Formerly head of British Para Cycling, where he ensured the team took top spot at both the Beijing and London Olympics, Chris Furber joined British Para Swimming last year as National Performance Director. He has been tasked with ensuring the team – including the likes of Ellie Simmonds and Ollie Hynd – get more gold medals than ever at Rio 2016.
GB: You joined British Para swimming from Para Cycling last year. What’s the main difference between the two in terms of expectations?
CF: I’ve been in the role for about a year now. It’s been a big change for me. I was with cycling for 13 years. Expectations in both sports are very high and both are quite well funded by UK Sport. But there are more medals available in swimming – 152 compared to 50 medals in cycling – so it’s a much bigger job.
Do you think it’s quite confusing with so many different classifications in British Para Swimming? Must have taken you a while to get your head round it mustn’t it?
I guess I have an advantage because it’s not massively different from cycling. Cycling has five categories called ‘C’ and swimming has 14 categories called ‘S’ so they’re not a million miles apart. The IPC (International Paralympic Committee) who are the governing body of para swimming are actually looking to review the system so I’m hoping that post Rio it will be easier for the public to understand.
It’s a good system though because it does ensure parity. Wherever there’s a classification system it’s always going to be challenging because you have to draw a line in the sand. Some people fall one side of the line and are minimally affected, some fall the other side of the line and are badly affected. It’s very difficult to get perfect.
What’s the next big challenge for British Para Swimming?
We’ve go the Commonwealth Games coming up where there are six Para Swimming events mixed in with all the able bodied swimming – it’s great for our guys being able to compete alongside able bodied swimmers. And then a week later we go to Eindhoven on the 2nd August for the European Championships which is particularly important from a funding point of view.
Do you think there would ever be a Para Commonwealth Games? It seems a bit token only having six events to compete in.
It’s constantly growing though. I think it’s great the Olympics and the Paralympics are separate and they could never be combined but it’s nice to have that break in the middle of the cycle where the guys are able to compete alongside their able bodied counterparts and they are all part of that one team. We would just like the number of Para Swimming events in the Commonwealth Games to grow and who is to say they won’t because the next one is in Australia and they are a big para swimming nation so maybe there will be more events.
I see that you have been putting adverts out calling for able bodied swimmers with visual impairment to join Para Swimming. Is this an area you are keen to explore?
Yes definitely. We are looking for new athletes the whole time and it’s important for us to explore as many areas as possible. It’s incredibly difficult within swimming to take a brand new talent who has never swum before and to try to get them to compete on the world stage.
So we work with UK Sport Talent who said maybe there’s an opportunity where there are people who are currently competing in able bodied swimming who might be visually impaired enough to qualify for the Paralympic Games.
Quite often people with disabilities spend most of their lifetimes trying to be integrated into society so they don’t tend to think about the opportunities that are available to them. Our role is to promote those opportunities by saying ‘if you do have a visual impairment there is a chance you may be able to compete.’
It will be interesting to see what response we get from the campaign, whether we can identify one or two people who could potentially compete for GB at the Paralympic Games. We’ve had several enquiries already. We just need to look into those enquiries and see whether they would be eligible.
What is the expectation for Rio 2016?
Our targets are around gold medals. That’s set by UK Sport. It’s about getting a balance between having a good team size but not having too many that it dilutes the service we can provide for them. But preparations are well and truly underway. We have a trip planned out there in November which will be the first opportunity most of the guys will have to check out the facilities in Belo Horizonte – the city where we are likely to have our holding camp.
How are you going to increase the number of Paralympic swimming gold medals given they seem to be going down each games?
While the number of total medals has remained consistent, we need to be on top our athletes to reverse the trend of the gold medals going down each games. UK Sport now have this focus for Para Swimming, Para Athletics and Para Cycling that it’s about gold medals. There are lots of things I learned within cycling which we are trying to apply in swimming. For example, we are trying to centralise the program in Manchester to give more support to the athletes because we believe the centralised approach where you have all your sports science practitioners and all your coaches working together gives you a much better result because everyone’s expertise is pulled.
British Gas have enabled us to create the National Performance Centre in Manchester and we’ve been able to get some nice new kit and rebrand the centre. We’re also able to have the athletes coming to live in Manchester for periods of time and really focus on their training.
For me the key is looking at the detail – where do we need to get to and what are the steps along the way in order to achieve this. How do I create an individual bespoke program for this athlete to get them from A to B? A lot of our athletes have that generic programme – they are in a club, they are in an age group so they are getting the same training as the people around them. We really need to focus on what makes a difference for Ellie Simmonds, for Ollie Hynd, for Josef Craig, for Jonathan Fox and so on. How do we get these guys to move forward to return the golds in Rio.