ODT readers pay tribute to Duncan Laing

A public commemorative service for Duncan Laing, the great Otago swimming coach who died last weekend, will be held at the Edgar Centre in Dunedin at 1pm today. Otago Daily Times readers pay tribute.


Thank you Dunc for all your support and advice over many years on the worldwide coaching circuit. You taught me how to keep it simple and not sweat the small stuff. We both knew it was far from a level playing field, but any success was genuine and real. I will always treasure the story times, especially the rugby ones in Taranaki. You haven't stopped coaching, Dunc, you have just taken up a position in another country. I'm sure "heaven" will feature on future medal tables.

- Ron Cheatley, Former NZ cycling coach, Wanganui

The thing that people don't realise is that Duncan had a massive influence on paralympic swimmers. He never treated a swimmer with a disability any different to any other swimmer in the squad. When I swam in Barcelona in 1992, I was two body lengths ahead of the field. They were a bit worried over there, but then they realised I was well trained. At that time, paralympic swimmers were not usually coached by Olympic-level coaches. Duncan set the bar. He said it didn't matter whether you had a disability or not.

I couldn't have done it all without Duncan. He gave me a programme that involved so much more mileage than anyone else. That gave me the endurance to sprint longer at the end of the race. In Atlanta, he changed my programme only three months before the Olympics. I didn't argue with him, and it worked. Everyone respected Duncan. You did what he told you, but he also had compassion for his swimmers, compassion for any member of the public, in fact.

It's funny that everyone knew him as "Mr Laing". I always called him Duncan. It didn't always feel right, but he'd told me to call him Duncan. One day I said, "Excuse me, Mr Laing," and he turned around and told me not to be so cheeky. I knew then he wanted me to call him Duncan. I suppose I was a bit older than most of his swimmers.

- Jenny Newstead, former paralympic gold medallist

I swam with him for 10 years through the 1980s. He was not only my swim coach, but he also had a huge impact on forming me as a person. He taught me about discipline, respect and helped instil my work ethic.

- Kylie Watkins, Dunedin

Duncan Laing taught my daughter to swim 37 years ago among many tears and complaints. A legend and a national treasure.

- Alastair

I was coached as a child by Duncan Laing. I always remember a tough but fair coach. You may have felt like you were drowning sometimes, with the amount of work he made you do. I remember having to call him "Mr Laing" all the time. But he was a fantastic man - and will be sorely missed by a lot of people.

- Shona Ledgerwood

One highlight of officiating at a SNZ meet was sitting pool-side with Duncan Laing for a chat. It usually started like this: "Hello, how are you and how's your daughter?"My daughter, Melaina, although not coached directly by Duncan, picked up many tips from him at swim camp and pool-side. She gained a sense of "he cares about what I am doing and he wants me to do it right". When my daughter, Erica, moved to Dunedin on her own, Duncan said: "If she has any problems, tell her to come see me. I have daughters, we can sort something out." It was a relief knowing that there was someone that I could trust to help my daughter if need be. Duncan touched our lives when we could appreciate it most. We will never forget.

- Yvonne Voss, Swim Waikato

I've been head coach at the Howick Pakuranga Swimming Club in Auckland now for three years, and it's because of meeting Mr Laing at the World Coaches Conference in 1997 in Birmingham, England. His words to me were: "Why would you want to be coaching in England when you could be coaching outdoors in your shorts in Australia?"I will never forget his presentation at the conference. We were all poised to hear about his work with Danyon Loader, and what we heard for the first 30 minutes was what a wonderful country New Zealand was, accompanied by photographs of the splendid countryside.

Originally from Ireland, it reminded me of home and, needless to say, Mr Laing's words and presentation stuck in the back of my head until 2005, when I decided to coach in New Zealand, outdoors in my shorts. At that conference, a coach from Japan and I were fortunate enough to have breakfast with Mr Laing every morning, and were duly entertained by Mr Laing's great sense of humour. Our cheeks were sore with laughter every morning. It is said that the common denominator of every great coach is the ability to make people laugh. Boy, did we laugh.

- Gary E. Hollywood, Auckland

I was taught how to swim by this wonderful big bear of a man. My sister and I were both in his class. For some reason, neither of us could tell our right from our left hand. So we were made to wear hair ties on our right wrist so that when we were asked to raise our right hand, we would get it right.

I will always remember the noise his stick made on the metal gratings on the side of the pool when he smacked it down to get our attention, or to emphasise a point, and the way he would line the class up at the end and shake our hands. That way you always knew he was your friend.

- Katie

About 38 years ago, our children started swimming lessons with Mr Laing. They were aged 3, 4 and 5 and were joined by our fourth child a couple of years later. This big gentle giant took those kids and, with the patience of a saint, coaxed and cajoled them into putting their heads under water, holding on to the side of the pool and kicking as hard as they could.

He would poke them with his big stick and throw them in the water so they had to swim back. Sometimes they would walk to the middle of the pool and wouldn't come back for him. He got the hose and hosed them until they did come back. (In today's world the powers that be would take a dim view of his methods - however, he got the desired results, and they respected him.)

At 3 years old, our youngest got her certificate for swimming a length of the big pool, and Mr Laing also had her jumping off the diving board. He told her she could make it to the Olympics if she wanted to, and he used to give her 20c to put in her money box for that purpose when she had done particularly well. It never happened, but with the dedication and commitment that Mr Laing was prepared to put in, it could well have.

We were very fond of him, and when our dog had pups, we took one in a little basket to the pool to give to Mr Laing. Our kids had called the pup Duncan - I think he ended up called Brutus by the Laing family. We have followed his career and often speak of what he did for our kids. His legacy will be in the thousands of kids he taught those essential life skills to.

- Nana, Green Island

My brother and I were taught to swim by Duncan in the early 1970s. We were aged about 7 or 8. I can still remember the weekly lessons that we endured. Each lesson was tough and sometimes even brutal. Duncan certainly knew how to push you; even though we were only learners, he still demanded the absolute best.

The technique that Mr Laing employed was certainly the stick and the carrot. The stick being a long wooden pole that was of sufficient length to reach just over half the width of the learners pool. Now if you were caught slacking around or causing trouble, you got whacked on the head by Duncan. The carrot was a bag of blackball lollies that Duncan always seemed to have, and at the end of each lesson we were all lined up at one end of the pool and we all took turns at swimming to where Duncan had positioned himself, and if he thought you tried really hard, he would reward you with a blackball lolly. I don't know if they still make them, but for the rest of my childhood, I associated blackball lollies with Duncan Laing's swimming lessons at Moana Pool.

At the time, I didn't really appreciate Duncan's unique teaching methods, but I realised years later that, although I was never going to be a great swimmer, he certainly did his job. I couldn't imagine a childhood that didn't include swimming, so I will always be thankful to Duncan.

- Ian Campbell, Dunedin

In the early 1980s, as a member of the Warrington Surf Lifesaving club, I had to get my swimming up to speed. I set aside some funds and set off to see Duncan ... I told him the plan and asked him for an idea of the cost so I could budget for it. All he said was "get in the pool". . . This went on for weeks . . . At the end of it all, I asked him for the bill - he just smiled and shook my hand and said, "you want to help people and save lives, I want to help you do it." What a man.

- Graeme Fyffe, Dunedin

I remember as a young boy, probably around the mid-1960s, having swim lessons with Duncan Laing. I had to put my feet on his thighs, hold his hands and we would both submerge for the time he chose. I thought it was about four minutes, but it probably wasn't.

- Tony Reid, Dunedin

Thirty-four years ago, as an ashamed dog-paddling 24-year-old, I approached Mr Laing for private lessons. Before the crack of dawn, I attended 10 sessions and had my own lane (the elite swimmers were in the other seven). Despite his reputation, he was gentle and full of encouragement; if I had believed him, I was ready to join the elite ranks too! He charged $4. Is that per session? No, all up.

- Wayne Gillett

I have always looked back at the years of swimming lessons and, eventually, coaching with Mr Laing fondly. I remember being the youngest in my class by years but still pushed the same as the bigger kids. But loving every moment. I am proud to say I know how to swim and that Duncan Laing taught me.

- L. Hannah Jackson, Dunedin

While most of Duncan Laing's later contact with the Doig family was through my father, Adrian, who was swimming manager of the 1996 Olympic team that Duncan coached, I swam briefly under Duncan when I first attended university in 1982. For me, coming to Dunedin for the first time, Moana Pool was the Duncan Laing Pool, and many others saw it that way as well.

Duncan believed in a long-distance base to his training - it was a quick and not altogether successful adjustment for me, particularly coming from a sprint-based training background, but I knew that was how Duncan did it before I arrived.

With the other distractions of university life, my competitive swimming career came to an end later in that year, and I turned to administration. But I remember his high standards, squads that were a lot of fun and the way he treated everyone with respect, and how everyone he trained respected him in turn, always calling him "Mr Laing".

Whenever I met him thereafter, he never failed to ask how my father and sister and brother (who swam in NZ teams in the '80s and '90s) were doing. Duncan must have taught many thousands of children to swim in Dunedin, and there must have been many families there with three or more generations all able to swim because of him.

Duncan had a public persona of being gruff and was a hard taskmaster, and he will rightly always be associated with success with Danyon and others at the highest level. But my abiding memory after the squad training is of this big man, broomstick in hand, standing by the side of the pool, with small children with their whole hands wrapped around one of his fingers as they were gently encouraged to leap into the water. They invariably did it because he simply asked them to.

He touched a lot of lives in different ways. I, among many, am very glad to have met him. I look forward to seeing how Dunedin and Otago honour Duncan and his contribution to sport in swimming, surf lifesaving and rugby. Perhaps adding his name to the pool he spent so much time and changed so many lives in would be a start.

- Jon Doig, Chief executive, Commonwealth Games Scotland

Mt Eden Swimming Club extends its deepest sympathy to the Laing family and wonder how swimming will be without the icon that has been Duncan Laing.

- Julie Salt, Laser Mt Eden Swimming Club

There are always many challenges in our life. I like to think that I have met the ones that I have faced over the years by relying on some of the discipline that Mr Laing taught me in Moana Pool. He was a task master and a tough guy at times, but even though there were many kids on his squad, he always took an interest in how we were faring both in and out of the pool.

Two images I will always carry with me are the Mr Laing barking at the end of the pool and launching his hefty bunch of keys at the slackers at the deep end; and the Mr Laing as the big gentle giant floating belly up in the diving pool, with three infants clinging to his ample tummy, while he softly encouraged them not to cry.

- Laura Faherty (nee White), Dunedin

I remember Mr Laing for a few reasons
1/ being a tough big man; when i was in his swim squad back when i was young you knew you had to do the job otherwise that big stick was looming - -we need a bit more of that in this soft, pc world we now live in
2/ not only a coach of successful swimmers but a father & he made them tough. His son at Kaikorai Primary School Graeme Laing - not even the combined effort of all the std 3 & 4 boys could defeat him in bull rush

- Pete Jenkins

We have known Duncan for many years. He was a great coach and a person. He coached both our sons for 10 years and I had a lot of great trips away as manager with Duncan to the National Swimming meets.

He always treated all the swimmers the same and gave them encouragement to swim well. One of our sons is now coaching swimming up north and we are proud that he is teaching what Duncan taught him.

- Love Denise Smith

Duncan Laing not only taught me to swim - I was in his training squad in my early teens - but more than anything he inspired me in my love of everything aquatic from taking part in many things, boating to life saving. He encouraged me in training to represent New Zealand in the very first World Games for Women's Underwater Hockey in 1981-82 where the team won a silver medal. A mentor for life.


- Bridget Wren


You move on to greater things, if that is at all possible. I remember those times MANY years ago, the teaching, explaining the keys or broom handle always at the ready to assist. All those memories are happy and fond memories that certainly helped me get where I am today.

I can still push out a pretty quick 1500m time and have been the envy of my triathlon teams as I don't have to worry about swim training. For all your help perseverance I can but say thank you and hope you find peace.

- Dick Scott
PS Say hi to Dad for me.

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