World Champion surf ironman Phil Clayton learnt a thing or two about open water swimming during his three decades of professional racing and coaching, and now, on top of coaching his local Gold Coast ocean swimming squad, Phil Clayton & Co, he’s also mentoring some of the world’s best triathlon athletes.
Over the last few years, Mr Clayton has been coaching open water swimming skills to athletes in the Great Britain triathlon team, with his expert tips paying off at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and most recently the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships.
How it started: From the ’90s to 2020
Having swum with legendary swim coach Denis Cotterell during his Ironman dominating years in the 90s, Mr Clayton swam alongside some of the world’s best athletes. It would be one of these athletes, Kiwi, Ben Bright, that would create the connection to Great Britain Triathlon all these years later.
Mr Clayton had had experience working with Swimming Australia’s open water team and the Australian triathlon team leading into the 2016 Rio Olympics and word of this had reached Mr Bright in the UK.
“We were looking for someone who had the experience of racing in different and challenging open water environments, who had the technical understanding of how to excel in those environments and who, critically, could engage well with and coach our athletes,” said Mr Bright, Head Coach at British Triathlon Federation.
“There are quite a few people out there who have points one and two, but very few who can coach effectively. After asking around different people whose opinions I trusted, Phil was a clear choice. His ability to coach new and challenging skills to our athletes has meant we feel we have gained a huge amount from working with Phil.”
Once the connection was made, the task for Mr Clayton was natural.
“Ben asked me to create a six-week open water swimming program for the British Olympic Triathlon Team in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics and expose the athletes to the best that the Gold Coast has to offer.”
The British take the Gold Coast
Early 2020 saw the Great Britain Triathlon team come over to Australia, with Mr Clayton fully utilising the Gold Coast’s amazing beaches, rivers and lakes to get the team in peak open water shape.
“Our base was Tallebudgera Creek, but we also travelled to multiple beach locations when the conditions were suitable to test the team’s skills,” said Mr Clayton.
“I also invited surf lifesaving, pool and open water athletes to join the sessions and help demonstrate their open water skill set to the Great Britain athletes, as I knew these local athletes had developed these skills over the years growing up on our beautiful Australian beaches.
“The team also swam under Miami Swimming Club’s head coach, Raelene Ryan, for the duration of the trip which helped them develop relations with some of Australia’s best pool swimmers and surf lifesaving athletes.
“Training in the pool and in the open water helped the team gain a greater level of swimming volume compared to what they were used to in their British program.”
Great Britain Triathlon’s learnings
Mr Clayton set out with one simple goal when he began working with the Great Britain Team – to continually challenge and upskill the athletes with different race scenarios.
“Mr Bright gave me fairly strict guidelines with what he wanted to see the team achieve in their time on the Gold Coast,” said Mr Clayton.
“His main objective was to build their confidence in the ocean as well as learning how to deal with a large group of swimmers, while also working on the technical side of racing.
“To gain these skills, we did a lot of ocean swimming, plus a number of creek sessions with a set course around buoys to work on the challenges of swimming in big groups.
“It didn’t take long for the British athletes to learn and adapt to these skills and challenge our local athletes.”
Mr Clayton’s coaching helped the Great Britain Triathlon Team to Gold in the Triathlon Relay at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as well as individual Sliver medals for Alex Yee and Georgia Taylor-Brown in the men’s and women’s individual events, respectively.
Mr Clayton continues to work with Great Britain Triathlon, most recently returning home from the 2022 World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal, Canada, where the Great Britain Triathlon team had top ten finishes, with Alex Yee and Georgia Taylor-Brown both winning Gold.
For more information on Phil Clayton & Co, visit his website.