Two-time Olympian Hayley Palmer is passing her swimming torch to athletes in Cayman.
Palmer, who represented New Zealand in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, is the new head swim team coach for the Camana Bay Aquatic Club. The 30-year-old will be teaching all levels from newcomers to fully mature swimmers, and she said there’s a satisfaction in starting from scratch.
“It keeps me grounded and reminds me of the mechanics that go into the strokes,” she said of starting out by teaching the fundamentals. “I liken it to building a wall. You’ve got all the bricks in place.
“You can probably still build the wall without some of the bricks. But the more that you miss at the bottom, the less stable it gets when you start getting toward the top. A lot of the kids you find that if they’ve missed stuff previously, they can get away with it. They mask it to a point. But there’s only so much that they’re going to be able to do with it when you get to the point that you refine things.”
Palmer said she never wanted to make swimming her life. She entered the sport because her sister was also a swimmer, and even after her success in the pool, she wasn’t really certain that she wanted to be a coach for the rest of her career.
Now, after coaching in the Middle East and Thailand, she’s arrived in Cayman with the realisation that she loves teaching children, and added that she’s passionate about helping them reach their peak abilities.
“To get to a reasonably high level in the sport requires a lot of understanding of what you’re doing, but for so many of us, we spent years doing that and forgot how to do the basics,” she said.
“We forgot all the cognitive processes that go into simple things like learning how to breathe and learning how to kick. For us, it’s all second nature. When we learned that, we were so young. It was so long ago. I think it’s quite challenging for a lot of elite athletes to take themselves out of that equation and think, ‘Well, I know how to do it, but these kids don’t. I need to think like they do.’”
Palmer, to say the least, has led a non-traditional life. She was born in England and spent much of her youth there, training under former Olympian Graham Brookhouse in the pool. She moved to New Zealand, her parents’ homeland, in 2007, the year before she first competed in the Olympics.
At that point, she began to specialise in swimming and harboured Olympic dreams. Before that, she said, she just swam because she enjoyed the sport and relished the challenge of getting better.
“I swam because my sister swam and because it was something I was good at, but I did every sport under the sun,” said Palmer. “At school, I was playing hockey and athletics. I was a very active kid. That was something else my coach was big on; he’d say, ‘You don’t need to be swimming twice a day because you’re doing all this other stuff.’ That’s something I’m very big on within my programmes.
“If you’re already doing other stuff, we work around that. That’s part of my responsibility as a coach: To take into account all of the other commitments you have rather than turning a blind eye and saying, ‘All I’m going to care about is the swim.’ I think we should be focused on the person as well as the athlete.”
Palmer, who specialised in the 50- and 100-metre freestyle, set New Zealand national records that exist to this day. She travelled around the world in pursuit of excellence, and when her swimming career was done, she worked on figuring out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
Her parents currently live in the Middle East, and she coached there before moving on to Phuket, Thailand, for the last three years. Now, she’s across the world in the Caribbean, coaching in a location that she had never visited previously and never could have imagined making her home.
For Palmer, being far away from home is natural. She can recall living in England and spending hours on the phone around the holidays getting reacquainted with her family in New Zealand. Now, with her parents in the Middle East and one sister in the United States, there’s less tying her to home.
“I think if everybody were at home in New Zealand, I’d probably be a little more homesick. But they’re not,” she said of her early days in Cayman. “People are amazing here. I’ve just felt so welcomed and so supported. The team has been awesome. The parents have been incredible and so gracious. There just seems to be a wonderful community here. It probably doesn’t get much better than this.”
Palmer said that she wants her swimmers to be as good as they aspire to be themselves, and she wants to be vigilant in guarding against overtraining lest they succumb to burnout or catastrophic injury.
The presence of the ocean, said Palmer, is never far from her mind or her swimmers’ lives, and she’s convinced that over time, the local swim scene will begin to bear internationally competitive fruit.
“There seems to be a really good rapport with all the coaches across the board. There’s clearly talent here. There’s opportunity,” said Palmer. “There are so many great things to take advantage of. There are more kids here than some of the clubs back home, and on an island this small, that’s surprising to me.
“To me, all the nuts and bolts are here to really be able to do some amazing things. Cayman will find over the next few years and generations that they have as much opportunity as anybody else.”