Jonty Skinner

An interview with Thys Lombard in October 2020

TL Jonty what an absolute privilege to have you on my show. Let's Dive Straight In. I can't wait to hear your story, because I just want to share with you, I actually started swimming in Windhoek in Southwest Africa, in 1976. And I remember starting with a school and with a professional coach. At the end of the session, we would always do some sprints, and we will all Johnny Weissmuller. We watch these Tarzan movies and we were all Johnny Weissmuller and then 14th of August, 1976 it all changed, I mean the next evening we will all Jonty Skinner's. So, where did it all begin, swimming, for you? Where did it all begin?


JS Ah, you know, funny enough, I actually wrote an article for my former coach for a book of his, and I kind of went through that. I basically jumped off a roof when I was a kid, you know, playing silly buggers and broke my left arm pretty seriously and in putting it back together they recommended that I swim for therapy, to rebuild the arm. At the time, my family lived in Grahamstown. That was the time when my mom had left and my dad who stuck with a whole bunch of kids so they shipped me off to PE to my uncle's house. And so I learned to swim in George's Park and a 50-meter pool. I didn't have a problem learning how to swim, it seemed to come pretty easy to me. I remember the first time, like within a couple of weeks, my uncle came to pick me up and I just launched myself across the pool and he was ripping off clothes in a panic because, you know, I was just heading for the deep end!


JS Anyway, I made it all the way across and so he sent me over Peter Elliot’s program in Walmer. And so I started off in Peter Elliot’s program in sort of my initial years. And from there, eventually, my dad got things kind of organized at home so he came back to pick me up. Lived in Kimberley for a couple of years, trained with Frank Gray, who passed away recently. I got to meet him a couple of years ago when I was back, went out to lunch with Simon and Frank and anyway from there eventually we moved to East London. I think when I was about ten or so we moved to East London. My dad became kind of like started up a team called the Penguins, and started off with five or six kids, you know, kids that just wanted to swim and it grew into a pretty decent size team and all the way through to a point where, you know, he got older and retired. But he trained me all the way through high school at the Quanza. I don't recall ever really swimming in any other place other than the Quanza, which I don't know if you know, you might have seen pictures of it? It's just as this tidal pool, bringing in saltwater, bringing in fresh saltwater every third or fourth day, and you know, it could go from 70 to 64 depending on the ocean temperature. It was something! That's where all the training was. We did a little bit, of training at CBC because they had a 25-meter pool, and Clarendon wouldn't let anyone in their pool at all. So in this city so there's only the saltwater pool which we had SA schools there when I was in the 15 to 16 age group. And we just cleaned up, I mean the local kids just cleaned up because everyone came in and realized there were no lane lines, no lanes on the bottom, no turn targets, saltwater. Just in total shock. I think I won the 100 by like 10 15 yards, you wouldn't even close. When I was a kid when I was about 10 years old, there was this guy named John Reen. He came from PE, and his attempt to deal with that pool is he said he was going to take 50 strokes and flip. He was a little short of the wall!


TL Jonty, just talking about that. And I can see the enjoyment, the pure enjoyment of taking you back to the, to the early days, and I think that's what this is all about is, you know, we all reminisce about the friends we made the suffering we went through with cold water and everything and for me it's just so brilliant that I can see your face light up when you talk about the early days. Your dad, Doug Skinner, was a well-known swimming coach. Where did it start for him?  When you started swimming, was he already coaching or not?


JS When we lived in Grahamstown he was a boxing coach. Oh, he was actually a very, he was an exceptional athlete in high school, he was a pretty exceptional athlete I mean he was very good at track and field, rugby. I mean, he played a lot of different sports and then the second world war came along, and that sort of blew everything up. And by the time they came back from the Second World War, it was time to get a job and do something. but I remember him being a boxing coach and then, because I got into swimming, oddly enough, he took me up to the hospital pool in Kimberley and kind of work with me there and then at that time, I mean he sent me to Frank because he didn't know much about swimming at that time. But in a space in a short period of time, there were two people swimming in that pool. Pretty famous people in that hospital pool in Kimberley. One was Karen Muir, who was the 110-yard world record holder, and myself, in that pool. And then we eventually went to Frank, and Frank eventually took Karen to world level. But that's where he sort of started but he sort of dabbled in it, but when we moved to London there was nothing going on, there were no teams. So he just hauled us all down to the pool and, you know, just kind of went for it right there and just, just look you know it's just like a dad saying I'm going to train these guys and we just did what he said we should do and never question anything.


TL That's incredible. And when it got more serious and when it got more competitive. Was it any more difficult working with your dad because it's, I guess a bit easier when it's not your dad coaching you, and when you know when there's a title on the line, you won numerous South African titles? And I believe it started with surf lifesaving first. So we’ll we get back to that, was your dad involved in that at all?


JS No, no, there was just a local surf club. I mean everyone got involved in that. Anyone as a swimmer got involved in that. So, but I am a very, I mean, people that know me, I'm a pretty ambivalent kind of person, I'm easygoing. I get along with, I don't really get all bent out of shape about things very easily. So, I mean I didn't have a problem with my dad being my coach when I was younger. You know, I did, when I finished high school eventually I decided, you know, I'm going to move towns and I went and trained with. And it wasn't really so much because I didn't like my dad as being my coach, you know, I just moved. I finished high school, I went to Cape Town, maybe because there's a girl I like lived in Cape Town.


TL I like it. I mean you can't just swim.


JS I ended up training with Niels Bouws, a coach in Cape Town. I trained with Niels for a couple of years. And I actually won all the titles that I won when Niels was my coach. And, you know, it just worked out that way. I was kind of fortunate you know when you finish it all and you sort of wish you'd come back and if I'd stayed with my dad, it would have been nicer for him and stuff like that. But at the end of the day you still your dad, and whatever you do, you know, I’m his son and so he loves for it and loves it, and enjoyed that period as much as I do.


TL Okay. And then when you finished up in South Africa. Obviously, it was during the period of isolation and we all, I mean the Olympics, that's the pinnacle of everything. I actually went through and had a look at the Olympic or the world record for 100 meters freestyle going back to 1900 and something and it was, I think it was swum in the sea in the beginning or at carnivals. And then I think early in the 20th century they went into a pool but a lot of the times the 100 meters freestyle record was broken during the Olympics, as was Jim Montgomery’s swim in 1976. So obviously you went to the States, with a dream of swimming in the Olympics Tell me a bit more about that.


JS Well, it's kind of one of those things. It's funny, you know, at the Quanza when you came to the entrance there were a couple of noticeboards right there. And my dad used to get the Swimming World Magazine, which was, you know, it came in, once a month. And then he’d take the meet results, the competition results and he’d post them on the noticeboard. And I'd look at those times, and, and, and go Holy cow. I mean, I wasn't even competitive!  It had like the Far Western Championships or age group championships or something like that. I mean I'd see some times up there that were like stupid fast, you know, but it didn't really, it didn't really daunt me because I kept looking at these times and I kept looking at these names of the swimmers. And I kept saying in my own head, you know, we only swim six months out of the year, the water is cold, you know, in the early part of the year so we can't do a whole lot, and I always wanted, there was always this dream, I think it was fermented probably when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. that one day I was going to try to get to the USA and train and swim and be able to compete. So that started very early in my life. And it never changed. A coach named Don Gambril actually came through South Africa, when I was like 15, somewhere in that range. He brought down Don Schollander and I think Patti Corretto. I don't know if was Patti was definitely Don Schollander, and they came in they did some expedition swims and I met him. And that's really, when I talked to him about, you know, swimming in the USA, going to college in the USA, that just made it real. I was determined that's what I was going to do, no matter what. And oddly enough, you know, I had to go through the army, do my army thing, so it took me about two years between coming out of high school, getting through the army, on the other side working to get some money to get and get me over. So I really turned 20 as a freshman, I was an older freshman and unlike some of these kids you see they're barely 17 or 18 and, you know, especially some kids in today's world, they have done nothing, and they're really undernourished in terms of the world experiences when they arrive. So, you know, I was lucky enough that I connected with Coach Gambril who had a huge history in developing world record holders and Olympic champions and stuff like that. And so, he was really good about talking to me about that, how we're going to do it and you know, I shared what I'd like to do what I wanted to do. So, you know, it just was a process where he just trained me. I just trusted everything he did in terms of training me. In fact, the summer I set the record I actually was convinced the local coach that was running the team at the Central Jersey Aquatic Club in New Jersey, was a little insane as far as workouts go. He was a real distance coach, it was all over-distance. So I convinced Bill Palmer, who is a great guy. I said Bill, listen, Monday Wednesday Friday in the morning, long course meters. Can I just make a sprint workout? Can the sprinters just do a sprint workout? He said okay, you can do that but then Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday you’re in with everyone else. So we did that and I just took all the workouts from Coach Gamble's workouts from, you know, the winter season, the colleague season and I just put them into long course. And I tell you what, all the other sprinters on the team that was training on that team, they were so thankful! Yeah, it was just a magical kind of summer. A lot of people ask me about it. I feel really lucky. Okay. I was blessed with talent. I was blessed with a lot of physical skills, and you know, athleticism and stuff like that.

TL Six foot five does help!

JS It does! It sucks when you’re in buildings with low ceilings but it’s great when you’re swimming. So, you know that summer, I'm just calling up every Sunday, I'm like, coach, this is what I did this week, what do you think we need to do? and then we got to about three weeks out from the summer nationals and he was actually at that time, kind of finishing up the Olympic trials and going into their American team’s Olympic camp in I think it was in West Point or something like that. And he said, Johnny, just rest. Just don't do anything more. Don’t do anything hard anymore, go to the pool, swim easy, do a couple of, you know, little short fast stuff, but just rest. And that’s what I did. I just basically rested for three weeks, you know, from complete trust. Went to the meet. Didn’t swim in any events, with any interest before the hundred and then just. Man, I spent probably two-three years thinking about it, you know, I got, I went into the low 51’s in South Africa, which wasn't far off the world record at the time. But when I went 50 point high in my first year, or second year, my second summer in America, I said okay, you know, I'm right there. Next summer, you know, the Olympic summer, that's it, I'm going for it.


TL At that stage the world record must have been 50 something or 50 low, because Jim Montgomery was the first one to go under 50 seconds?


JS Yeah, it was probably 50.5 50.6 somewhere in that range. I was close, you know it's close enough to where I felt like number one: I wanted to be the first guy to break 50. And obviously, if you break 50 at that time you're going to break the record, and I didn't know anything about what they call visualization and stuff like that. There was no one in there was saying, you know if you do visualization if you see these things if you experience these things in your mind, your brain actually can take it on board as being something that's actually real, that's achievable. And to be honest with you I did a lot of visualization stuff. I spent, I don’t know, there wasn't any plan to it,  I didn't sit down every day and say: All right, stop visualization type thing you know, I, you know, it just happened spontaneously.


TL You think about it quite a lot, so it became possible. Incredible.


JS Yeah, I think it was a huge catalyst. I think it was part of the belief system now, I mean, you know the brain, you know, I study a lot about neurology and the brain and I write a lot about the brain, in terms of how it impacts us in terms of performance type of thing. And really, on that day, I think on that day, there was no question that I've done training because I just trusted that I've done the right training. I didn't question it. The coach said: three weeks of rest, you're going to be ready to go, I never question that. It was really hot and humid that day. We were outdoors, three o'clock in the afternoon, shallow pool, I mean there were so many things that could have been detrimental on a mental level, but they didn't matter. I didn't care about the pool and care about the heat, didn't care about the time I just had this complete belief that this was going to happen on that day. And you know, it wasn’t until, I probably wrote a piece, again for Coach, the other day, that I was finally able to kind of be honest about it. I don't know if you’ve seen the swim? And my wife, when I told her and opened up to her about it, she kind of in her mind went back to the swim, and she goes yeah you're right. You know, you kind of think of the person thinking other thoughts, but when I finished that race, you know, and I touched the wall. In those days the clock just didn't happen right away, um, you didn't hit the wall, and the time was there, it was like this instant. You had to wait for the clock to kind of roll up into like, into the mid-50’s, and then, you know, it came in with the time. So you were sitting there, and then you got this time. And the feeling at the time was absolute relief. I mean, there was absolute relief. It wasn't this, like, Oh, you know, I broke the world record. Really, it's the relief that you were able to do it. I don't know if I can explain it in a way where, you know, you just so thankful that you don't have to deal with the demons of not getting there or not doing it. And in that instance, I felt complete relief that day, because I was able to do it. So, you know, what it makes the celebration wonderful is everyone around me kind of said: Well you know this is your Olympics, and they were really good those guys, I mean eight lanes guys came in and kind of celebrated with me, which was wonderful, which helped me celebrate the moment.


TL Greg Carswell actually forwarded me the link and I watched it over and over again and what struck me was that you know, you will competitors, John Naber, some big names in that race. But yet, the moment you touched it and these guys realized it was the world record they all swam across and they hugged you and it was actually a crazy scene, scenes that we don't see these days because it's, it's become so competitive, the guys are sponsored its money is everything but for you it was just, you know, with a bunch of competitors and friends, celebrating a major milestone. How did South Africa celebrate this because it was our South African swimmer? Was there any contact from South Africa?


JS The hard thing about is, I mean, we're in Philadelphia, at the time I'm working as a lifeguard in New Jersey. I worked as a lifeguard for 10 weeks of the summer. And then I get enough money working as a lifeguard, and then that would kind of support me the next winter, so I have the cycle in the summer going. And we don't have cell phones, I couldn't go to, kind of, like in South Africa we used to call it a tickey box, you know, kind of, call someone. But it, you know it took me a while to get back to the home, the place where I was staying to where I could get a land phone and dial my dad, and because I want to call him up and say, guess what, because he already knew. He knew you know, he knew what had happened, he knew the results, when he heard my voice all he could do was, he just started screaming, he was just going on!


TL Incredible memories, incredible memories. Jonty, so I don't want to touch on the negatives but I read somewhere that South Africa actually didn't recognize your world record as a South African record for a long time. It's actually written on the history of South Africa's website page.  Obviously irrelevant! If you're the fastest guy in the world you got to be the fastest guy in your country as well?


JS Did I really care? No! Tell you what, this is a story worth telling. Because I was always in America and I didn't have money to come back and I had to kind of, kind of, be careful about when I went back. So, I was kind, of put up.  After breaking the world record and stuff, and I'd won the NCAA championships because there were a lot of accolades, performance accolades in that year. So, I was nominated to be the South African Athlete of the Year. And so my dad went to the big gala up in Pretoria. Anyway, so the whole thing comes down to the South African Athlete of the Year, he's fully expecting, he’s fully expecting me to win the title, because when he looked at all the other people, there were people that had done things and there were some good track and field guys, at the time. But the guy won it was a guy that was a lawn bowls guy. He’d won a singles title in lawn bowls. He was sitting there, saying holy cow! It was funny. He called me he was like ranting. I told him, dad, it's okay, don’t worry about it.


TL Yeah, it's incredible. Jonty, so after that swim. Was that your fastest time ever did you ever get close to that time again or did you beat that time? Because I know it took five years before Rowdy Gaines, took five years before he broke that record.


JS No, I didn’t. Like I never, never, ever, emotionally, physically and emotionally, put everything, everything I could, put into a performance, again, like that. I mean I just, you know I was like, the cleanest living, everything I could possibly do, all the way into that competition. I mean, I had a girlfriend at the time. I was like a month out I said that's it, we’re done until after I’m done!


TL I can hear the mumblings in the background. Imagine you’d made that sacrifice and you do break the world record depressing? So, in later years you obviously moved on into coaching and was very successful but I first want to touch on being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, I mean you that up to today you are the only South African male swimmer, to have that honour. Three ladies have been inducted, Karen Muir, Joan Harrison, and Penny Heyns in 2007, you know, but some major South African male swimmers have come through the ranks and you still today are the only one. That is a serious accolade Jonty.


JS Well, you know, you've got to kind of put yourself in a position where you can be recognized and then you really have to hope that someone becomes your champion. Because the swimmer yourself you can't really be a champion for yourself, you have to hope that someone, you know, that knows you, knows who you are, the kind of person you are, that type of thing is willing to go to bat and take the fight at whatever levels politically you need to take to kind of get that across. I really I'll give a lot of, I would say Cecil Colwin, probably very instrumental in helping kind of bring that about, I think he was, you know his ex-South African ex-pat works in Canada, who, you know, kind of had friends at the international level. Don Gambril again another one and a lot of friends at the international level. They basically said this guy deserves to go in there, it's unique, its a unique circumstance, to where you know I wasn't really afforded some of the opportunities other people had. And I think that was the main impetus behind that type of thing. So, to be honest with you, I'm on it. And I've always been honored to be a member of that small fraternity, but you can't do these things without the help of other people.


TL And that's exactly, I listened to your acceptance speech and you were very gracious in mentioning the people who played a major part in your life. And the word luck featured quite a bit, and a lot of people think you know, is my hard work, but it's a combination of hard work but as you said you know a lot of people sacrificed, played a part, and then that little word, luck, is important.


JS It is. I hate to say it, but it is.

TL You obviously stayed in touch with swimming as a coach, I read or listen to some of your videos and I'm too stupid to understand where you talk about velocity and all that type of stuff, you know you use the psychological aspect of swimming and then you go quite technical about how you go about going faster, less drag. I listened to you - sticking stuff on people to feel the flow of water, which the listeners can go and research for themselves, brilliant story. So you were quite innovative in your way of thinking?


JS You know, my brother has one son, and his son, grew up playing tennis, mainly because there was a tennis court right outside the house where they lived. And he was very involved, he was like my dad, and he was very involved in the cultivation of Harry's development as a tennis player. And he read a book in the early 2000s that dealt with how the brain plasticity. And I don't know if someone said hey read this book, it's good. But he read it and he said listen, read this book. And so I read the book, it's called The Brain that Changes Itself. And it changed my life, it really changed everything that I thought about, everything I thought about with regards to how I would approach the development of an athlete because I finally realized that if you didn't understand how the brain manages everything that you do. If you didn't understand it from the brain out. Then changing anything was going to be extremely hard. So this whole skill of adaptation, athlete adaptation, training environments, all came about, saying, Okay, what I'm going to do to help the brain learn this. How am I going to put my athletes in an environment that makes their brains a little more robust in terms of things that it handles? So, from that point on, you know, I really went through this evolution as a coach, that thought about things from a completely new paradigm. And that's sort of helped me, and the other thing I have to say is I had a fantastic teacher in the 1990s, a guy named Bill Boomer. Bill Boomer was one of the unique coaches who saw the sport in a way that was like, when you had a conversation with him on deck and we'd be watching the same swimmer in the water and he'd have a conversation with me and I'd be like, Whaat!  I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I really didn't understand anything he was saying, but being the kind of guy that I am, you know, thought about or thought about it, you know, read stuff, played around, and eventually just like turned the light on for me. So when Bill would come back the next time which is usually a year later, I'd see him once a year. And I was all excited because I knew and understood all this stuff, he was teaching in the year before. And I was so happy to be able to share it with him, but he'd moved on. He was another mile down the road, and I'm like... So this went on for years, that, again, I was very lucky to meet Bill, and I was really lucky that Bill took me under his wing and helped teach me some of the inside out concept of teaching swimming. And when Bill kind of retired out of the sport in the early 2000s and then the whole brain training paradigm came in. And to be honest, like I said, it just changed the way I saw how I approach training athletes. I did this very last stint, I did a year up in Indiana. And they were like, a whole group of kids that have never been coached before. I mean, and I'm usually working with kids that came through the system, they were just filtering through the system. Now, all of a sudden I was like the first time I walked in the door, and I had 15 kids looking at me that didn't know me, I didn't know them. And it was just it was really interesting for them. I think if you ask them what it was like to be kind of, you know, coached by someone in a fashion where I’m constantly asking them questions, constantly asking where they are, what they're doing what they're thinking what they're feeling can they feel the flow, you know, have they sensory kind of opened up more to where they can do all these things. And I'm telling you this because somewhere in December, which is about four months five months in, you know, a whole bunch of them on a wall in the midst of a really hard set and I looked at them with my really stern face, and I said, what's the most important organ we're working on? And they looked at me, like a lot of times they looked at me, they're just like, oh my god, he asked us another question, you know, some kid said: The brain! I’m like - You're right! I just, just kind of going down that path, and then kind of translating it into how I train them every day in the water and taught them stuff and interacted with them. It was just wonderful. And I mean even like I retired back in February and I'm still writing, thinking, reading books I've written articles on the golf, I’ve got an interview on soccer in a couple in a month or so.


TL Nothing on rugby?


JS You know, I don't see enough of it in today’s world! I mean I've written manuals for like football, you know, American football, in terms of how to translate brain training to that sport, how to transfer brain training to golf, because I'm kind of having fun playing golf right now, to translate brain training to soccer, brain training to swimming type of thing and you know I'm in the midst of setting up a new company that I'm calling Brain Training for Sport so that I can kind of translate a lot of the stuff into the general population with regard to giving back some of ideas and concepts and things that I learned as a, as a coach in my years to help kind of educate younger coaches or athletes, etc etc and kind of at least sharing the knowledge before I get so addled I can’t remember own name.


TL I sincerely hope that your work gets you to come to South Africa to share your knowledge with us because there's just so much I think that that you have to share. A wealth of knowledge a wealth of experience, and I couldn't think of a more humble guy to share it with South African swimmers and sportsman. I really appreciate you spending time with me and sharing, I can't wait for the comments on Facebook of all the South African fans because you have a massive fan base here. And if there's any Arikaans left in you, if you want to share with us. Dit was lekker om met jou te gesels. It’s incredible to just see you glow when you talk about swimming.