrol her in a swimming club to broaden her social skills.
One Saturday, Joe King was sitting at the pool watching the coach work. "I thought to myself: 'Well, I don't know anything about this sport, but if I can't do better than that, I'll eat my hat.' " The result was that Joe started to coach his daughters. "I started off as an interfering age-group parent, you might say. Then their friends saw what was happening, and they wanted to come along."
Soon, King had a squad of about thirty youngsters under his tutelage and, before he knew it, he had become hooked on the sport; so much so that, in 1956, when the Australian Olympic team arrived from their pre-Olympic training in Townsville to train in the Valley Pool in Brisbane, King spent day after day watching them train.
"I was amazed at their freestyle arm action, and the way they got their shoulders well into the stroke. One of the very interesting aspects of that training period at the Valley Pool was that they trained on pure oxygen. They had tanks of oxygen there, and immediately after an effort swim, they would go to the tank, clap the mask on, and then inhale pure oxygen."
King became so absorbed in coaching that he worked about 15 hours a day, coping with his regular job, while at the same time improving his knowledge of coaching.
At this early stage of his coaching careeer, King was faced with the choice of either retaining his regular highly-paid job as circulation director of Queenland Newspapers or becoming a full-time coach. It is common knowledge that a coach renting a public pool could never be sure of not being outbid at the end of the rental period.
King thought long and hard about the problem. Finally, the difficulty involved in retaining a long-term tenure of any pool in Queenland deterred him from giving up his existing job. King said: "A swimming pool tenure rarely lasts longer than three years, at which point someone is bound to outbid you eventually, and so you would lose the use of the pool."
King couldn't see the benefit in conducting a full-time coaching school. It would have involved turning in a very good job with a high salary, so he decided to carry on coaching part-time. "I never imagined where I would finish up," he said.
Joe King became an assistant coach at the Leander club, one of Australia's most famous, and eventually became the head coach. In addition to his full-time job, and his part-time coaching, Joe King astounded everybody by successfully coaching netball and basketball at the same time. "I undertook these extra assignments so that I could involve my daughter with a variety of different people and thus broaden her horizons."
Joe King says that he had no formal training in how to coach swimming "perhaps only a natural aptitude." It was not until 1965 that he produced his first Australian swimming champion, a girl by the name of Jill Groeger. "She went to the last of the British Empire Games in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966. She was a very good flyer. She got beaten by a fraction of a second by Lyn McClements who went on to win the Olympic butterfly title in Mexico City two years later. That's the way it works out in sport, I suppose," says King. "You have to be 'spot on' at that particular moment when history is being made."
Another of Joe King's early swimmers, Joanne Marnes, was selected for the Australian team at 12 years of age, when she broke the Australian record for 200 breaststroke. In the other States they could not believe that she had broken the 200 record at this tender age, and even though she didn't participate in the trials she was selected for the team.
Joe King developed a spectacular coaching record over the years, made all the more meritorious by the fact that he remained a part-time coach, while continuing to hold down a demanding full-time job that carried great responsibility. Yes, this amazing, erstwhile age-group parent, went on to produce Australian champions in all strokes, swimmers such as Hayley Lewis, Lisa Curry, Rebecca Brown, Michelle Pearson, Judy Hudson, Paul Moorfoot, Sue Landells, Jill Groeger, Joanne Marnes, Lindsay Spencer, Alison Smith, Glenda Robertson, Joe Dixon, and many, many others. Yet, for thirteen years, Joe King was never appointed to coach an Australian team, probably because he was "only a part-time coach, a hobbyist, as it were!"