Burnham's Swimming Pool Saviour. Meet Sara Cox-Conklin, a home-grown sports champion

PUBLISHED: 12:12 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Sara by her beloved pool, where it all started

Sara by her beloved pool, where it all started

Sarah Ford meets Sara Cox-Conklin, a home-grown sports champion who has taken on the challenge of breathing new life into a Somerset swimming pool. Photo by Mike Alsford.

Sarah Ford meets Sara Cox-Conklin, a home-grown sports champion who has taken on the challenge of breathing new life into a Somerset swimming pool. Photo by Mike Alsford.

It's another busy day at the Burnham Swim and Sports Academy where some young children are taking to the water like proverbial ducks watched over by their instructor and some very proud parents. A bunch of teenage triathletes have just got back from their regular beach run and a squad of elite swimmers are limbering up for their challenging training session.

While it's obvious that some customers are just here for the Starbucks coffee and a catch-up with friends, others have resisted temptation and headed straight to the cardio studio for a serious workout.

It's a scene which many locals could not imagine just over a year ago when the 35-year-old pool in Burnham-on-Sea was threatened with closure. When Sedgemoor District Council announced the building was too expensive to run, campaigners fought to save the facility, with angry protests in front of TV cameras and an online petition sent to Downing Street.

Meanwhile over in the States, international sports champion Sara Jane Cox-Conklin heard the news about the pool in her old home town. Together with her husband, world-class iron man Mark Conklin, she came to the rescue and the couple signed a 99-year lease that ensures the site remains a pool for a minimum of 20 years.
"I just could not let the place go after what it had given me," Sara tells me. "I felt it was time to repay Burnham swimming pool."

Sara grew up in the town and, like many of her generation (including yours truly), was one of the first to learn to swim in the pool when it was built in 1974. She was keen on many sports, winning club and county titles in tennis and she also shone as a horse rider, water skier, judo exponent and netball player. But she excelled at swimming and it was during a summer school that her potential was spotted. She was then on the fast track for the national team, swimming every morning for two or three hours.
Sara won more than 1,000 swimming competitions in the UK. But then suddenly, at the age of 13, she was struck down with glandular fever and was forced to ease off on the training.

Later she was to become UK champion in pentathlon (shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running), representing her country in more than 100 internationals and nine world championships. Then fate struck a blow again when she developed ME.

"I was always operating at 75 per cent and not realising it and then I was bedridden for about 18 months. I discovered triathlon when I went to recuperate in San Diego, which is the birthplace of the sport. I bought a bike, which I could not ride because I was sick, but I said to myself: one day I will ride this thing!"

Sara did her first triathlon - the multi-sport of swimming, cycling and running - in 1995, winning the ITU World Amateur Championships in her first year. After turning pro, Sara went on to win more than 33 professional races all over the world. She competed for two years then gained a master's degree in psychology at California University (winning an award for her outstanding research) before working for Microsoft as a program manager.

Sara and her Colorado-born husband, Mark, were enjoying life in America but she felt she wanted to come back and save the pool which had first given her the opportunity to travel the world. It has certainly been a challenge because work was needed on the building. "But the pool and condition of water was superb, which gave us some hope. The place just needed a facelift and a bit of care," she explains. Next step was to introduce a full schedule of activities such as the Triathlon Academy, body conditioning classes and of course, swimming lessons.

"For us the pool is not there just for hard-core swimmers but also for children and grandparents. We want everyone to feel that it's a place to which they can come and socialise and feel comfortable in; we want it to be a focal point for the community."

Recently Sara and Mark announced their 333,000 expansion plans for the facility, which include a new therapy pool, physio rooms for use by NHS referrals, a spa and modernisation of the changing rooms. The application is currently with the district council.

But don't imagine Sara has now retired from competitions. As we go to press she is preparing to represent Great Britain at the European Biathle Championships in Italy, so there seems to be no holding back this Somerset sporting star!

For more details about the Burnham Swim and Sports Academy and information about forthcoming events such as the Road Run Series and Aquathons, visit www.bospool.com or call 01278 785909.

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