Crisis Managers: In the first of a new series with the leaders of Ireland’s sporting organisations, Sarah Keane, CEO of Swim Ireland and president of the Olympic Federation of Ireland, outlines the unique challenges facing aquatic sport.
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How has this time been for you personally?

In general I feel very lucky. I’m working, I’m occupied and the kids are healthy and well and the family is all good.

I do feel a little bit of apprehension about how things will look as we move on. I do think this will change Irish life. Some of it will be for the better, but the change is coming. And while I’m pretty good with change, there’s a little bit of apprehension around that too.

Have you found out anything that you will stay with you once this is over?

I’m flat out between the Swim Ireland role and the OCI role and the family stuff. So I’m not one of those people listening to podcasts or learning a new skill or anything like that. It might come over time but I’m not in that place.

Swim Ireland had invested heavily in online learning so we’ve been able to do a huge amount in relation to that. The good thing is this has forced everyone to sign up and get online in a way they wouldn’’t have before. I see that as a really positive thing.

We’ve had incredible engagement. Swim Ireland put 1,700 people through some form of online learning in April and we put over 2,000 people through in May.

The other thing, from a staffing perspective, Swim Ireland has over 40 members of staff, a mix of part-time and full-time. And some are based in different parts of the country. Some commute, some come up every couple of weeks. And while we’ll want to continue face to face engagement, now that everyone can work online, we’ll look again at how to support people to maybe not travel as much. To support people to have a better quality of life.

How are you keeping in touch with your members?

The online systems have allowed great engagement with the membership. For example, some of the courses we did on a regional basis, now we’re doing them online. And we’re finding you’ve got people in Ulster talking to people in Munster when before you didn’t have that to the same degree.

Our athletes have been amazing. We had a plan for after the Olympics to engage our Olympians to go out to our clubs and squads and meet the younger people.

We’re doing that online instead. Our top 10, 15 performance athletes, swimming and diving, are doing all that free of charge with clubs. It could be the 14-year-olds in a club and they’re getting a chance to ask questions in a club setting. So it also helps the clubs keep athletes engaged when they are not in the water. So we’ve found that exciting and motivating as a team.

What kind of 2020 had you been looking forward to before this struck?

The Olympics and Paralympics were obviously big for us. But aside from the event itself, we were running in April our first Olympic and Paralympic trials. We’ve never had one in the country. Normally people would have qualified off an international event.

RTÉ were going to come out and stream it, but it will move to next year.

Another big thing was introducing a leisure membership category. The clubs are the heartbeat of our organisation, but we’re always trying to reach into the wider swimming community. We’ll probably launch that online now during the summer.

How severe are the financial losses you anticipate for your organisation?

We had projected to run to a deficit anyway this year, because we’re making significant investment in things like the national competition structure and the Olympic trials and other initiatives around participation. For instance, working on a Get Ireland Swimming plan.

But now that deficit is going to be significantly higher and that is a challenge. It will impact on 2021.

The big assumption is that our clubs will be back in September. We’re actually hoping some of them sooner. But that’s also assuming they will come back with the same number of members they left with, which is really going to be a challenge.

A priority will be recruitment and reminding people why they got involved in swimming. And ensuring there is a consumer confidence around getting back in the water.

At the moment we’re projecting a drop in income of around €400,000, which is a lot. But we have less expenditure on certain things.

We are lucky in that Tesco, our title sponsor, has remained loyal. And we do believe we can do some activation on various things with them. But we have to see how that plays out next year.

What kind of Government supports and direction will help in the crisis?

In the National Sports Policy, launched in 2018, swimming is recognised as a priority sport, because it’’s for all ages, both genders, all backgrounds. Swimming is a life skill and it’’s the sport people engage with most over their life cycle.

But we will have serious concerns about what investment will be possible in sport over the next few years. I just really hope there is a recognition of the value of sport.

A lot of what we are doing now as a nation is around our values. We are saying we value human life and our people more than our money. And if we’re going to be true to that value system we have to recognise how important sport and physical activity is to Irish people.

And at the moment there hasn’t been any real support around that — obviously our government has been dealing with a very difficult situation — but, I’’d like to think that will start to come on the agenda sooner rather than later.

Because sport is part of our DNA, part of who we are. We’ll have to support sport so it doesn’t go under, because we can’t return to sport if we don’t have the structures in place.

Was there a moment you realised this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

It’s actually not that long ago because I’m relatively used to dealing with crisis. You’re learning all the time, but experience of leading in a crisis helps. Some decisions around the Games were made very quickly.

But I think the big moment came with the understanding that social distancing is going to stay with us for some time to come. And how we move forward now as a society for the next 18 months or two years is going to be quite different.

In terms of our sport, how we get back into pools is a challenge. It’s definitely doable, but we’re going to have to rewrite the rules.

The HSE has advised you don’t get Covid in chlorinated water. So that’s a very positive thing. But if you stand up afterwards and breathe heavily or maybe cough, obviously it can be passed through the air.

We might have had 30 people in a squad swimming up and down together. So it will change how many people you can have in a lane, and what’s going to happen with swimming lessons.

The biggest driver to the swimming pool economy is swimming lessons. You’re probably not going to have the same number in.

We have a Return to Aquatics group set up and we’re working with Ireland Active, who support the leisure industry. We’re looking together on guidelines for swimming pools and how people might get back.

But what’s different from other sports is that swimming is an industry. And Swim Ireland doesn’t run or own any facilities. We’re dependent on those that do. And we have more private pools across north and south than public. And a lot of the private operators may be questioning, with heating and staff costs and extra cleaning, will we open. Can we make enough money off reduced numbers? That’s unique to our sport.

What’s the doomsday scenario?

Pools could shut. That’s a massive issue. Some children may not go back to swimming clubs. Some parents may not be able to afford it, though our clubs are very good at supporting people with financial difficulties. We’’re supporting programmes in underprivileged areas and schools and I’’d be really worried we’d go backwards in that regard.

Do you see any overseas solutions worth applying in Ireland?

I don’t think solutions is the word. But our Return to Aquatics group is collating information worldwide. Five or six nations already have their performance athletes back in the water. And another five or six will go back in the next couple of weeks. We’re talking to them and talking to the Sport Ireland institute around protocols that we will put in place. We’’ve been in touch with the HSE about open water and putting protocols in place around social distancing in and out of the water.

Is there a bigger challenge for a contact sport like water polo?

Yes, we have to look at when that can go back. I play myself, we’ve a very good community in water polo and I would be concerned about that. It’s contact, they will be breathing on top of each other, pushing into each other. The fact they are in chlorinated water will help but it doesn’t solve the problem either.

How is morale among members?

I think there is a certain amount of stress and worry. Clubs are primarily run by volunteers who are dealing with their own personal circumstances. I do think we’ve done everything we can to support them. But I really admire them, and am very proud to be part of an organisation where people have really stood up in that regard.

A lot of the work we’re doing is keeping people connected. We’re living in a society where not everyone knows who their next-door neighbour is because life has changed.

That’s something huge sport is doing to support the wider community effort. So I think morale is good, despite the stress and worry.

And one of the things I love about what I do is being surrounded by people who are trying to be the best they can be. The characteristics people develop out of sport, like resilience, adaptability, dealing with things that don’t always go your way, those are the characteristics we need as a nation now.

So it’s important the government and the wider community recognises what sport has to offer and that we can’t let sport go under.