Ken Wood, Master Swim Coach who forged the careers of some of Australia’s greatest Olympic, Commonwealth Games and World Champions has died in Brisbane, after a short illness. He was 88.
The swimming and coaching fraternity is in mourning, remembering not only a great coach, with an eye for a champion but also “the funny man” who will be remembered for putting a smile on the faces of all who knew him.
The coaching raconteur and poolside comic who had that rare knack of producing countless champions and nurturing them all to greatness – names like Geoff Huegill, Leisel Jones and Jessicah Schipper to name but a few of the hundreds of swimmers who came through the Ken Wood swim schools – spanning over almost five decades and so many out of Redcliffe Leagues-Lawnton.
There was a continual production line of Ken Wood coached swimmers who made Australian teams for almost 50 years – all products of the Melbourne-born Wood who became known to fellow coaches as “Dr Woo” and who had quite a remarkable sporting career before swimming became his life.
The former used car salesman and Sydney cab driver, who actually played in the VFL for Footscray, was a first grade cricketer for North Sydney and Cairns, who was also a patrol captain and champion surf boat rower and lifesaver with Warriewood SLSC on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
When he arrived at the MCG to watch the 2000 AFL Grand Final as a member of the Sydney Olympic team he turned to those in earshot and said, proudly…”I played here…several times for the old Footscray.”
He turned his hand to swim coaching in Gordonvale, North Queensland in 1967 and became successful almost immediately, particularly with female freestyle sprinters.
During a celebrated career Wood served on seven Olympic campaigns from 1988 in Seoul, 1992 in Barcelona, 1996 in Atlanta, 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing and finally 2012 in London.
He also coached swimmers on Commonwealth Games teams from 1974 in Christchurch, 1982 in Brisbane, 1986 in Edinburgh, 1990 in Auckland, 1994 in Victoria, 1998 in Kuala Lumpur, 2002 in Manchester and 2006 in Melbourne.
As well as countless World Championship and Pan Pac Teams – became a life member of Swimming Queensland, the Australian Swimmers, Coaches and Teachers Association (ASCTA) Queensland and ASCTA.
Among the first success stories were 1976 Montreal Olympian Lesleigh Harvey and 1984 Los Angeles bronze medallist Michelle Pearson and Fiona Moore, who swam the 1979 World Cup and Coca Cola Meet in London.
He also put Julie Pugh and Jackie Grant on the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Team.
Wood was also an assistant coach on the AIS Swim Team between 1982 and 1984 before being appointed as head coach of the St Bernadette’s Swim Team in Brisbane.
While at the AIS Ken made several overseas tours with teams and was on the coaching staff if the Australian Team for the 1979 FINA World Cup and the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
He was also head coach of the AIS Development Tours of USA and China in 1980 and 1981 and 1985 Commonwealth Games development tour of Holland and France.
Australian Swimming And Coaches Association president Tony Shaw has paid tribute to Wood saying “he was a giant among Australia’s coaching fraternity and an amazing personality…who kept coaching right till the end.
“Coaching was his life and he was one of our greatest –“a career that spanned almost 50 years – including a whopping seven Olympic campaigns with some of our greatest ever under his wing – names like Geoff Huegill, Leisel Jones, Rebecca Creedy, Tarnee White, Kylie Palmer, Mel Gorman, Trudee Hutchinson, to name just a few,” said Shaw.
“He was a Master Coach – alongside such names as Forbes and Ursula Carlile MBE, Harry Gallagher OAM, Terry Buck, Terry Gathercole AM, Joe King, Laurie Lawrence, Bill Sweetenham, John Carew and Don Talbot.
“He was an original Coaches Association board member who was very active in our coaching ranks – a man who certainly left his mark on swim coaching in Australia.
“I remember he sidled up to me at the height of Huegill’s career and said ‘have a look at this kid…he’ll push 50m butterfly in this many strokes and he nominated the time and he was spot on every time.”
Olympic legend Dawn Fraser and ASCTA Life Member Lynn Elliott were among the last people to visit the ailing Wood just three weeks ago during the ASCTA Conference.
“He was just happy to see us and we tried to put a smile on his face, just as he had done to so many of us over his career,” said Fraser.
“Ken was a legendary coach, and he will be a huge loss to the coaching community, it was nice to say our goodbyes and remember the good times.”
Elliott said he was the kind of character who lit up the pool deck every time he arrived at the pool.
“He was the first one to whisper a joke in your ear every morning who always made you laugh and that’s what we want to remember him by,” said Elliott.
“Ken was an amazing coach and a funny man to boot who did such an incredible job for so long…a great character who we will never forget.
“We all have so many memories of ‘the funny man’ who had a story for everyone.
“I remember he came home from the 1995 Pan Pacs in Atlanta with printed t-shirts for his entire squad with artwork and a caption which said: “If you can’t run with the big dogs then stay under the porch.
“His swimmers proudly paraded them at the Australian Championships – it was all about hard work but fun for the team and winning that point-score for Ken’s group.
“I’m sure there will be the who’s who of coaches who will come and pay their respects to Ken.”
Huegill has often said he owes his life to Wood, who took him in at age 12 and raised him when his father died of a heart attack.
“Ken was like a second father to me,” said Huegill, “I owe him so much. He made me who I am today.”
Wood would often describe Huegill’s butterfly as being “the perfect stroke” and it was the Olympic team of 2000 that saw Huegill, Jones and Tarnee White mixing it with the best in the world.
Huegill was one of his real success stories, winning Olympic silver and bronze in Sydney and a swag of World Championship, Pan Pacific and Commonwealth Games medals.
Huegill and Jones would go on to forge amazing careers – Jones was just 14 when she made the first of four Olympic teams – to become one of the legends of Australian swimming – winning a total of 42 international championship medals –21 of them gold.
And it all began with an equally legendary coach known fondly as Ken, a man who will always be remembered for not only his production line of champions but for his ability to make you laugh and smile.