Vale Don Talbot, AO, OBE

04 November 2020

Tributes have poured into Swimming Australia following the passing of one of Australia’s greatest ever sporting coaches with the death yesterday of legendary former National Head Coach Don Talbot, AO, OBE.
 
Revered around the world, particularly in his beloved Australia and Canada and the USA, Talbot passed away peacefully on the Gold Coast around 1pm. He was 87.
 
A life member of Swimming Australia and ASCTA, Talbot is regarded by many as the Australian Swim Team’s greatest ever National head coach who has left an enormous legacy, after having such a huge impact on the Australian swimming community.
 
Glowing tributes, memories of reflection from his family, coaches and swimmers who worked alongside and swam under Talbot, some who are on deck today carrying on his teachings.
 
With Olympian and coach, son Scott Talbot leading the way.

Don Talbot

“Don was tough till the end and fought on strongly for along time, finally succumbing to the complications with dementia, passing away peacefully around 1pm on Tuesday,” said Scott, himself an Olympic swimmer with New Zealand, Australian coach, who is now coaching in England.
 
“Don will be remembered as a coach, driven by his passion and love for Australia and swimming in Australia.
 
“Personally I am so truly proud and feel extremely lucky to have had both Jan Murphy (1964 Olympian and esteemed coach) and Don Talbot as my parents and I miss them both so much.
 
“I believe Don lived his life to the fullest and was able to do something he loved while travelling the world.
 
“After serving as Australian Head Coach in the 1970s, Don took a coaching role in Canada and the US in the 1970s and 1980s which made our family life very international, and I know he was grateful to have met and been friends with so many wonderful people in swimming throughout the world.
 
“Having said that, Australia was always his home, and where his heart was and because of this I believe he was able to make his biggest impact in his role as Australian Head coach for the second time.”
 
As a coach, Talbot was prolific in producing world record holders and Olympic champions and as a head coach, he was formidable, who was recognised and respected world wide for his achievements in swimming.
 
From humble beginnings born to English migrants in West Wallsend, near Newcastle in 1933, swimming became his passion after a near drowning experience at Stanwell Park which led to swimming lessons at four years of age.
 
In essence Don actually regarded himself as a Newcastle boy, spending his brief early years in that tough, loyal, working class city.
 
And then into the blue-collar suburb of Bankstown, living across from a garage and motor repair business that became his father’s working life.
 
A traditional working class family but Don can thank his brother Geoff for saving his life after that near almost drowning experience on that family picnic to Stanwell Park.
 
Teaching at Revesby Primary, Don discovered the Konrads kids, John and Ilsa, when their mother arrived at Bankstown Pool, with her two migrant kids from Latvia, who had been in a camp in Uranquinty, near Wagga.
 
Don took on the Konrads kids and turned them into world beaters – breaking worlds records as the 1950s, 60s and early 70s rolled into a golden era for swimming – John becoming an instant success story – named as a reserve on the 1956 Olympic team and winning Olympic gold in 1960, while Ilsa won silver in Australia’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
 
The man who would go on to steer the Dolphins to an historic victory and a life long dream at the 2001 Fina World Championships in Fukuoka, where Australia became the number one nation in the world, had dedicated 50 years to coaching – from his formative years under coach Frank Guthrie at Bankstown to Olympic glory with the likes of John Konrads, Bob Windle, Kevin Berry, Gail Neall, Brad Cooper, Bev Whitfield and Graham Windeatt amongst so many others.
 
His second coming began when he arrived in 1989 and took the swim team to the ‘92, ‘96 and 2000 Olympics – and those triumphs of 2001 – a decade long era that featured the likes of Kieren Perkins, Susie O’Neill, Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett. 

Don Talbot - Sport Australia Hall of Fame
Image Credit: Sport Australia Hall of Fame

 
And even though Don steered the ship, he firmly believed that no single person could get Australia back to number one saying “it takes a total team involvement – coaches, athletes, staff, administrators and supporters – everyone pulling in the same direction.”
 
Talbot was the ultimate Team man, who was Canadian Head Coach at the 1974 Commonwealth Games and 1976 Olympics and guided the Canucks to glory days at their home Commonwealth Games in 1978 in Edmonton before taking a role as head coach in Nashville where he guided the greatest US Nationals winner in history, Tracy Caulkins.
 
As fate had it the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics, robbing swimmers like Caulkins the opportunity of a lifetime.
 
Talbot would return to Australia to become the first Director of the AIS in 1980 and Caulkins would knuckle down for four more years before winning triple gold in the 1984 LA Olympics.
 
Caulkins, after marrying Australian Olympian Mark Stockwell, himself a triple medallist at the 1984 Games, is today sitting as the Swimming Australia Board Deputy Chairperson and she remembers her days as a swimmer under the man himself.
 
“Don was an innovative and tough coach who attracted swimmers from all over the world to swim in his programs and I was very fortunate to train under him during my career,” recalled Stockwell.
 
“He raised the bar for swimming in Australia and everyone lifted and rose to those standards and they have put Australia in the position we are in today, as one of the strongest swimming nations in the world. That is a huge and proud legacy to leave behind.
 
“On behalf of Swimming Australia I would like to express my condolences to his family at this sad time.”
 
Former National Head Coach and great friend, Bill Sweetenham remembers Talbot as “ an irascible giant, and I say that with deep affection. He and I usually saw eye to eye on almost every controversial issue, and he was a fighter without equal, and his vision included actually beating the USA in international competition, which inspired a generation of Aussies.
 
“More than anything else was Don’s approach to science – his opened mindedness about how he used science.
 
“He knew we couldn’t beat the US on numbers or facilities but he felt we could always get an edge in the area of science and I think at the AIS he was always keen to provide finances and people in the science area.
 
“And although he was tough he had great empathy towards the athlete and would always focus on the athlete first – that was his strength when it comes to athletes – his strength as a leader was that he was visionary.
 
“Heaven is more interesting today than this mortal world, that is so much more dull without Don.”
 
Australia’s current National Head Coach Rohan Taylor remembers Talbot with such verve.
 
“As a young coach and being fortunate to be on teams with Don he was larger than life and his ability to motivate and lead me as a young coach I learnt a lot of what it means to be a high performance coach and a high performance person and how you carry yourself,” recalled Taylor.
 
“I had a lot of great experiences on teams – he challenged you along every step of the way and did not let you become complacent.
 
“They are the key things that Don instilled in me – do not be complacent and continue to pursue excellence - he was a massive influence on so many of us.”
 
Former Dolphins Team Manager, coach and National Head Coach in 2008, Alan Thompson said he learnt so much from Don.
 
“We worked a lot together and I was pretty close to him between the 1994 Worlds in Rome and the 2001 Worlds in Fukuoka for the last hurrah,” said Thompson.
 
“I remember standing with the team towards the end of the Sydney 2000 Olympics and both Kieren Perkins and Chris Fydler were standing next to me and they said ‘you know what Thommo we get it now….we know what it’s all about. 'It was his team vision.
 
“I’m very sad…as so many of us are and I spent a lot of time with Don….and learnt so much from just being around him….it’s a regret that I never got to say goodbye.”
 
Don’s daughter Lee, the fourth child of Don’s five children, remembers life was pretty busy in the Talbot household growing up.
 
“There was training every morning and afternoon through the week and training and club racing on Saturday mornings,” recalled Lee.
 
“As dad had to be at the pool mornings and afternoons, he couldn’t see why us kids couldn’t be there with him training too.
 
“Growing up one of my memories was of the times when we’d go for Sunday drives. Dad’s second favourite passion was driving and watching car races.
 
“Later in his life he would take himself on a world tour to see every Grand Prix race that year. 
 
“Don and my mother Shirley Spindler separated when I was eight and my siblings were 18, 17, 16 & 15 years old.
 
“I continued to keep in contact with him as he coached all over the world in Canada, USA, Australia and England. 
 
“Scott was born when I was 18 years old and Don later married, Jan Henderson.
 
“And although they parted their friendship and love for each other stayed to the very, very end.
 
“Jan Talbot remained his best friend and soul mate. I have no doubt that she will miss him the most.
 
“Dad we will miss you; you were always full of interesting stories and experiences from an amazing life. I will miss our hugs and walks by the sea. I love you dad. He took his last breath at 87.”
 
Don Talbot is survived by his five children & a nephew they raised: Christine & David Napper; Leonie Talbot; Jon & Olivia Talbot; Lee & Danny Buckley; Scott & Lucy Talbot, and Trevor & Colleen Marks, their 12 grand-children and 16 great-grand-children.
 
 The final word comes from Don’s book “Talbot: Nothing but the best” (By his former pupil and Olympic champion, the late Kevin Berry and sports writing doyen Ian Heads) –  reflecting on his life, he wrote:
 
“I do not doubt for a moment that I am a better person for all the people that I have met and learned from since chance took me into the world of swimming, all those years ago…and ever since my years of coaching have been fabulous for me.
 
“With the final touching of the wall, I can only hope that you may have enjoyed a life’s journey through 50 years of swimming as much as I have enjoyed living it…”
 
The Talbot Family wishes to thank the Australian swimming community and those from around the world and so many well wishes who have paid tribute to Don.
 
They will release details in the future of a memorial service, once Australia’s Covid-locked borders are all open.

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