AFTER 40 years of service, Tony Stratford has coached his last session at Swindon Dolphin, writes LAURA LAMBERT.

The 72-year-old has devoted his time and energy to Dolphin since his eldest son learnt to swim at the club, but he has decided that now is the right time to conclude his coaching responsibilities.

The club was experiencing a shortage of poolside teachers when Stratford first brought his son and he was thrown in the deep end when he was asked to be an assistant teacher. Having had no previous coaching experience, he was shown the ropes by a qualified instructor and explained how his involvement snowballed from there.

“I enjoyed what I was doing so much that the club put me forward for teaching exams,” he said. “I did my first level of coaching 35 to 40 years ago, and from there I became an advanced level coach and a qualified official.”

“I was made chief coach while both my children were swimming at the club and did that for 13 years.

“I had a full-time job at the time and my company was very supportive, as it does take up an awful lot of time.”

Despite the role of chief coach now being a paid role, throughout his long time at the club Stratford has done everything voluntarily. When he realised that he could no longer fulfil all the demands of his previous position Stratford became a support coach and he has continued in that capacity until now.

Recently, Stratford has been in charge of the 11 to 13 year-olds who are hoping to swim at regional level.

“It’s hard to stop what I enjoy doing most, but it is getting harder,” he said, with a sadness he cannot hide.

“I have been coaching the regional group, all of whom are hoping to swim for the south west in the next year.

“However, I didn’t want to keep going if I couldn’t give it my all, and my knees, legs and chest were starting to suffer. I’ll continue in an administrative role, so I’m not leaving for good.

“I have to say thank you very much to all the kids that I’ve coached, from Learn to Swim to those doing national age group. They’ve been great.

“It’s been my hobby to teach and coach the kids and it’s a lovely club to be a part of.”

Stratford’s wife, Pat, has also been involved with Dolphin, and is extremely popular with the children for the sweet stall she holds at training. Stratford reveals that both he and the club owe a lot to her for allowing him to give so much time to Dolphin.

“Without Pat being as involved as she is, I wouldn’t have been able to do as much,” he said.

“It’s very much a team effort.”

Current chief coach, Louise Clayton, said a hole will be left when Stratford is no longer coaching, but she stressed that his expertise has rubbed off on all the other coaches.

“Obviously it will be a big loss to lose someone with 40 years of experience,” she said.

“However, Tony has imparted a lot of knowledge on our swimmers and coaches, which will allow us to develop in the future.

“He will still have an active role in the club and a keen interest in the swimmers coming through, and is a great ambassador for the club.”

It is clear that if his body would allow it Stratford would carry on for many more years, such is his love for coaching and the club itself.

Without dedicated volunteers many sports clubs would struggle to keep going and it seems that in this passionate local Swindon Dolphin found a true gem, and they were lucky to have him poolside for so long.