It seems unbelievable to suggest that a mere university swimming club could transform itself into one of the greatest performance centres in global sport.

It’s no exaggeration, however, to describe the University of Stirling’s swimming programme in exactly these terms.

Over the course of the past few decades, and specifically the past ten years, it’s not overstating things to say the University of Stirling has become a medal factory within the swimming world.

Not only is Stirling producing talent that is amongst the very best in Britain, it’s producing talent that’s amongst the very best in the world.

From six-time Olympic medallist Duncan Scott to Olympic champion Kathleen Dawson to Commonwealth champion Ross Murdoch, Stirling’s roll call is as lengthy as it is impressive. 

Over the years, its swimmers have collected literally dozens upon dozens of international medals and while there is, of course, never a sole reason to which elite sporting success can be attributed, it’s hard to look much further than the mastermind who’s currently guiding the ship.

Steven Tigg is the Head Performance Coach for the University of Stirling’s swimming programme and while he’d likely be far too modest to agree, it’s clear he’s a major reason why this swimming hub in the centre of the country has become the envy of not just observers in Scotland, but across the globe.

The Herald:

Sporting success can be measured in several ways but the most simple, and most brutal, is in cold, hard medals.

And on that front, Tigg has never been left wanting. 

Scott, with his six Olympic, eight World, eleven European and thirteen Commonwealth medals is the most obvious athlete who’s flourished under Tigg’s tutelage but there’s many more who have also succeeded with the 39-year-old’s guidance.

The most recent confirmation of Tigg’s impressive ability to produce world-class athletes came earlier this month, with the announcement of Team GB’s swimming team for this summer’s Paris Olympics.

Of the 33 swimmers selected, five are Scots – Scott, Dawson, Lucy Hope, Katie Shanahan and Keanna MacInnes, all of whom train under Tigg at the University of Stirling - plus Englishwoman Angharad Evans and Northern Ireland’s Jack McMillan who are also based at the University making it seven swimmers in total who will be flying the Stirling flag at the Olympic Games, which begin in less than three months.

It’s perhaps fitting that it’s a local boy who’s brought this considerable success to Stirling.

Tigg was born and raised in Alloa and first visited the University of Stirling pool at the tender age of just eight years old.

Few, including himself, could have envisaged the success that he was to bring to the University three decades later.

Tigg is far from an overnight coaching success, however.

He learnt his trade at Alloa ASC before then becoming head coach of South Ayrshire and F.I.R.S.T (Falkirk Inter-Regional Swim Team).

It was when he joined the coaching team at the University of Stirling, however, that his talents would really begin to shine.

At the time of Tigg’s move to Stirling’s swimming progamme in 2014, Ben Higson, who is now head coach at the Western Australia Institute of Sport, was at the helm and together the pair began to lay the foundations for the medal-factory that we all class Stirling to be today.

The year before, the University of Stirling’s swimming programme had received a bitter blow by having its ITC (Intensive Training Centre) classification removed, swiping away Stirling’s status as a high-performance training centre. This meant considerably less support would be heading to Stirling and for many swimmers with aspirations of making it to the very top, training at the University of Stirling became a far less attractive prospect.

However, between Higson and Tigg, the pair put their heads together and set to work to prove Stirling was a viable training base for swimmers who strived to compete with the best.

They didn’t have to wait long for their point to be proved both to themselves and, crucially, to others.

Ross Murdoch, a University of Stirling swimmer, burst into the public’s consciousness by winning his memorable gold medal in the 200m breaststroke at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, defeating race favourite, Michael Jamieson in the process. 

The Herald: Ross Murdoch won gold at Glasgow 2014Ross Murdoch won gold at Glasgow 2014

And that, admits Tigg was a major moment for him personally and for so many observers of the journey Stirling had been on for twenty years.

“It all began in the early 1990s with 'Stirling Students' and from there, lessons were learnt throughout every period that came before so things were constantly added, improved upon and changed in the programme. So it’s very much not just been an overnight success at Stirling,” Tigg says.

“But one of the biggest turning points for us was when Ross Murdoch won gold at Glasgow 2014.

“Having ITC status taken away by British Swimming was a blow but then the next year, Ross appeared and won the Commonwealth Games and that was huge.

“That was a big catalyst for the belief of us all because it showed that success was possible. Maybe there had been doubt there from others, I don’t know, but regardless, Ross’s win showed that successful swimmers could come from the University of Stirling.”

Murdoch’s Commonwealth gold was one of the first major medals in what has turned out to be an avalanche of silverware over the past decade.

Tigg, who became head coach of the programme in 2017 following the departure of Higson, has been aided by the fact that Stirling University has never been lacking for cutting-edge facilities and equipment.

From world-class underwater tech to a high performance preparation room to state-of-the-art sports science laboratories to strength and conditioning suites on-site, Stirling is, believes Tigg, an environment as good as any he’s seen in Europe or America when it comes to providing for athletes.

There’s a considerable leap from providing good facilities to actually producing medal-winning athletes, however, but by creating an environment in Stirling in which swimmers could fulfil their potential, significant success has flowed.

“When you begin at a programme, you don’t think about making Olympic champions. Instead, you think about creating an environment that will be conducive to producing world-class performances,” says Tigg.

“We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had some good athletes here, as well as good coaches and support staff and everyone has the right mindset, which is vital.

“The environment we’ve been able to create in Stirling is second to none within Scotland by some margin, but even globally, it’s right up there.

“And the natural evolution of the programme is that now, we have very high standards.”

Having quite so many world-class athletes under one roof brings with it significant challenges, however. 

Competitiveness is a vital quality for an elite athlete to possess, but it can also, potentially, be a destructive one. 

And managing that dynamic is, admits Tigg, not always easy.

“It’s about humility. Athletes need to accept that they’re not always going to win –sometimes you might be beaten and that’s all right. 

“Whoever you are here, the focus is always the same and that’s to swim as fast as you can. We remind every swimmer that the biggest battle they have is with themselves, not anyone else,” he says. 

“And it’s about using the other swimmers - if each athlete pushes others to improve, they’ll improve themselves but that’s a hard thing within a competitive environment to get right. We work hard on that because all these swimmers are young, competitive and very ambitious.

“So, for all these athletes, the biggest part is the mental side of things and as coaches, we have to manage that. We have to make sure the swimmers aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves - often, athletes start thinking about the ‘what ifs’ but they need to forget about the what ifs and focus on the step in front of them.

“But although there can be challenges, having a group all competing alongside each other and striving for success together is so helpful because they’re all inspiring each other.”

As part of Team GB’s Olympic coaching team, Tigg will head to Paris this summer alongside his cohort of swimmers and the evidence suggests his charges will return home with at least a few medals in their hand luggage.

The Herald: Duncan Scott already has six Olympic medals to his name and will be hoping for more in ParisDuncan Scott already has six Olympic medals to his name and will be hoping for more in Paris

Tigg refuses to be drawn on precisely how many medals he believes could be heading back to the University of Stirling’s campus this summer but despite his reluctance to disclose numbers, his optimism is clear to see.

“I have identified events where there’s medal possibilities, probabilities or outside chances but really, what I have to do is try to get each athlete to swim a faster time than they ever have before because you can’t control what others can do,” he says.

“I’d never say how many medals I think the guys can win in Paris – of course, there’s individual athlete goals but I’d never share them because that’s not fair on the swimmers.

“But at the Olympics, funny things happen and there’s plenty of upsets and surprises.”

The Herald: Tigg (R) alongside six of his University of Stirling swimmers who will head to Paris this summerTigg (R) alongside six of his University of Stirling swimmers who will head to Paris this summer (Image: University of Stirling)

For all the medal success that Tigg has helped bring to Stirling, however, there’s one byproduct of his success that’s perhaps even more valuable than silverware.

“We want to inspire kids in Scotland and we want them to know that you don’t have to go over to America or down to England to win Olympic medals in the pool,” he says. 

“We can cater for that level here – we have the expertise, the facilities and the set-up that means swimmers can reach that standard.”

And demonstrating, unequivocally, that global success can be achieved within Scotland’s borders rather than having to travel overseas will, in the end, most likely be the greatest legacy Tigg will leave at the University of Stirling.