Duncan Laing, mentor and coach to Danyon Loader, the 1996 Olympic 200m and 400m freestyle champion, among generations of other athletes, died in Dunedin today miles from the Moana Pool where he spend four successful decades. He was 77.
Laing will be mourned by thousands who passed through his teaching to elite training programme. He was a larger-then-life character. When it proved difficult to get the young Loader, an Olympic silver medallist at 17 in 1992 (200m butterfly) to talk to the media, it was to Laing that the swimming media (and in New Zealand the wider sports media) turned. Laing was brimming with colourful tales from the decade. He brought to the pool the hard, cajoling edge of the rugby world. He demanded, he encouraged, he enticed and teased his charges into getting the best out of themselves.
I once asked Laing to describe the natural drive in Loader. He answered by saying. "It needed someone to bring it out of him at times. He was always steely, determined. But as a boy he said very little and it was hard to get across to him some of the things I wanted him to do. I told him I wanted him to do a set much faster than he was doing. He kept on at the same pace. So I took him out of the front of the pool. There's a big, big road there and a big hill. I told him to stand in the middle of the road and when he saw the juggernaut come over the hill, he should move very fast to get out of the way. When the truck appeared, well, I'd never seen him run so fast. He got the idea then."
Loader, 10 when he joined Laing's programme, told the NZL media: "There was a connection there from the beginning and I wouldn't be the swimmer I became or the person I am today without Duncan."
Laing retired from swimming coaching in 2006, the year in which a cancerous growth was removed from his leg and the year in which he endured surgery to remove a tumour from his brain.
Laing's long service to swimming attracted many an accolade down the years. He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2005, and was also awarded an OBE in 1993. He was made a life member of Swimming New Zealand in 1996 and inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
The Olympic exploits of Laing's most successful charge, Loader, brought the honour of being named New Zealand's top sports coach (all sports) at the Halberg awards in 1992 and 1996.
Laing credited Arthur Lydiard, the NZL athletics coach, with having taught him invaluable coaching lessons. "I more or less copied what I thought were Arthur Lydiard's methods - good steady mileage, building strength, heart and lungs. And as (swimmers) got stronger and better, and tried to work on the technique I thought was right, they started to get faster," Laing said in his retirement year.
Laing valued technique above all. Back in 1992, when I ask how he coached Loader on butterfly, Laing said: "I put up sets that he rarely completes as full swims. As we go through the session, I watch his technique. Its the thing that has to hold. The minute his technique starts to break down, we stop and do something else. We sometimes finish the set as a series of broken swims but I never let him swim with his stroke breaking down."
Laing coached 11 Olympic swimmers but always spoke of the love he had for taking a child who showed a fear of water and turning fear into "absolute joy for swimming". He called it an essential life skill. "I've seen kids come in, afraid to put their faces in the water. Two weeks later, their parents can't get them out of it. The children just grow in stature by learning to swim," he said.
Laing represented Taranaki at swimming, rugby and surf lifesaving. He captained New Zealand at lifesaving at the 1956 World Cup. In 1966, Laing moved from Taranaki to Dunedin to start his career as a professional swim coach at Moana Pool. He continued to work in the world of rugby, serving as an Otago selector for a while.
In 2006, Laing looked back on his long career and said that it would take him a while to get used to not having to be on the deck at dawn. "I wish I was 30 years younger and know what I know now." The world has lost a fine man. The swimming world has lost a fine mind, a keen eye, an experienced man whose understanding of his sport, whose humour, whose smile and spirit will be very much missed.