Welcome to the Jacuzzi podcast. I’m Ed Baxter and today we’re joined by Mel Marshall MBE. How are you doing Mel?


Good thanks Ed.


So I want to dive straight into it. We know you as an MBE for services to sport, someone who’s had an amazing career in their own right in sport, but where did that passion come from? When did you first get into swimming? What was that first memory?


Well the first memory was when I fell in my grandad’s fish pond when I was about 4, so that’s that one. And then basically I used to go swimming a couple of times with my mum and dad, and then one day the swimming club was in half the pool and we were in the other half. I was pretty good, I’d taught myself with my dad’s guidance every now and again and my mum’s support, and I was swimming along and I was like, I’ve got these guys here. So then I was like right, I need to get signed up for a swimming club, how can I get involved? And it went from there really. And then the competitive animal in me was harvested. I wanted to win the session, then I wanted to win the lane, I wanted to be the best in the club, the country… and then it all went too far.


So it’s almost like what you’re talking about there, the journey you’ve had, the job you’re in now, was it only swimming? There was no other option? Was there sports you were just as competitive in, or was it just that?


Ed, it was everywhere. I was playing table tennis, I was playing football… I was into everything. I was on the hockey team, on the athletics team, I was just involved in everything. And again, I always wanted to compete and do the best, so I was a really sporty person all the way round. I actually stopped swimming when I was 18 because I found football, I was pretty decent at football… but I also found drinking. I found life was quite nice, and swimming was very difficult. But I missed the Olympics in 2000 by something like three tenths – I’d come seventh and they’d taken the top six.


Was that before that break?


It was during that space when I was doing it but I wasn’t really committing to it as much as I should have. So then what happened was I went to Loughborough by chance for a football game and I met a friend there who was studying and I saw the swim programme and that was it. After I didn’t make the Olympics in Sydney I was like Mel, you need to go all in or get on with your life. So I moved my schooling to Loughborough and everything, I think I had £1,000 in my bank and if I didn’t get onto funding, that was the end of the journey. Then basically I worked with Ben Titley and I got better and better and made my first senior world championships at 19 in Fukuoka and we got a silver in the 4 by 100 in the women’s team and that was the start of the journey then really.


So you’ve touched on it then – how when you were 10, you wanted to be the best in the world, and then you were the best in the world. From knowing you personally, that first Olympics that you made – leading up to it and your experience at the games – has defined what you do now and why you’re so good at what you do now. So can you tell us a little bit more about your first experience of qualifying for an Olympics, preparing for an Olympics?


You want me to tell you about the sob story? Well God, it didn’t work out that well. In that Olympic year, I’d made that transition from someone that was good to great. I’d gone on a training camp at the start of the Olympic year with Bill Sweetenham and I did what I’d call the death camp, so basically I’d never seen anything like it but physically it moved me to a new territory and then I started swimming times and doing training sets and I was like, this is on. So I moved from someone who was finaling at a European short course to winning a European short course. I moved from someone that was just about winning the trials, to winning the trials by two body lengths. I went into the Olympics 150 75, and I actually left the Olympics year still ranked as the fastest in the world. I’m over it, don’t worry. So the journey was it was going well, going really well, and I did the trials, swam the fastest time in the world at the trials with 16 weeks to the games, and then half way through that I felt a bit more fatigued, exhausted, bit more burnt out, and all of a sudden I started to run on fumes, I had nothing left, then I went to the Olympic games, should’ve easily made the finals, should’ve easily made the semi-final, didn’t even make the semi-finals. I came 23rd or something ridiculous like that. And then I’m there with a broken heart. 15 years of my life invested in that and it had all not come off. That moment I continued on with my swimming career, I had further successes like Commonwealth Games, European Championships, but that moment there was probably my biggest learning space to where I can now support athletes, because during that period I probably felt not that well supported, a lot of pressure was being pushed down on me, I was a first time Olympian, my coach was a first time Olympian, the performance director and head coach was incredibly intense, and so it just wasn’t really a recipe for a great experience. I have some responsibility in that, other people have some responsibility in that, but ultimately it didn’t come off. But what I learnt in that space about how to protect athletes, how to write programmes, how to periodise things with a longer vision in mind, it really helped establish some of my key philosophies now as a coach for sure.


And we’ll get to when you got into coaching a little bit more later, but when you finished your swimming career, you’d won multiple international medals, you had completed two Olympic games, and you’re going from being the best in the world to coaching at a swimming club – it’s a very different experience. How did you find that transition and going into the real world?


Well, it was a learning curve I must say, and what was really interesting was I remember signing autographs on the Saturday and I was having an argument with a gas boiler man on the Monday about what I wanted to do with the swimming programme. I was like, I’ve just been doing this for 25 years and no offence but you’re a gas boiler man and you think you know more, so there were all those sorts of dramas. The one thing that was great about that was the moment I walked on the poolside and there was actually a committee member at the time and he said you can’t have performance in these circumstances so you have to move athletes on and it was game on from that point, this guy had said oh you can’t have performance and I was like, yes we can, and then I just grew the programme, so I just tried to make I guess the culture that we established there was that you go to your Olympics whatever that is, whether that’s to get to 18 and go off to college and swim, whether that’s to go to the actual Olympics, but there’s no limits – that was the culture we created. I look at those kids that I coached now, I mean we were both so lucky but my God they were lucky, I was 26, I was full of energy, just come out of elite sport and I was just full of this love for the sport that I wanted to give them, and they had everything, we got mentors in – Rebecca Adlington, Joanne Jackson – we took them on charity events, we did everything you could imagine, but the whole experience was incredibly different from being so highly regarded in your sport and then a week later, fighting all these fires that come with being a head coach at effectively a small community club where no one gets paid except from you. And it was very lonely, it was particularly lonely because I had to fight off not only being a woman, but also that I wanted to make things better, and there’s growth and progress and change and that, but I was also an elite athlete and for some reason in the coaching community that was not well received and I really had to fight that relic off and say actually I have been doing this for 25 years and I’ve been conscious in that journey, worked with some great coaches, I’ve seen some amazing things, and I’ve got this wealth of knowledge I want to bring in.


So you’re talking there about when you went into that job at City of Derby, you had so much fire and so much passion for the sport. Someone who’s just left elite sport trying to be the very best in the world and then going into that role it’s really hard to find that, it’s quite rare I think for an elite athlete to suddenly get that spark again. Why did you manage to get that where most people don’t?


I think one of the things was because I was quite conscious in my reflection process with being an athlete, I’d come to terms with the fact it was going to end, but also I’m a winner. So when I knew the engine, the physicality my body had left was no longer going to allow me to win, I knew that it was time to go, and I always think well what was your biggest achievement in sport when you competed, it’s not the medals, it’s when I walked away I had no regrets, and I left at 26 and I remember we came 9th in Tokyo in the relay that probably should’ve won a medal because the coaching decision was to rest two athletes and we didn’t even make the final.




Beijing, yeah. And then I remember going into the swim final and I was like this is it, this is the last one, so I felt very at peace with my actual swimming career but I also felt very motivated for making the sport better and doing a better job for athletes so instantly that motivation, and I always wanted to be a PE teacher, and I’d did loads of stuff around lesson planning and coaching and writing the perfect coaching practice, I’d coached different sports even as a year 11, coaching 6th form boys football, you can imagine what that goes down like, “who?”, you know what I mean, so I really had this thirst to educate and teach and periodise and lessons and all that kind of stuff, and then as soon as I walked on that poolside, that guy said you can’t do it here, and I said bring it on mate, and it was meant to be I think really.


So from that moment of you can’t have performance here, what you’re probably best known for is coaching Adam Peatty, also a Jacuzzi ambassador, he won his first Olympic title at 21. For you, when did that journey to success start, because I’m sure that was way before he even realised it.


Way before. So I think with him, I think it was… when I first saw him do breaststroke – everyone knows this story I think, if they’ve heard me speak before – there was something different about him, that was the first thing. The second is his competitive edge. I remember seeing him at the Midlands Championships and he was just head to head with this one lad and he just looked at him and went another gear. So there was that, you saw that, and I thought, this kid’s good and we grew it to a place where I looked at what he was doing in terms of a training perspective, and then how fast he was swimming, and then he really had to grow, and then I think it was by the time we’d been on the journey from 16 to 18 it was like, this guy’s the one. I remember talking to Commonwealth champion Ross Davenport on the poolside and I said, this guy’s going to win an Olympic medal, and this was way in advance, this was when he was probably about 16, 17 and Ross gave me the look as though oh go on then, and then when he went 59 when he was 18 and we were in range of the Olympic games I presented at a conference and I basically said in the room, he can swim 57 and I was adamant of it, there’s no way he can’t, because I know what he’s doing and how quick he is and I know how much more we can do with him.


And that record was 58.5.


And I remember the year when he broke his first world record in 15 long course, well he broke it in 14 on the 15 but the 100, and I remember in that season the work he did was just off the chart, now I knew he was in 57 shape for the April and it just popped, it was phenomenal. There’s always been an element of I’ve always known, and I really know about the quality of where it could go to definitely when he was like 18.


So you touched on it earlier about the challenges of being in a local club, community club, and then trying to win an Olympics, not with millions of pounds funding and 50 experts around you. What were the biggest challenges, and how did you make that happen?


Well the biggest challenges were there’s always so much to protect performance and protect the group he was working in and keeping the quality of coaching at the level that’s required to win an Olympics. There was already so many things you’ve got to clear off the desk – really hard things to deal with like uncovering club debts where they hadn’t paid bills and uncovering things with kids that had been going through really challenging times with families, people had had suicides, all this kind of stuff, and all the other administrative organisation all falls onto you: the bus, the T-shirt, there’s a restructure, there’s squad movements, there’s 45,000 emails because the parents aren’t happy with the squad movements – all that stuff, you had to get all that done to get to work at this level, but I think what I did well there was I did it the other way round, so that’s the most important thing, I will get to the other end of the list, but by the time I’m down there with that, that’s not going to be as good, but this bit’s going to be really good, so I did it that way round, and so I always used to say, you’re always one step away from a nuclear disaster every single time you walk through the doors. Ah such and such had a fight in the changing rooms, someone’s bitten somebody, classic things like this, or one kid’s been coming swimming for three weeks, putting their head under the shower and going out but never turned up to training, so all those sort of things would be going on, because it’s a community club, you know what I mean, not everyone’s there for performance, or we’ve not got enough prizes for the tombola, all these things would be going on all the time, but you know what I had there that was amazing, I had a community of cultural architects who would just have my back, if I needed fundraising, if we needed to dig into things, I had a brilliant committee of humans, and that’s one of the reasons why I attribute the success because they came on the journey with me, they believed that anything is possible, and they were just my wing men and wing women all the way through.


So you won one Olympics from this small community club, but you talked earlier about how everyone has their own Olympics, and you want to make sure in that club it’s not just someone winning the real Olympics, everyone wins their own, and I’ve only ever heard you talk about that, and where did that “everyone has their own Olympics” come from?


I think that for me comes from a duty of care to… sport’s more than sport to me, it’s like a family. Whenever I was having a difficult time I was always going swimming so I was happy, it’s always been a constant in my life, and so I’ve always felt very protective over people who were involved under my care, or in my sport, so it’s more than just a job and I felt like everybody in my sport or everybody under my care in that programme deserved to see their best day, and that’s what we’re in it for, and the pursuit of excellence, so whether that is to go to the Olympics or to be the best version of yourself, there’s no better education than that, so I’m a coach at heart but I’m also a teacher at heart, so I think those two philosophies in that programme really aligned, but going back to your point, that’s what I’m in it for. That’s my reason why, is I want to see people flourish through the challenge of trying to be better.


So we’ve gone from there, a small swimming club, to your role now, which is very different – you have a very small group of super elite athletes who are trying to win an Olympics, make an Olympics, but perform at a really high level. Your athletes won six Olympic medals just last year.


Say that one more time.


Your athletes won six Olympic medals last year.


What a nice thing that is to hear.


Your job now is to push athletes physically and mentally to their limits, past their limits to achieve results that have never been done before. That is such a fine balance, of not pushing them too far but pushing them to an extent of being able to produce these results. How do you get that balance right?


You get it right because you create an environment and you create a motivation that gets them wanting to do it. It can never come from you going do this, do that, that’s what I learnt the hard way. I was told this is how you do it, but it’s about creating a set of beliefs and behaviours that come from inside, so I always say I coach from the inside-out, so I’ll work out what people’s motivations are, work out what their desires are, and align that to the goal but also set the expectations of what’s required – so “this will be really difficult, do you want to do it?”. Most people, the answer’s yes, and the more times you say yes that’s where you build confidence, so there’s no point in me saying do this – that just don’t fly. And again, that’s about me, but my coaching journey is about them. So I’m an ok breaststroke coach, but I’m an amazing Adam Peaty coach, I’m a good freestyle coach, but I’m an amazing Anna Hopkin coach. I will look at them as human beings: their physiology, their psychology, their technicality, and I’ll unpick the formula needed to make them the best versions of themselves.


And why are you so good at that?


I don’t know, I think that’s where some people are talented, and don’t get me wrong, I try and learn and grow and evolve all the time, but my natural thing is reading humans, whether that’s because of my childhood or the cool and different people I was around at school or all sorts of things that have gone on, I can read humans, and also I’m a believe partner, so I’ve always really struggled believing in myself, so now my job is to let people know they are believed in and they are capable and they are possible and there is no limits on things. If you want to try hard and you want to push yourself, those things are possible. You’ve got two legs and you’ve got both arms, take both opportunities.


So when you go to an Olympic games, you’ve done all those things you’ve talked about, you’re a people’s belief partner, people always talk about athlete’s mental health, dealing with the pressure, but as a coach as well, you almost feel that times how many athletes you’ve got millions of pounds of funding relying on you, you’ve got the athlete’s own livelihood relying on their performance, your own personal career and goals relying on that. When you walk into an arena like a world championships or an Olympics with all that essentially at risk, do you feel that pressure?


I wasn’t stressed out until you said about it. No, I think the answer’s no, because it goes back to what’s my role in that circumstance, but again, what we do is a privilege, we choose to take on those restraints and those challenges. I use my friend Dan – Dan lived in the village near me, a couple of streets down, and we grew up together, we went to primary school together, secondary school together, and he had a difficult disease called muscular dystrophy and the life expectancy was 12, and his parents were probably, them as a tripod, were probably the most inspirational people I’ve ever seen, because what they did was, they had a really hard set of cards, but they said we’re going to make the very best of this, the very very best, and he met Brian Adams, he met Rihanna, he went to every Tottenham game, his parents hanging out outside every bar anywhere getting signatures and all sorts, and he lived to 36, and so when it comes to an Olympic games, I remember Dan, I remember his mum and dad in the last year two years of his life, their days didn’t last 24 hours, they lasted 36, because it’d take them 12 to wake up, clear his lungs and get him sorted and I just remember Dan, because I’m like, what we do is we choose, what they do, and other people in similar positions, is they have to go through that struggle, real struggle with no choice, so I don’t get stressed about by the Olympics, I get excited, and if it doesn’t come off in terms of result, I feel proud that I will stand by that athlete and help them work their way forward, so I don’t get stressed, I get a lucky feeling, I like the tension, I like the whole thing that’s just like oh God here it goes, five years, I love all that, but for me it’s like, a surgery and a 12 hour surgery with a father of five, that’s stressful – me, working with athletes, it’s not stressful.


So you’ve got these athletes, you’ve taken them from either being young, swimming at a club for the first time, to Olympic golds, you’ve got some coming into you who are already established, and then you’ve taken them on to further success, you’ve seen a huge spectrum of athletes, when you see young athletes…


You’re going to ask me who my favourite is, aren’t you, that’s what you’re going to do?


You see young athletes now, what do you really look for? Because there’s always the anomaly of a 12, 13, 14 year old who’s absolutely amazing, miles ahead of everyone else, but what are you actually looking for?


Commitment. Education. Discipline. And ability to listen and learn and grow. I remember a tennis coach story once, this tennis coach gave like 150 kids a tennis racket and a ball and went up to his office and he watched which kids picked up the racket and which one’s bounced it themselves, and he said you need to do 20 bounces, and looked at which ones would just say in there, and those were the ones he picked, and so I think that’s what I’m looking for, independence, responsibility and a willingness to grow. I always said one of the things about Adam was he was an incredible listener, he was like a sponge – he would take it on, and he would apply it, and that’s what really… you know, I came straight out of elite sport, had this book of knowledge, and threw it straight in his face, shoved it straight in his… you know in terms of his intellect and his experiences, and he just soaked it up, every single bit of it, to the point where he thinks it’s his own, it’s fabulous.


So Britain is going from strength to strength, the athletes you work with are getting better every single year pretty much, how have you managed to not just sustain that success but build on it?


I think sustainable success is about humbleness to continue to grow, like go to bed one day, wake up a novice, it’s not done yet, but also accepting that it’s a golden period for me now but it won’t always be, there will be times, and when I first started this job, I found things very, very difficult at the start, so it’s that acceptance and also that humbleness, it’s not about what you want to achieve – I know we laughed earlier about how many medals, but it’s not about the medals, it’s about how I’m proud of the kids that did it, and so for me it’s a humbleness to get better, to keep getting better, and just continuing to progress, and the thing is when you have success, it’s a different set of dynamics, because you can just lean back and think that’s nice, that’s great, really enjoyed that, and you don’t have to, you can just ride on that for quite some time, but I don’t do it for that, I do it for there’s always a bit more, there’s always a bit better. I feel like I have a responsibility to athletes who are on the first time of their dream to make sure I do the very best job. Whenever they don’t perform, some people don’t feel it, I go back and think about it for hours just like that must be my fault, and sometimes it’s not, but I go home and take that accountability of being a coach and effectively helping people with their dreams.


Everything we’ve talked about so far and everything I know about you it’s always about the athletes, it’s what you keep saying, it’s always about them and helping them achieve their goals and their dreams. What do you personally want to achieve from your journey and the job you’re in now?


All I want is the phone call when they’re 35 and they call me and say you’ve done a good job. That would mean more to me than any… I love winning, don’t get me wrong, I love what comes with that and how you have to work really hard to get that, I love that creativity, the innovation, how do I create something that’s better than everyone else, but to me, it’s the phone call. I remember someone called Fran Baldwin and she wrote me this lovely card after she finished her career and it’s those moments and this is going to sound a bit corny but I see you do well, and how you progress, and how successful you’ve been and knowing that just a little bit of the ingredient that I’ve given you, just a little seed, you’re now growing your own trees and your own forests and all that kind of stuff, that gives me a huge amount of pride, and going for a beer with you now and being able to talk like we’ve been friends for 50 years because of the times we shared in that space, that’s the real bit of pride, and the one day when Adam doesn’t swim anymore, if he has a hard time, he’ll pop round here for a cup of tea, we’ll still go on to be friends beyond that point – that’s the special space for me. You know you’ve had an imprint on their life, not just their career, that’s the good one.

Everyone always says, especially people involved in sport, it’s all about the journey, not just the stuff you win and stuff like that but for people like yourself who has achieved so much personally and then from a coaching perspective, you’re not saying that from a place of it’s all about the journey, you’ve experienced this personally, just for yourself and for your athletes, and you still think it’s about the journey. When you’re on a journey, you can enjoy the journey, but it’s like, where do you want to set your journey? We can set your journey to there and enjoy the journey or where do you want to set your journey? You want to go up there? Cool. It’s being present in the moment, it’s enjoying the people that you’re with, and knowing that moment too shall pass. I remember watching Tom Hanks and Robert DeNiro and Shia LeBouef or whatever he’s called, and they were all saying that dark day in your life, that too shall pass, that high in your life, that too shall pass, so it’s all about that acceptance of in sport – there’ll be good times, and that too shall pass, and just being present in the moment, even if it it’s a bad day. Why is it such a bad day? Ok, well because, I’ve got to do technology and admin and whatever that might be, or the printer’s broken, but just being present in that is really, really important, and one of the things I’m so proud of in life, genuinely happy, is I don’t wake up, I mean, certain things could be better, but I wake up and I’m genuinely really happy. I look at that dog in the morning, and I’m like: happy. I walk down to the village with one of those zips on: happy. So just the little things as well as the big things.


I’ve got one final question for you. So someone you’ve never met, you have no idea about them, their age, what they’ve ever done, what would be one piece of advice, one thing you would say to them?


7.8 billion people on the planet. Only one you. Master yourself, grow yourself, own yourself, evolve yourself and enjoy yourself.


Amazing. It’s been awesome, thank you so much for that.


I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Jacuzzi podcast. If you want to see more and hear from all our different guests, head over to the Jacuzzi YouTube channel.