For decades, Barb Nicholls' passion has been in the pool; from teaching kids to swim to media roles at major world events. It is central to her whole identity
It was her eldest boy’s almost fatal fascination one day with water when a toddler that was Barb Nicholls’ seminal moment.
She had always loved swimming. As a young girl living in an orphanage at Bourke, she reveled in the freedom and equality of the sport.
Going to the public pool was the only time she and her mates were excused from being escorted by a couple of nuns, dressed in those days of the early 1970s in the “full penguin” clobber.
It was hanging around at the pool or the town’s cafes, because there wasn’t much else to do.
Sitting in the sunshine and watching the other kids compete was a buzz, but even more so was having a crack herself.
At a school carnival, in the earliest photo she can find, she is pictured holding a ribbon. She was eight or nine.
“I could never be a professional swimmer then because you had to pay coaches and all that. I used to try to pretend I was a big swimmer. I just used to watch them. It was ‘I think I can do that one day’ and ‘I think I can do that one day’.
“I never had that training to do it correctly.”
But she did have the pleasure the water afforded her of not standing out.
“I could be the same as everyone else, I wasn’t separated by not having a family. ‘I can be just as good as you in the pool.’”
It was when she was a young mum in her mid-20s though that she was struck, that she truly embarked on what now for well over 30 years has been her life.
A life where she and husband Brian’s only holidays were to swim carnivals, her only day off for the year at Christmas.
When the couple moved into their North Albury home 35 years ago, next door got a pool. At the time she was pregnant with their daughter Jodie.
Barb excused herself to go to the loo. She was soon out again and wondered ‘where’s Jase’?’, because the boy was only two.
Brian saw Jason just a minute before. They found him at the bottom of that pool.
“And so I dragged him out and we both gave resuscitation to him,” she says.
“I’d made the promise to the good Lord that if he survived I’d promise to promote swimming for the next 20 years.”
She knew nothing about what promotion actually meant, an almost alien fact today after so long in her true calling. (Barb still works full-time in the public service).
She is so universally respected that Swimming Australia media boss Ian Hanson once said he wished “we had 1000 Barb Nicholls around the country”.
“It would make our lives that much easier to have someone like Barb who has so much passion for her sport and passion for the athletes involved.”
It was still a decade away though before the eventual mum-of-four began her work promoting the Ovens and Murray District Swimming Association, so for now it was getting the kids to swimming lessons.
As big a shock Jason’s near-drowning was, something else later fired Barb’s passion that things needed to be done far better.
She got very disheartened one January when Jason, who was “petrified of water”, was signed-up for 10 days of lessons. He sat by the side of the pool the whole time, though it wasn’t this that upset his mum.
She held the firm view it would serve no purpose to push him, to tell him to get in the water.
“He’d get in in his own time.”
On the final day of the program he got a certificate from his teacher.
“I went and ripped it up in front of her. I said ‘I’ve sat here, you never encouraged him and he’s got a certificate for water awareness’.
“That’s when I thought right, something’s got to change.”
She got it all started with the North Albury Swim Club, which over the winter months used an old indoor pool. Barb and some other mums realised there were “a lot of kids” who needed help with water awareness.
While the older ones were doing lessons, she and the other mums, all volunteers, got the small kids going.
Something that has stuck with her since very early was a simple mantra: every child is an individual.
“You can’t say ‘OK, we’ve got a class and you’re all going to do this’,” she says.
“Last year we had a kid that was petrified. For the first two lessons he just sat on my back like a koala and we bounced around. But then he got swimming.”
Barb especially hates it when a child’s head is pushed under water. She gets irate, she says, because it’s wrong.
The lad who overcome his fear did it when he felt comfortable, volunteering an “I’ll do it Barb” when she dropped a swim toy into the water to be fetched.
“You’ve got to let the child do that because otherwise that kid’s gone forever. They’re not going to do it (when told to) because it’s a fear.”
Teaching kids to swim is what she seems to have always done, but being around the club meant it wasn’t long before she moved into a promotions role.
She’d go to businesses and rather than ask for money would pull out her motto: “Have you got a voucher?”
The thinking she passed on was that once the person with the voucher came through the door they would always buy something else.
And then there were the casserole nights, the gala nights. The pool was always packed, raising a stack of money along the way.
One fundraiser that meant a lot to Barb, aside from helping the Learn to Swim programs, was money put aside to help a kid with potential from a cash-strapped family
Someone who might have made a state or national time would be picked out of the training team and get help with costs, plus get some new swimmers.
About $150 a week for the program was thanks to Barb going to the Garrison Hotel on a Saturday morning, in her swimming gear, to sell tickets for meat raffles.
The kid might get a swimming cap too, or a jacket, Given that it could cost hundreds of dollars to get to the national titles, it just meant they were able to go.
It didn’t take any extra motivation to work so hard with helping out.
“Because I was that kid that wanted to go, but didn’t have the means or the family support go there because I didn’t have a family. I did it over nine years because I used to say we have to help our little people.”
Her panache for promotion and for getting cash into the coffers caught the eyes of others in the Border swimming fraternity.
Before long she was sounded-out by noted swimming official the late Barry Martens to be the Ovens and Murray’s publicity officer.
“The North Albury club’s the richest in the district,” he told her, “because of what you do. You’re a go-getter.”
She got the job. Over the years, Barb racked-up so much in the sport that one yarn just can’t contain it all.
There were the many years as The Border Mail’s swimming scribe, the 13 years of the Nicholls family’s “Sunday picnic day” when they never missed a meet, “no matter where it was”.
Getting the school carnivals to come under the administration of the Ovens and Murray was another big step, given it meant times were properly recorded and the kids who swam the fastest got a go at state titles and nationals.
She became so good at the publicity job that Ian Hanson went along with her idea that she look after the southern bit of Australia and he the north.
Before she knew it, she was on the pool deck at a FINA Swimming World Cup meet, had been headhunted to be the final editor for copy going out at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and the major honour of doing it all again at the 2007 World Championships.
“It was like a dream. It was just a whirlwind.”
And there was also the pride in being the Sydney Olympic Games torch bearer who carried the flame into Albury.
Returning home after the Commonwealth Games though brought home why what she has been doing over the years has been important.
Barb got off the plane in Albury and was walking across the tarmac when her phone rang. It was Albury Swim Centre manager Matt Mamouney.
“It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon and he says ‘are you back in Albury yet?’ and I go ‘yeah’ and he said ‘I need you to come into work’.
“What a letdown! It wasn’t actually a letdown. I was walking on air.”
What she loves as much as the water is how teaching people to swim plays such a big part in transforming lives.
She reckons she’s probably done that with hundreds, even thousands of kids and the not so young over the years.
“There’s a lot of Koori children and a lot of refugees too. That (cultural) barrier meant I had to talk to the elders first among the refugees, because the women can’t undress and they can’t do this and can’t do that. You’ve got to respect that.”
And then they realised how much they liked swimming and so would continue to come in early because quieter times afforded them privacy.
“In the adults I had triathletes right down to one girl who came in from Ireland and she could not swim. She was petrified of water. I literally had to walk her down, she was shaking. And she was about 19 or 20. When she left here she was swimming a k’ a day, and she was here for a month.”
Barb Nicholls went back to the pool in early October when the gates opened for another season.
But then Brian got so sick they weren’t sure if he would make it, plus a couple of people in her family not far ahead of her in years died.
She toyed with the idea of perhaps just doing teaching on a Saturday morning. Yet she accepted she had to call time, even if now she’s “so bored”.
“I just tell people who ring that I now have to look after my husband. We’ve been together 42 years and we haven’t had a holiday since our honeymoon, so do you think it’s overdue?”
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