Top 10 Forbes Carlile achievements

By Rebecca Cotton 8 August 2016
Reading Time: 6 Minutes Print this page
How did the Aussie swimming coach and all-around sports legend Forbes Carlile get his athletes across line faster than anyone else and help break 31 world records? This is how.

AUSTRALIAN SPORT OWES more than it knows to Forbes Carlile – the athlete, coach and sports scientist once described as “an army of his own”. Forbes mentored athletes to 12 Olympic medals and 31 individual world records. He was also the first (and remains the only) person to coach and later compete in the Olympic Games. A pioneer in the development of interval workouts, pace clocks and log books, training under stress, heart-rate tests and T wave studies of the heart’s ventricles, his legacy is complicated, layered and fascinating. Internationally he was a giant of his time and Forbes was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida in 1977. Take a look at what shaped the man that helped build swimming into one of Australia’s most successful sports.

1. Golden coach

Forbes Carlile began his coaching career with the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. (Photo credit: AAP Image/Carlile Swimming)

Perhaps his most celebrated achievement, Forbes Carlile’s role as an Olympic swimming coach is nothing short of legendary. Beginning his coaching career at the Palm Beach rock pool on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Carlile was appointed as Australia’s first post-World War II swimming coach for the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. He went on to be head Australian coach at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Scientific Advisor in the 1960 Games in Rome and head coach of the Dutch Olympic team in 1964. Carlile is credited with coaching 52 Australian swimmers to an elite national level, with a total of 12 Olympic gold medals. A notable protégée is Shane Gould who, at the age of 14 and 15, broke world records in all five women’s freestyle distances recognised at the time and went on to gain five individual Olympic medals.

2. Olympic athlete

Seemingly unsatisfied with staying on the sidelines, in 1952 Carlile became the first (and remains the only) person to coach and later compete in the Olympic Games. His event of choice was no mean feat, either. As Australia’s first competitor in the modern pentathlon, Carlile faced a combination of fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping and a 3200m cross-country run interspersed with pistol shooting. Heralded as “an army of his own” in the Queensland Times, Carlile promoted his belief that natural physique is not all-important to become a champion athlete; “Scientific training and a will to succeed… can lift the average athlete from mediocrity to top rank”.

3. Lecturer in human physiology

In addition to his athletic prowess, Carlile taught and lectured in human physiology at the University of Sydney. (Photo credit: Carlile Swimming)

Carlile’s teaching prowess was not restricted to the swimming pool. After graduating from the University of Sydney with a Masters of Science, he later lectured there in human physiology. In keeping with his hands-on approach to learning, Carlile was known for making a ‘guinea pig’ of himself. Two years before his debut as an Olympic athlete he took part in a marathon in order to study the physical reactions of athletes to long-distance running. The Adelaide Advertiser described Carlile’s research effort as “bent on extending the store of human knowledge in respect to human exertion”.

4. Assistant to Frank Cotton

At university, Carlile worked with Professor Frank Cotton on an early anti-G flying suit. Here, Cotton is testing out the suit in a centrifuge designed to mimic the high speeds and sharp turns of war planes. (Photo credit: Unknown, courtesy of The Australian War Memorial.)

In his own days as a university student, Carlile learned from Professor Frank Cotton who, in 1940, invented the “Cotton aerodynamic anti-G flying suit”. This early G-suit prevented pilots from blacking out when making high-speed turns or pulling out of a dive, and was used extensively by the Allied forces during World War II. Professor Cotton was also responsible for the ergometer – a machine to test athletic potential – and is widely considered to be the ‘father of sports science’ in Australia. After graduating from the University of Sydney, Carlile made the transition from student to assistant and formed a solid foundation in research and visionary thinking under Professor Cotton’s mentorship.

5. A new way to train

Modern swimming training methods owe much to the work of Forbes Carlile, though many of his techniques shook traditionalists in his day. Together with his wife Ursula, a fellow Olympic swimming coach, Carlile conducted a number of experiments with warm-ups, tapering and the shaving down of swimmers. He was a pioneer in the development of interval workouts, pace clocks and log books, training under stress, heart-rate tests and T wave studies of the heart’s ventricles.

6. Easy does it

Carlile smiles with Olympic champion Shane Gould (left) and wife Ursula Carlile. Gould, who trained with Carlile, is consdiered one of Australia’s finest Olympian swimmers, winning three gold and a silver and bronze medal in 1972. (Photo credit: Carlile Swimming)

Carlile was responsible for taking seconds off race times with the implementation of even-paced swimming. He encouraged swimmers to maintain an even pace throughout an entire race, rather than exerting maximum effort in the beginning stages. He found that swimmers usually compensate for the speed they give up early on in the race by increased or maintained speed in the later stages, resulting in a faster overall time. This slower initial pace delays the onset of lactic acid, which, once set in, has the effect of slowing the athlete down.

7. Kicking on

Traditionally, swimmers complete six kicks for every two arm strokes, or, six strokes per cycle. Most people find they naturally swim using this ‘flutter’ style, or something close to it. Carlile encouraged the use of 2-beat kicking for long-distance events. Significantly slowing down the kick meant that athletes could conserve energy and therefore maintain a greater speed for longer distances.

8. Sports psychology

Carlile trains with Dutch swimmers. (Photo credit: Carlile Swimming)

Carlile was not purely interested in the physical aspects of elite athletic performance. He was a strong advocate for the importance of a healthy mentality behind training. In a 1955 article appearing in the Perth Sunday Times, Carlile claimed that an athlete’s skill, physique and training are best applied when used together with the mind. He believed that an athlete must feel happy in order to optimise performance: “An unhappy athlete is like a swimmer with leaden boots on or a footballer with an arm in a sling.”

9. Carlile the author

In 1963 Forbes Carlile added ‘author’ to his long list of accomplishments. His book, Forbes Carlile on Swimming, was the first to study tapering for athletes and the historical development of the crawl, or freestyle, stroke. Carlile followed his first title with A History of Crawl Stroke Techniques to the 1960s: An Australian Perspective and A History of Australian Swimming Training.

10. Carlile Swimming

Carlile has been teaching kids to swim since 1955, when he and wife Ursula opened Carlile Swimming. Here, he looks on from the side of the pool at Drummoyne. (Photo credit: Carlile Swimming)

It’s not only elite athletes who have Forbes Carlile to thank for their ability to swim the length of a pool. In 1955 he and Ursula established the first commercial swimming school which catered for all levels, and also began a university program that allowed athletes to study the swim program. Today, Carlile Swimming employs over 600 staff across 11 swim centres based in NSW and Victoria.