Les France Head Coach

After 42 rewarding years in Wigan as a professional swimming coach it is with great sadness and heavy heart, I have made the decision to take the opportunity that has arisen to retire as Head Coach of Wigan Council Wigan BEST Swim Squad and Club effective from the 12th April 2023.

On making my decision I have been asked to put together a short bio documenting my years with Wigan Borough I can only apologise for what follows as I attempt to condense 53 years in a “Short Bio” Within the following paragraphs I have left out many untold stories as I attempt to outline my long journey in the sport in Wigan. 

I can honestly say that I have been very fortunate to have been able to forge a career within a sport that I am truly passionate about. A passion that commenced from my very first memories visiting the old Wigan 25-yard pool, my mum putting arms bands on my younger brother and whilst her back was turned I jumped in thinking I could swim. I clearly remember looking up at my mum, her face full of horror wondering what on earth to do as I came to the surface scrambling to the side. Hence, from that point on every Friday evening we visited a pool with family friends who taught me to swim at the age of 8 years (very late I know). It was 1970 our local pool in Hindley had just opened, I was in the small pool my mate had gone into the large pool and I was told you were not allowed arm bands in the big pool so I said “ok” took them off and ran and jumped in the big pool. That was it, I swam 200m where one of the swimming teachers Gordon Leather, had observed me and consequently approached mum and dad and asked me to join Hindley ASC. That was me on my way 53 years of involvement with Wigan.

1972 and having recently won the B&D age groups and qualified for the Regional Championships Gordon visited us at home and said that a guy called Haydn Rigby was starting a squad doing just early mornings at the International Pool at Wigan where he was the Pool Manager prior to the Metropolitan Borough days. He asked Haydn if he could use a lane for myself as we prepared for the Northern Counties at Derby Baths Blackpool. I subsequently went on to win the 100m Breaststroke in record time at the age of 10 years.

From this point on I trained with Haydn and was a member of the newly formed Wigan WASPS (Wigan Amateur Swimming Proficiency Squad), training with a small but already elite group of swimmers doing early morning sessions only. As evenings were not available, I took an option of an invite to train at one of the 2 squads in Manchester, the Mancunian squad! This was coached by one the top coaches of the time Lilly Pantling. As I could not make all the evening sessions, I was advised to join Tyldesley S&WP club as many of the Mancunians trained there.

1973 I became the WASPS first junior international, swimming for England against Netherlands and West Germany in tri-match in Cheltenham where I went from 3:01 200m Breaststroke to 2:45. The following year, the return match in Hengelo Holland I finished in 2:39 winning the event taking one of only 3 English golds that weekend. One of the other golds was taken by a certain Sharron Davies. The same year saw Haydn take on the role within Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council of Assistant Director of Leisure at which point he stepped back his coaching (his first retirement I suppose) at this point Wigan took the bold decision to be only the 2nd Borough in country to appoint a full-time swim coach.

I went on to progress with the usual ups and downs winning several National titles. Through my junior and intermediate years, I was very fortunate to be training with some of the very best swimmers of the times forging lifelong friendships.

In 1978 while competing in Luxemburg I swam the heats of the 200m breaststroke being congratulated on making the final, however, I was told by the coaches that no official time was available yet due to a fault on the timing system. I was told to swim down and head back to the hotel for lunch while sat there June Croft and Ann Osgerby (future Olympic stars and team-mates from Wigan) came over and congratulated me on breaking the British Junior Record which I was totally oblivious to. When the coaches came in, they said yes, they had seen the time and they were not sure if it would be ratified due to timing error. My comment “oh well will have to do it in the final”. The final came I won, the time on the board was flashing a new British record. I looked around to see the backstroke flags had fallen into the pool and stopped the back swimmers. Null and void the race had to be re-swum, unfortunately the re-swim 10min later I finished 2nd just outside the time. Appeals were lodged when I returned home and while we awaited a decision my 16th birthday was coming up and the Northern Counties arranged a time trial at Hindley Pool during a club session. As part of the conditions the swimmer had to race alone full competition set up with full officials at the appropriate level and advertised for at least 2 weeks prior to the event taking place. This turned into one of the proudest moments and one I shall never forget and what makes this Borough so special to me!

I turned up, warmed up, went to change and prepare to race, went in the office on poolside at the deep end to focus, then was invited on poolside. To my astonishment Hindley Pool had become electric, with spectators everywhere, balcony, small pool, all down each side 3 or 4 deep, it was amazing.  As I walked down to the shallow end where the start end used to be, I stood on the block feeling there was no way was I going to fail. All through the 200m I just remember a buzzing in my ears, something I had never experienced before. Every time my head broke the surface I could hear the crowd, every stroke down the last 25m I felt like I was flying and lunged to the wall for the finish. I lifted my head stood and just looked around nothing has come close to that feeling then or ever since knowing that everyone, of those spectators had come to support a Wigan Lad. This really made me understand what makes Wigan special when it comes to sport. After what seemed an age Austin Rawlinson who was the then Hon Secretary of the Northern Counties and President of the ASA asked for silence you could hear a pin drop then I just remember him saying “It is with great pleasure I can confirm Les has just created a New British Record in a time ………. “ I never heard the rest Hindley Pool just erupted.

It was a number of weeks later my dad received a call from Austin stating that following an investigation which included him calling in at the pool in Luxemburg on his way back from a FINA meeting he and the swimming committee were happy with the timing system and as such my record in the heats would stand along with the time I achieved in Hindley. To all those who were at Hindley Pool that evening in 1978 a very big thank you.

Although I continued to compete after that event in Hindley and was fortunate enough to win National Titles and compete and medal in the European Junior Championships, and travel the world in the sport, I think my Olympics was definitely that one night in Hindley Pool.

Towards the end of the 70’s political tensions between clubs and squad were at their highest with the clubs feeling their identities and purpose was being diminished at this time I was still training but also helping out by teaching swimming and coaching at Hindley Club little was I to know but one of my swimmers in the small pool at that time was to be one of my first successes as a coach.

In 1980 I felt strongly that the clubs should be supported and had an important role. I worked alongside all the community swim clubs setting up a 2nd squad in the Wigan area one that would use the club’s skills as part of the development path.

1981 saw the formation of the Wigan Metropolitan Swimming Clubs Squad. Following interviews I was appointed Head Coach in a full-time capacity at the age of 18, the countries youngest full-time head coach (bearing in mind there were only a handful of professional squads at that time and Wigan had 2).

Over the coming years the squad went from strength to strength proving that the clubs had a major role in the early stages of development and that Wigan Borough was special and unique in the way it operated. We had some amazing young talent who were hard working and a pleasure to coach many of whom have kept in touch and still have an involvement one way or another to this day. The Metro Squad as it became known achieving success at all levels utilizing pool time where it could. We established a strong team of volunteers who worked tirelessly for the swimmers.

1989 following continued political tensions the 2 squads were forced to amalgamate with the 2 head coaches being jointly given the rights to operate the licence on behalf of the council. Under this system Wigan continued to be a force with swimmers still succeeding at every level.

2004 following changes the WASPS name was agreed to be dropped. Wigan BEST was formed as the club that would take on the role of supporting the elite swimmers at County level and above, while the community clubs would work at the developing stage, working and competing at an Association Level with the Authority Lesson Programme feeding the clubs. This gave us a strong development pathway which was the perfect model for today’s Leisure services, a model that encourages solid partnerships that allows swimmers of every level to develop to the highest level that their talents will allow.

Towards the end of 2007 it was realised that the 50m pool would close. It proved a very difficult time for competitive swimming within the Borough and for me personally. It was the closest I came to leaving the Borough; however, I was persuaded to continue to operate the licence by the TRUST at the time with the promise that the new facilities would offer opportunities for the sport, unfortunately, the new pool would not be online for 3 years and during this time with a significantly reduced pool-time which in turn meant a reduced membership. There was a massive personal financial impact on myself to keep a squad operating within the Borough.

2012 Wigan Life Centre opened and the squad licence was taken over by the TRUST (Wlct). I was appointed Head Coach and a new era began and after 31 years one of my career ambitions finally achieved seeing the squad back in the Leisure Services.

From this point on it has been a total rebuild, establishing a coaching and management team that has the swimmers at the forefront of everything. In 2012 we saw the first “Future Stars Open Meet” which took the club to a new level. Our swimmers are constantly achieving greater hights and moving the club back up the National rankings.

2022 the Leisure Service came back to where they truly belong within Wigan Council, a Council team which I BELIEVE to be totally supportive, forward thinking and unique which will work for the success of the sport. Giving our swimmers more opportunities than ever before as more and more partnerships are forged within “BEWELL”

At this point can I apologise to all my swimmers over the years for not mentioning you through this bio I have been asked to write. There are simply far too many of you to single anyone of you out, for many a year each generation has argued that they are my favourites. The answer to that is simple for me as each and every one of you have all been my favourite each generation leaving me with very special memories that I shall for ever cherish. You have all been a total pleasure to know, and to coach you have made me laugh, cry and go bald. I have lost count on the number of you who have referred to me as your reserve dad which I have always took as the ultimate compliment.

Just recently one of our ex-swimmers came to visit me and gave me her thoughts. She stated that she had trained at other squads prior to joining us and found Wigan to be unique in the fact that it was a friendly supportive squad each swimmer was made to feel welcome and each swimmer supported one another this was encouraged and came from the staff it must be the only squad that can make 10 x 400 IM enjoyable!!!

I feel I leave a squad and swimming programme that is thriving in the hands of people and coaches who have the same philosophy as myself and who understand the talent within the Borough and will work tirelessly for the swimmers to this team, I would like to extend my best wishes and good luck for the future. To all our parents throughout the years a big thank you for your kind support and trust in coaching your children.

All the swimmers within the programme I would like to wish every success for the future and my sincere apologies for not being able to give you the support you deserve these final years of my involvement. You are the BEST and THANK YOU FOR MAKING MY COACHING CAREER SO SUCCESFUL AND ENJOYABLE.

Les France

Head Coach

Wigan BEST Swim Squad.

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