Swimming: Coutts thrived outside comfort zone

The location was Capri, Italy, and the year 1981. Hawke's Bay swimmers John Coutts and Pat Benson were preparing for the world marathon championships. Their national coach made them train up and down the coast in front of the small township which they found boring.

In an attempt to break the monotony Coutts and Benson decided to swim around to the Blue Grotto and swim inside it. Upon their return their coach, the late Tony Keenan of Wellington, wasn't impressed.

He ranted and raved to the Bay pair while pointing out how dangerous their swim was. This amused the Bay pair who had both swum Cook Strait, were only swimming 100m off the coastline and were 25 years old at the time.

"To get back at him we threw his swimming costume in the pool at the hotel where we were both staying and watched in horror as it got sucked down the skimmer box. We never did own up to that one," Coutts, 55, recalled.

This was just one example of Coutts going outside his comfort zone, something he did regularly to achieve the feats he did. Feats which have led to Olympic and Commonwealth Games swimmer Coutts being inducted into Hawke's Bay's Sports Hall of Fame.

Aussie-based Coutts will be inducted at the annual Hawke's Bay Sports Awards function at Taradale's Pettigrew-Green Arena on June 2. He will attend the function with his wife, Sally, mother Cath who still lives in Hastings, and daughter Jenna.

If the tales he recalled, including the Capri one, while discussing his induction this week are an indication there will be plenty of laughter on the night.

One incident Coutts and his mates laugh about now but didn't at the time relates to their departure from the 1975 world swimming championships in Cali, Colombia. Coutts and his New Zealand teammates were overloaded with excess baggage and noticed passengers were being charged a fortune.

"We hatched a plan. As Mark Treffers was putting the luggage on the scales Brett Naylor and I would put our feet under the scales and lift them back up until the needle was in about the right place. Just as well it worked as we didn't have any money left.

"What I should also mention is that Cali is surrounded by mountains and we almost thought it had backfired on us as our takeoff was the longest I have ever experienced. There were people on the plane shouting we are going to crash," Coutts explained.

The youngest Hawke's Bay Sportsperson of the Year award winner (Coutts was 16 when he won it in 1972) and Benson were well known for their sense of humour from an early age.

Coutts remembers the Heretaunga Swimming Club clubmates convincing a fellow swimmer, Ian Peryer, to walk in front of a packed grandstand at the Hawke's Bay Poverty Bay championships trailing a whole roll of toilet paper out of his swimming costume.

"It was well worth the 50c we paid him for the dare and it brought down the house," Coutts said.

The father of four and grandfather of two recalled an important race when the cord on his swim suit broke and every time he tumble turned he showed his backside to the crowd.

"I had to keep stopping along the way to hoist it back up, but somehow I still managed to win," Coutts explained with a laugh.

The first man to swim Cook Strait in both directions, Coutts, recalled the first one in 1977 almost didn't happen. Coutts and his support crew spent a week in camp just out of Wellington waiting for the tides to come right.

By the time they got to the end of the week and it appeared the swim wasn't on because of wild weather they decided to have a few beers at a nearby pub.

"What most people don't know is we ended up getting drunk and arrived back at camp late on the Saturday night only to be told there was a good chance the swim was on early the next morning, which meant we would need to be up at about 4.30am. You should have seen the look on my coach Ivan Wilson's face ... he was also a bit under the weather.

"The best thing to come out of it was that I got the best night's sleep I had all week. Ivan issued all the crew with seasick tablets in the morning but somehow Daryll Gledhill missed out and early in the piece as he was leaning over the side to help one of the support swimmers back on to the boat he spewed all over them," Coutts recalled.

A product of Hastings Central, Hastings Intermediate and Hastings Boys' High Schools, Coutts, said news of his induction came as "a complete shock".

"It's the sort of thing one never really expects. I believe that the greatest compliment you can ever receive is from your peers, so I feel extremely honoured and very proud."

These days Coutts is a director and owner of Carlile Swimming Australia, the largest private swimming organisation in the world. Last year the business taught more than 1,025,000 lessons in Australia.

Along with his partners, Coutts also has a 50 per cent interest in one of the biggest swim schools in America which operates out of Chicago and Minneapolis. None of his children took up competitive swimming.

"The only rule in our family was they had to stay in swimming lessons until they graduated to the junior squad which meant they had to be able to swim all four strokes, swim 400m freestyle, be able to dive and do tumble turns in freestyle and backstroke. I wanted them to choose the sport they liked rather than me pushing them into the things I liked doing."

Ben (named after Pat Benson) played waterpolo and football, Nick and Sam preferred rugby and Jenna played netball.

When Coutts returns to the Bay in June it will be his first trip home since the Heretaunga Swimming Club's reunion in 2009. Plenty of reminiscing went on then between Hawke's Bay-based Benson and Coutts and there will be more in June. Benson remembers the days when the pair were at Hastings Intermediate and Coutts trained under the late Bert Cotterill in Napier.

"John's mother used to take John to Napier at 5am every morning in a grey Morris Minor. It was a big trip in those days and that was a key factor in John's success ... strong parental support is why he did so well."

Fittingly, Coutts' mum will be there to watch her son's induction on June 2.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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