Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Celebrating 40 Years of the Sport Wales National Centre (Part 2) - Nick Lia

On 12 June 1972 Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, officially opened the National Sports Centre for Wales. Today marks the 40th anniversary of a superb facility - that has seen countless Welsh sports heroes pass through it's halls - that we now know as the Sport Wales National Centre. Nick Lia, Operations Manager, has worked in the Centre from the very beginning. In this second installment of a two-part blog he shares just a few of his fond memories over the years.

Nick Lia, Sport Wales National
Centre Operations Manager

Thinking back over 40 years of the history of SWNC, or the National Sports Centre for Wales as was known originally, it’s not easy picking out major events and experiences as there are so many of them during this time.

I can remember visiting the Centre on its opening weekend; 30 Oct 1971 and the masses of people in the building who, like me, were looking in fascination at the facilities on offer and the various sporting demonstrations on display.

I started working at the Centre in Sept 1973 as a lifeguard having walked through the doors two weeks previously asking if there were any jobs going - luckily there were. To give you an idea of what we earned in those days my hourly rate was 50p per hour with an extra 2p on top for my lifesaving and first aid qualifications! More importantly were the prices in the cafeteria, as you could buy tea or coffee for 2p a cup and lunch or dinner could be bought for 10p – scandalous!

The modern day Sport Wales National Centre
For those who have a passion for sport like myself it was a fantastic place to work then and it is still as true today. As the centre was a unique place in the early 70’s I remember lots of visitors coming to look around and be amazed at what we had to offer.

Membership of the Centre was a prized possession as many more people applied for membership then we could manage – over 10,000 at one stage. For the first few years membership was renewed on 1 April and had to be done in person. I remember coming to work at 7am and the queue was already several hundred metres long and stretched all the way from reception down and along the access road – an amazing sight. Fortunately for members and reception staff a rolling membership scheme was introduced which made queuing a thing of the past.

It was soon clear to the Sport Wales hierarchy that the Centre facilities could not cope with the demand from athletes and members and plans were made to extend the Centre. I can still remember the JCB cutting the first sod in the rear lawn to start the building works. I was there at the time to remove the washing line which was in the way. How very different things were then!

The new extension was opened in 1977 and on the ground floor facilities included; the side reception, toilets, the multipurpose Lower Hall, plant room two and new weights room.

On the way to the second floor were changing rooms and offices; very much as they are today with the Jubilee Hall and another changing room above.

A landmark event in 1979 was the installation of the first artificial turf pitch in Wales. Prior to the start of this work on a cold foggy day in February the line of elm trees which flanked the side of the Dri-pla pitch were felled due to Dutch Elm disease and I can remember them crashing onto the now redundant surface as they were felled one by one.

Sadly, it was not too long after the opening ceremony in July that disaster struck. Just after Christmas Day in 1979, and after many days of heavy rain, the river Taff broke its banks and flooded many acres of land around the river including the new pitch and Centre. The pitch was ruined, as the carpet pile filled with silt and mud, while the Centre was under two foot of water. The Centre was closed for about six months while facilities dried out and were repaired but the pitch took much longer to clean and was never the same again.

The installation of a Health Suite was a major innovation in the late eighties. Situated on the first floor and converted from three changing rooms it offered a spa bath, Turkish room, sauna, sunbeds, relaxation area and fitness testing.

Another major incident took place in the early nineties. The multipurpose Lower Hall was converted to a specialist Gymnastic Hall in 1992. A few years later however a fire started there and caused major damage to the equipment in the hall and nearby corridors.

There have been lots of structural changes to the building over 40 years. Far too many to mention. The building's infrastructure has been improved and updated many times, as has the need to keep up with equipment changes to meet new technical specifications.

The National Judo Centre at the SWNC
The most recent and significant change has been the removal of the swimming pool and the creation of the National Judo Centre and above it, the national Centre for Elite Athlete Support. These are fantastic facilities with the latter providing top class support facilities for elite athletes. It does what it says on the tin!

At the heart of the building and its facilities however are the staff and people who make this place tick and I have met many famous people who have visited the Centre. The slide show that Chris Bonnington gave of his exploits of climbing Everest and K2 was a sell out in the Main Hall in the 70’s. Jonah Barrington (the most successful British squash player ever) played in a tournament here in that decade and Chinese table tennis players and Russian gymnasts performed in the Main Hall – rare excursions into the West in those days. These are only a few of the best who have passed through our doors and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come.

A few famous sportsmen also worked here as development Officers in the 70’s and 80’s, namely Lyn 'the Leap' Davies, and Gerald Davies – the Welsh Rugby winger. Later, Nigel Walker, the Olympic hurdler and Welsh Rugby star was also a Development Officer here. Not forgetting (legendary Olympic gold medal winning showjumper) Sir Harry Llewellyn, our first Chairman. Lyn Davies often teased Sir Harry that while he won his Olympic gold medal in show jumping on four legs, Lyn won his on two!

It is difficult to condense nearly 40 years of memories into a few paragraphs as there are so many personal stories and incidents that could be shared. Suffice it to say that working here has been a fantastic and rewarding experience, both from a career and also a personal point of view. How fortunate I was to have been given the opportunity to progress from Lifeguard to Head Groundsman to Operations Manager.

The support given by colleagues over the years has been invaluable and having worked with many of the Ops team for longer than I care to remember I am proud to say that I have grown old with some of them. Amazingly, the average length of service for the 13 members of Operations is about 22.5 years. It has nothing to do with their manager, it’s just a great place to work!

The Sport Wales National Centre is the home of Sport Wales. Follow @sport_wales on Twitter for all the latest sports news and developments in Wales.