Archive for November, 2006

Age-Old Answer

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006
By David

“Splash” is the US Swimming bi-monthly magazine. The most recent issue (Nov-Dec 2006) contains an article called “Age Old Question”. In it Tom Slear discusses whether; “In their quest for Olympic Gold did Natalie Coughlin and her coach Terri McKeever uncover a radical new approach to training? Mike Silver, author of the Golden Girl would have you believe that is the case.” The article quotes extensively from Terri McKeever and David Salo (current coach at USC) who may have “hit upon a training formula that could revolutionize the sport.”

Unfortunately, McKeever and Salo are then credited with a series of quotes that rubbish what the rest of us are doing but do little to explain the benefits of their “better way”. Oh, we do get a few dismissive hints, their revolution evidently involves “tracking technique rather than counting laps” and “thought provoking drills instead of extended sets” and “swimming backwards instead of numerous tight-interval repeats swimming forward”.

I’m unsure when the IOC approved the 100m swimming backwards but it may be prophetic. Natalie Coughlin, the revolutions main beneficiary is quoted as saying; “Did I need that (aerobic) base I got when I was younger? I honestly can’t say but I was better off for having the experiences I did.”What you’ve got in that comment is a swimmer caught between her new coach’s brainstorm and the age group coach who founded Coughlin’s illustrious career.

Those braver or ruder than Coughlin would come right out and say, “My early aerobic swimming provided the base onto which I can now put McKeever’s training ideas.” We’d all agree with that.

Coughlin’s comment and the “Splash” article do however hint at a dark side of US Swimming that could be of considerable concern. In the two years I’ve been coaching in the United States the mistreatment that takes place between club and college is a scandal. Some college coaches sit there happily identifying the brightest and best club talent; prostitute themselves with attractive offers and lure teenage innocents into their college swimming pool.

For four years they exploit, use and finally discard; contributing nothing. Of course they have no time for extended build ups of steady mileage. They have points at the next dual meet to win. “Besides we’re giving them a free education aren’t we; and board and food and books. Toughen up and get on with it, you ungrateful prima donnas.”

In a few cases the swimming mine is so deep, the field so large that coaches can extract and reap without the damage showing. Coughlin is one of those. Her extraordinary talent and aerobic condition have produced a combination that can be exploited with impunity. It would be unfair to level the charge of usury against all colleges. Some do contribute, build and put in before they take out. The “Splash” article mentions a few, Pursley, Troy, Chavoor, Schubert, and Gambril. Add to this, foreigners such as Touretski, Laing and Talbot and the good guys are looking pretty strong.

“Sprint the hell out of them” coaches don’t want to be known as exploiters. They want to be legitimate. They need a theory to justify their coaching and Mike Silver has worked hard to oblige. He has not succeeded, of course. At the end of the day wrong is wrong; the indefensible cannot be justified. The young swimmers in the above picture don’t need to be swimming backwards; they need to have their aerobic fitness levels cautiously improved if they are going to evolve into successful adult swimmers.

You see it’s all about physiology. Arthur Lydiard, the acknowledged founder of distance conditioning in running said to me, “David, they come up with all this stuff about training smarter, training faster and doing less distance. But as far as I know the human heart is still pretty much the same as it was in the 1960s. What conditioned the heart then will still do so in 2000.”

He was right. And so here for the unbelievers out there here is a short version of Coaching Physiology 101: Establishing an aerobic base means training the body to perform at increasingly higher levels without going into oxygen debt; to swim faster using oxygen as the primary energy source. The best way to improve the speed the body can sustain aerobically is to swim long distances (up to 100kms per week) at the athlete’s maximum aerobic speed. Clearly the faster an athlete can perform aerobically (ie, without incurring oxygen debt) the faster he or she will perform when an efficient anaerobic and speed component is added to the base.

An athlete who can swim 58 second 100s without incurring any oxygen debt will swim faster anaerobically than an athlete who plunges into oxygen debt at 1.10 per 100 pace. The example assumes that both athletes have similar anaerobic training. So there you have it; build a base and then put your anaerobic and speed training on top of the base. That’s the right thing to do. The problem is base building takes time. “Cherry picker” coaches are not going to get into all that stuff. They have a meet to win next week, don’t you know? It’s cruel, but as long as the US has 300 million willing souls ready to charge the guns, they’ll continue to get away with it.

And how do I know all this? You see, I was there. My daughter got her swimming scholarship and her education and took a few suspect coaching bullets along the way. She had her ups and downs, but how did she swim her best times in her best events during her senior year of university? The 48,000 kilometres (or 29,000 miles) that she swam before she got there.

Florida Versus New Zealand: A Dual Meet

Sunday, November 26th, 2006
By David
In the last few weeks the Florida High School Swimming Championships have been held and Jan Cameron has been appointed to head New Zealand’s high performance swimming effort. Now you may think these events are unrelated. They are, I admit, 8071.52 miles apart. Florida’s event was just some high school kids playing swimming, while Cameron was harnessing the resources of her nation in an effort to storm the Great Swimming Wall of China.

Andrew Meeder, Florida State High School Champion

Those were not the only differences. Florida’s school kids traveled to their event in those yellow school busses favored by schools in the United States. Meanwhile Cameron was working out how to spend her share of New Zealand’s state funded investment of $32 million in high performance sport. Readers outside New Zealand are probably not aware that sport in New Zealand is a social welfare beneficiary equal to any of the state’s unemployed, infirm or uneducated.
In Florida I was invited to an after match dinner paid for by two working families while Cameron pondered how to best employ her career’s advisors, nutritionalists, physiotherapists, masseurs, ear specialists, doctors and orthopedic specialists. Preliminary rounds of the Florida State swimming competition took place in pools without starting blocks or in pools too shallow to allow dive starts. Cameron meanwhile urged her charges on to greater deeds in the state of art, pretentiously named, Millennium Institute.
I’m sure you get the point. The differences reflect the contrast between a planned socialist attack on world swimming and a high school curriculum option along side Chemistry and American History.
In spite of their humble resources I was impressed by what I saw at the Florida State high school finals. One of our guys, Andrew Meeder won the boy’s 100 freestyle and looks like he’ll go on to win a lot more than that before he’s done. We got a bronze medal in the girls’ 50 as well.
It got me thinking. How far down the field would these Florida high school swimmers be in the New Zealand Championships? How would they compare with New Zealand’s state funded, Cameron guided, elite. To make the age comparison fair I prepared a table that matched Florida’s high school results with the best 17 or under result from the 2006 New Zealand National Championships. Here is the table:

My God, the resources of a nation at her disposal and Cameron can do no better than our local high school; one win. She’s made some pretty big promises about Beijing. I’m beginning to think Florida will beat her there too.

NB: The 500 Freestyle times have been put through a conversion formula so that they can be compared to New Zealand’s 400m Freestyle times; this system is routinely used in the United States to allow swimmers to qualify for the United States Open, U.S. Nationals and other national competitions (conducted in metres) while competing in NCAA or high school meets, which are generally swum in a twenty-five yard pool. Anyone who has a problem with short course times or yards pools should take this issue up with USA Swimming.

In the United States, certain events, such as the 200s of strokes other than freestyle and the 400 I.M., are not swum at high school competitions. But we promise you that the Floridians are quite good at those, too.

The Red Scare

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006
We would post this as a “message of the week,” but because this email from a dedicated reader contains pictures, we had to make a post out of it. This made our day! Thank you, Jonathan from South Florida.

“A vote for SwimWatch is a vote for Freedom!!!

All hail Lennon and Marx!!!”

Touché, Jonathan. We’ll see you in Guantanamo.

Naughty Pictures on the Internet

Sunday, November 19th, 2006
By Jane
I’ve known some swimmers to do some terrible things. Eleven years of competitve swimming is long enough to witness a large amount of bad behaviour, and I’ve been a part of some swimming-related adventures that might not make a team’s administration proud. We’ve gone, underage, into Australian nightclubs, snuck out of training camp hotel rooms and engaged in general debauchery, in pubilc. My club team was suspended from swimming once, and we should have been a couple of other times. However, I cannot imagine why a university would suspend its swim team for the reasons sited at Washington State University this week.

The Cougar swim team were poised for their most successful season in years. In 2002, the Cougs lost their coach, Rocco Aceto, as well as a number of their most talented swimmers. The skeletal roster that remained committed themselves to rising from their proverbial ashes, and the 2002-2003 season saw WSU take on a new coach, Erica Quam. Each year, WSU’s results improved, until the 2005-2006 season when the team began breaking school records en masse, beating conference rivals and sending swimmers to the NCAA championships. Then-junior Erin McCleave earned All American honours in the 1650 yard freestyle. The team had come a long way from their 2002 lows, where their rivals doubled scores against them and fellow students asked, “We have a swim team?”

Last weekend, the Cougars did what they haven’t done since 2001. At home in Pullman, Washington, the team beat their in-state rival, the Washington Huskies by an impressive 153-108. Rather akin to the Democrats’ experience in the United States’ recent elections, the Cougs gave the Huskies a good old thumping. So, the girls decided to celebrate.

You’re thinking what I originally thought when I heard this story. The girls drank too much and got into a fight. The underage girls were caught red-handed with alcohol. They got into trouble with the cops. As was I, you’re wrong. A number of the team, but not all of them, had a “lingerie party” at a team member’s apartment and took photographs of themselves in said lingerie. You know: underwear. It looks kind of like a swim suit. It shows onlookers about as much as a traditional pair of Speedos. Last year, the Cougs appeared on their team’s promotional poster under-water, closely packed together in the Washington State University diving well. Later in the year, some team members took part in a sports department talent quest, again wearing their swim suits.

The girls’ mistake was posting their photographs on the popular networking website, Facebook. College sports administrators have Facebook accounts, and have threatened to monitor athletes’ online actions; in the case of the Cougar swimmers, it appears that somebody took offense to the girls’ pictures. Less than a week after their historic defeat of the Huskies, the team were suspended from training with their coaches and denied the opportunity to compete at the Indiana Invitational, which is currently underway in Bloomington, IN. Before the season began, the Invitational was chosen, as are all meets, with consideration. It was to play a vital role in the team’s 2006-2007 season.

Now, your sensibilities may lead you to agree that posting sexy pictures of yourself online isn’t smart. I work for a “dotcom” and I have a keen appreciation of how visible everything is on the net. This said, pictures of silly girls in pretty panties are not offensive enough to cancel a swim meet that is historically WSU’s strongest meet of the year, Pac 10 Championships and NCAAs included. Given the atriocious behaviour I’ve seen on the streets of Pullman from members of other WSU sports teams, being at home on a Saturday night trying out the Victoria’s Secret catelogue should be rewarded.

Some more tastefully attired swimmers?

Of course, university officials who are paying for many of these athletes’ educations have a right to ask that the athletes present a respectable image to the public. Asking that these photos be taken down would have been perfectly understandable, but denying this team the right to compete in Indiana may well have cost team members NCAA booths. Furthermore, the actions of the athletic department may have denied NCAA booths to athletes who were not at the party.

This raises the issue of a team, and whether all team members should be punished for the actions of a few. A debate on this subject could stretch this essay into a novel, so I shall keep my opinion on the subject simple. Swimming is an individual sport, and swimmers remain individually responsible for their actions inside and outside of the pool. In sports such as football, hockey and rugby, the actions of one’s team mates are often both the cause and effect of an individual’s success or failure. Although I loved my team mates and appreciated their presence, by two best athletic performances (one in 2001, the other in 2005) were a very personal effort.

Given my personal situation when I was a member of the WSU swim team, I know with certainty that I would not have been present at the girls’ lingerie party. Without fail, I spent every weekend 78 miles from Pullman. I would have been appalled by the administration’s decision to cancel my team’s trip to Indiana, and I since I would have had nothing to do with the party or the photographs, I would have been disgusted enough to transfer colleges. Selfish, yes; however, my selfishness has kept me out of trouble many times, and has garnered success for me at other times.

Tonight, WSU’s swimmers watched their football team lose to the Huskies. Tomorrow, they will travel to their various homes for the Thanksgiving holiday and someone else will stand on their starting blocks in Indiana. In March, at least one WSU swimmer will travel to Minneapolis to compete in the NCAA Championships, but there is a good chance that some WSU swimmers who would have posted qualifying times in Indiana will now not qualify for that competition.

I firmly believe that the college’s sports administration decided to make an example out of the swim team. While making an example out of anyone is an awful move, taking this sort of “now you remember this in the future” action against swimmers is very low. Swimming is a horribly hard sport: the training is relentless, the hours are very long, the chlorine burn is painful and recovery is difficult. Political correctness being pretty much out of the question right now, the administration should have picked on an easier sport. Give the soccer team a slap on the wrist. Do not make an example out of a group of girls whose dedication, loyalty and work ethic exceeds what is necessary.

If the swimmers had done something truly awful, those involved should have been excluded from the trip to Indiana. What has happened in Pullman this week is truly despicable. I emplore anyone in an administrative role to understand the difference between actions that are simply misguided, and crimes that deserve severe punishment. To WSU’s sports administration, I sincerely hope you haven’t damanged four years of hard work, but you probably have. Your actions are far more contemptable, embarrassing and hurtful than was a panty party. I hope you are ashamed of yourselves.

POST SCRIPT: The author notes that a WSU swimming alumae party where granny panties and floppy Cougar tee-shirts were worn is not appropriate Facebook material. However, the author also emplores readers to visit Flickr and view the search for “PubCon Party.” That was a good night.

It’s A Big Week For The Team

Monday, November 13th, 2006
One of the youngest members of the United States swim team in Athens was a sixteen year old called Rhiannon Jeffrey. She qualified for the Games in the 4×200 meter relay by placing fourth in the Long Beach trials 200 meters freestyle in a time of 1.59. At the Athens Games she was the third swimmer in the relay preliminaries and handed over to Jenny Thompson who at thirty was the team’s oldest member. To be story book correct it should have been the other way around, Jenny, the oldest handing over to Rhi, one of the youngest – the old, hands over to the new and all that sort of thing. But alas America’s coaches must have been more concerned with winning than writing historically correct footnotes. Later that day the American girls won the 4×200 meter final. Rhi was an Olympic Champion and had a gold medal to prove it.

I do hope no one is devaluing Rhi Jeffrey’s performance in Athens by mumbling something about it only being a relay. An Olympic Championship is without peer no matter what the event. That is especially true when the newspapers in New Zealand have been wetting themselves with glee about New Zealand’s performance at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships – getting into a few finals. Rhi did win a race.

Devaluing her efforts reminds me of an occasion in the 1970’s when a good New Zealand 400m hurdler called Johnson won a bronze medal in the United States National Track Championships. Given that the United States is perpetually home to nine out of the world’s top ten 400m hurdlers, Johnson’s effort was commendable. Commendable that is except in the New Zealand press. Wellington’s Evening Post churlishly reported that Johnson had “only” won a bronze medal.

It seems to be the lot of the very good, to be sniped at by the not so good. The most extreme example would have to be Mohammed Ali – accused, abused and shot at by those unable to see his majestic talent or beyond the fact he’s black. Even Lance Armstrong has had to carry the burden of being drug tested every five minutes and still be the subject of taunts that his Tour de France wins are the product of a personal chemist. There are 100,000 reasons why Armstrong is as good as he is and every one of them is a mile on his training bike. The United States is blessed with many fine coaches in most of the sports played on this planet. One of the elite is their football coach, Bill Parcells. He has coached championship teams at the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. He is coaching the Dallas Cowboys now. In spite of his stellar record I’ve heard him criticized for just about every coaching sin – yelling too much, swearing, disloyalty, greed. You name it, according to this lot, he’s done it. His main sin of course is that he continues to beat the teams supported by his critics and for that he will probably never be forgiven.

Even personally you occasionally come across examples of the “tall poppy” disorder. I was standing behind an official at the 1992 New Zealand Swimming Championships. She obviously didn’t know I was there when she turned to a friend and exclaimed heatedly, “I don’t care who wins the 50 meters as long as it is not that girl Jeffs.” Predictably, Toni won. What wasn’t so predictable was watching the same official run across to congratulate Toni on her win. At another New Zealand Championships, one of New Zealand’s senior officials took the stroke judges, who would be judging that night’s finals, under the pool to watch the heats through an underwater viewing window. While they were there a lifeguard overheard this pillar of honesty say to the judges, “Watch Jane Copland in this heat. This is what you can disqualify her for tonight.” The lifeguard reported this fine example of all that’s best in sport to me and I took it to other senior officials with more integrity. Jane won the final.

Even I’ve had my moments. One disgruntled parent, in a two month period sent me 35 mainly abusive emails, contacted my employer – presumably to get me sacked, contacted my publisher – presumably to stop me being published and wrote an abusive email to my daughter threatening her education and US residence. Several emails included the phrase, “you are destroying my family.” That’s funny only because a year later we discovered that at the time he wrote the emails he was having an affair with a fellow employee. It was not because of us that his wife left him. He proved well able to “destroy his family” all on his own.

Talking about residence we’ve spent this week looking at houses in Florida. We have two estate agents – the Americans call them realtors – associated with the swim team. Darcy is a masters swimmer, but works out with the open team. So she should, she has just won the United States Masters National Open Water Championship. Jonathon has just got back into swimming – he swam in college. He is the poor soul who has shown us through an endless stream of houses. On Sunday he bought us lunch. The lady at the next table was clearly not pleased with her food. We overheard her complain, “This food is terrible,” she said, “and the servings are too small.” Give her time, I thought, and she will be deriding Rhi Jeffrey and sending me abusive emails.

I’ve wandered off the point a bit. You see the reason I started this piece was to tell you I’ve just had a call from Rhi Jeffery. She’s coming back to the Delray Beach pool to be part of our program as she prepares for the Beijing Olympic Games.