- By Eimear Flanagan
- BBC News IS
Athletes' livelihoods are „at risk” because of ongoing problems at Northern Ireland's only Olympic-standard pool, a leading swimming coach has said.
Faults in mechanical pool floors have plagued Aurora in Bangor, County Down, for three and a half years.
Diving is not allowed since July 2020 when the floor of the 25m diving pool is damaged.
Temporary repairs to the 50m swimming pool were completed at the end of October, but it broke again in December.
Aurora's owner, Arts and Northtown Borough Council, said contractors would arrive on Tuesday to „investigate the latest failure”.
„Once this study is completed, an estimated date for the 50m swim will be determined,” it told BBC News NI.
But Swimming Ireland's head coach in Ulster, Kevin Anderson, said the facility „cannot be relied upon” to train swimmers for the 2024 Olympic Games in August.
„We don't have time to wait – our Olympic trials are in May.”
He and others are calling for temporary changes to the configuration of Aurora's two largest pools to give athletes a better chance to train.
What's the problem?
The main pool floor is designed to rise up and down, so it can spill into three sections of different lengths and depths for different activities.
The biggest issue is that swimmers can't practice 50m lengths because a movable platform is stuck in the shape of 25m of the pool.
„Now, not only can you not train in a 50m course pool, you can't use the starting blocks to dive,” Mr Anderson said.
The coach argued that Northern Ireland's lack of Olympic-standard facilities meant competitors were „treated as second-class citizens”.
„You're trying to get qualifying times to make national teams,” he explained.
“We are talking about €20,000 (£17,000) a year in sports funding, which enables them to live, train and represent Ireland and Northern Ireland internationally.
„So you're putting these people at a great risk.”
Mr Anderson has already booked pre-Olympic training trips to Spain and South Africa.
„I'm going to spend tens of thousands of pounds and take my athletes off the island so they're exposed to reliable long-term training,” he said.
How are athletes affected?
Paralympian Barry McClements trains four hours a day, six days a week in Aurora in hopes of qualifying for the Paris Games.
“I train from 06:30 to 08:30, then again from 16:30 to 18:30, and then sometimes I train in the gym in between,” he says.
„Unfortunately Bangor, it's a good facility, but we haven't trained 50m with the size of the gaps.”
The swimmer competes in the S9 category with a leg amputated above the knee.
He finished fifth at the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships and his coach hopes he can get on the Paralympic podium this year.
But due to ground errors, Mr McClements only swam 50m for three weeks this season before the latest breakdown.
„Long course training is great, you can feel that you're working hard,” he said.
„You're more confident going into the race because you know you've trained for this long pool like everyone else.
„When it breaks, it's frustrating and frustrating because you lose that training and mental strength.”
The swimmer, his coach and others argue that the floor of Aurora's main pool should be left at a fixed depth so that athletes can swim 50m.
The council is responsible for providing the public pool, but Mr McClements Aurora has a separate 25-metre pool which can be used for leisure and swimming lessons.
Diving academy 'destroyed'
The second pool is designed to flexibly convert from a 4m deep diving tank to a 2m deep swimming pool.
However, its land structure became stuck in a shallow state in 2020 and the water is no longer deep enough to allow diving.
„Our diving program was completely destroyed,” said former Diving Academy Northern Ireland coach Alan Cogan.
„We've lost a lot of talent in other sports.”
Before the diving pool fell into disrepair, his organization trained around 150 people, including a group of promising athletes who competed in competitions across England and Ireland.
Three divers were assigned to the „Commonwealth Path” with hopes of qualifying for the prestigious Games.
„Our last match was in Aberdeen in 2019,” Mr Cogan said.
He explained that the day after his team's first Covid diving session in July 2020, the diving pool floor broke and was not functional.
„It's very frustrating,” Mr Kogan added.
„Nobody did it on purpose, but the whole process of fixing it is way, way too slow.”
He argues that the „wrong site” was chosen when Aurora was built and it could take years to replace it.
What did the council say?
In addition to its long-term plans to replace the site, the council confirmed it was „in legal disputes with a number of companies over the site structure”.
It said it was considering recommendations for fixed pool depths as an interim measure, but warned that it would „provided only a depth of water suitable for confident swimmers and would have a detrimental effect on community use”.
„This will result in a loss of access and service to the public, a significant impact on the swimming curriculum (currently serving over 2,600 children) and lead to financial implications which will be passed on to the council and ultimately ratepayers.”
It added: „All parties are committed to continuing to work in partnership to find a long-term solution.”
„Całkowity introwertyk. Nieprzejednany specjalista od sieci. Przyjazny fanatyk bekonu. Student ekstremalnych. Miłośnik piwa. Organizator.”