Bobby Hurley has come a long way since his competitive swimming days and his list of achievements is truly impressive. Some of his achievements include being a former World Record holder in the short-course 50-metre backstroke and the 2012 World Champion in the same event. Bobby has won five FINA World Championships as well with two golds, one silver, and two bronze medals under his belt. But we all love a good origin story, so we invited Bobby to coffee to get to know him better.
What's your story?
I grew up in Wollongong in Australia, which is a small town on the beach, near the south of Sydney. In Australia, everybody grows up learning to swim because of all the water around and backyard swimming pools. I was the youngest of three. I have an older brother and an older sister and naturally just followed them into swimming. I learned to swim at around five or six years old.
I remember doing my first competitions when I was about seven or eight years old because I was too bored to just sit at the pool. I watched my sister compete and that made me want to have a race as well. By nine years old, I was really passionate about the sport. It turned out that I was a pretty fast swimmer as well. That sort of thing always motivates you to keep going and most of my childhood memories were about swimming being my number one sport. I played basketball, a little bit of touch football and some other sports, but swimming was the one that meant the most to me.
My sister and I travelled around Sydney and New South Wales to participate in swimming competitions during weekends. Right around that time in 2000, it was the Sydney Olympics. I was 11 years old at the time and I was a state champion in a few different events. Having the Olympics come to your hometown is pretty inspiring for kids. I know a lot of Australians who were between 8-12 years old in 2000 and were really inspired by Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim, and Grant Hackett.
What’s your family like? Were there other sportspeople in the family?
My father grew up on a farm as a sheep farmer before moving to Wollongong and working in a bank. My mom is Filipino and her family moved to Australia when she was in high school. My brother learned to swim like everyone else in Australia but he just didn’t have the competitive gene in him. He supported us along the way though and he played other different sports like tennis and basketball because he’s a fairly tall person.
The cool thing about my family is that my mom is really short compared to the rest of us. She never played any organised sport or did any organised training in her life. I’m six foot four and my sister is six foot two. There wasn’t any history of sportspeople in the family; it’s just the way our life went. I think it’s great that my own kids, nephews, and nieces now have the potential to go down that same path.
Do you have any plans for your kids to pursue the same career as you?
That's a question I get a lot. I have a four-year-old daughter who is in Nursery at Tanglin and a two-year-old boy. They love swimming in our condominium’s swimming pool every day like all the other kids here. They love the water and it’s important for them to learn how to swim and be confident around water. However, I think I will leave the decision on whether to become a competitive swimmer to them.
My daughter sees me at the school pool and knows that I’m a swimming coach here. She enjoys coming to swim lessons and watching the students swim, so I think that there is a love for swimming within my family. My wife Kseniia is involved in swimming at Tanglin too. I definitely don’t want to push the competitive side of things because I know it’s a big commitment and it should be the kids’ choice to do what they want.
Tell us about Kseniia’s role here at Tanglin.
She’s currently volunteering with the Infant Swimming Curriculum, as well as our Merlions Learn-to-Swim programme in the afternoons, and she’s really enjoying that!
How did you meet Kseniia?
We met in Italy about six years ago. Kseniia was the swimming team manager for a professional team that was based in Turkey at the time and I was a swim coach in South Africa. The swimmers I was coaching did a training camp in Italy. We crossed paths and the rest is history. Kseniia wasn’t a competitive swimmer, but she comes from a swimming background and she’s really passionate about the sport. She also has a background in high-performance management.
What do you think makes you a successful swimmer?
Not an easy question to answer. Obviously, I think there are some physical traits that help. I have really long limbs and I’m hypermobile so I’m really flexible. That helps to get an increased range of motion when swimming. But more than that, having a passion for the sport is important because swimming is very much an individual sport most of the time. You really need to have that internal motivation and drive to keep pushing yourself to achieve.
Swimming is measured in seconds as well as tens and hundreds of a second so you need to be a person who likes to work hard. You generally get rewarded nine times out of ten for your hard work and you can see your personal best time improve with measurable results. Having that full ownership and accountability over your own performance is a lot of pressure but it can be quite empowering as well.
What were some challenges that you have to overcome?
I was a really good junior swimmer at 11 years old and one of the best in my age group in the whole of Australia. Then I plateaued until I was about 15 years old because I was a late bloomer and went through puberty quite late. At the same time, people that I used to race against and beat were overtaking me and they’d get so far ahead that I thought I’d never be able to beat them again. But that’s just part of maturing and developing. It’s always a frustrating time for swimmers because maturation can have a really big impact on the results. It evens out when one gets through that period of adolescence, but it was a tough period when I was growing up.
I became a professional swimmer in my 20s and incurred some elbow and shoulder injuries. It’s inevitable because I’ve been committed to swimming since I was young. I have arthritis in both elbows and nerve problems in my shoulder. It’s something that everyone has to deal with at different points in their life and it’s frustrating because, unlike other professional sports where you have a salary or a guaranteed contract, you work on a year-to-year basis in swimming. You don’t know if you’ll be able to continue this lifestyle that you really enjoy and that can be quite disheartening. I was lucky enough to be able to swim professionally until I was almost 30. I travelled around the world for a long time, then I made the transition into coaching.
I always wanted to be a coach because I really like working with numbers. I can remember swimming sets and training sessions from years ago. I actually started keeping log books when I was 11 and I did that again after the Sydney Olympics. I always knew that coaching would be the pathway I wanted to take because I have about 17-18 years' worth of training material in my head and in a log book.
In 2016, one of my good friends, Chad le Clos, approached me during a competition in Singapore. He said he was leaving his coach because he wanted to start a new club and travel between Cape Town in South Africa and Europe for training camps. Chad was the Olympic champion back in 2012, famously beating Michael Phelps on the last stroke of the 200m Butterfly race. He was just randomly asking me to be his coach and travel with him because we were good friends. He knew me as an individual and a swimmer. At that time, I was nearing the end of my swimming career so this was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.
Three months later, I retired for the first time and joined Chad in Cape Town. Cameron Van der Burgh, another world record holder, was there too and I was pretty much coaching South Africa’s two greatest swimmers. I coached them for a year and they had really positive results. I knew then that I was pretty good at this and I could make a career out of it. The rest is history.
How did you move from coaching professional swimmers to coaching children?
I did a year with Chad and Cameron, but at that point, I had spent probably the last five to six years of my 20s overseas and I knew it was time to go home. The swimming and coaching scene is obviously quite strong in Australia so I wanted to try and see if I could make it in Sydney. I started coaching at a really small club there. I basically went from coaching two Olympic champions and world record holders to overseeing a Learn-to-Swim programme with just a handful of competitive swimmers.
That was a big change, but to be honest, the way I coach the swimmers and the conversations I have with them are the same. You really want to make sure the training is fun so the swimmers want to keep coming back. Swimming is a high-commitment sport so you have to help them get better through enjoyable ways. It’s basically breaking the training down into small manageable steps. I’d create an environment where everyone felt safe and we’d do everything as a team. I also think communication is one of my strong points so I’d make sure to greet everyone by their name and ask how they were feeling. Having that personal engagement is important because as soon as you dive into the water, you’re in your own head. Before I knew it, my club became one of the top 10 clubs in New South Wales. I’m pretty proud of that because it’s an achievement we built from the ground up.
Coaching versus competitive swimming, how are they different?
Both of them are fairly stressful. In swimming, so much is riding on every result and I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself. But I like that feeling of pressure, especially when I’ve prepared for that result. Coaching, on the other hand, is different. I know that I have done everything to help my swimmers prepare and that they have done everything they can do to prepare, so I don’t really feel nervous watching them race. You trust that they are doing their best and it’s fun to see my swimmers not only improve but also deal with the highs, lows, and other emotions that come with swimming at the top level.
At the end of the day, they need to enjoy what they are doing or it’s very hard to succeed. Even when they get nervous or if the results aren’t exactly what they want, they are still motivated to come back for more. The same goes for our Tanglin competitive swimmers. They’ve got to have fun and enjoy what they are doing. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable. Tanglin swimmers will eventually leave and I hope they will continue swimming and learn something from our training sessions that will prepare them for the rest of their swimming career or the rest of their life.
How did you eventually come to be the Director of Swimming here at Tanglin?
It was another really fortunate situation when a colleague of mine in Australia approached me to say that he thought this role would be really suitable for me. It sort of all came out of the blue for me. I was purely in a coaching role back in Australia so I’d never been a Director of Swimming or Head of a programme but I knew this was a valuable growth opportunity for me.
I was really looking forward to it because I’d been in Sydney for about five years through the pandemic and by this time, I had two kids with Kseniia and we were itching to travel and get new experiences. Being able to put our kids into one of the best schools in the world with lots of CCA opportunities was also a big factor.
What kind of plans do you have for Tanglin’s swimming programme?
I think the new aquatic centre at The Centenary Building helps to raise the level of performance and expectation throughout our programme. Coming from a performance background, I think the aquatic centre is probably one of the best facilities in Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world.
We have a new Head coach, Mat Snooks, who has recently started so that should be exciting and we are also expanding our Learn-to-Swim programme. For Year 2, we have a feeder programme that transitions into the Junior programme that begins in Year 3. I’d like to extend that into Year 1 and maybe even younger than that. We will have a new canopy placed over the old pool so that’ll become an undercover facility.
We have two really high-quality facilities that children can use all the way from Infant School to Sixth Form students who want to pursue the swimming track - any swimmer in fact, whether they are just learning to swim, want to be a competitive swimmer, or want to aim for university scholarships. It’s all about creating a pathway for every student at school and it’s been really exciting for me to build a programme that swimmers have responded well to.
Just recently we had two swimmers win multiple gold medals in the Singapore Nationals and four swimmers won medals overall in their age group. I’m really proud of that and knowing I’ve had a positive impact on them and the programme in such a short time is definitely memorable. I get to work with amazing people every day and the support from my managers and Craig Considine has been really valuable. The school is run very well and it’s great seeing how active kids are on the playing field and all the sports events that happen on the weekends.
One last question, what is one thing that people won’t know from your resume?
I'm a commentator for the world championships and I've been doing that for the past five years. I enjoy speaking and analysing swimming and I was really privileged to get this position back in 2018 as the colour commentator for the World Championships with FINA, which goes out worldwide via TV streaming. I’ve done it about five times in Hangzhou (China), Korea, Abu Dhabi, Budapest and Melbourne. I’m off to Fukuoka in July this year.