Archive for May, 2007

Willkommen zum Gelsinkirchen

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Overseas competition is a vital part of building an international swimming career. It is difficult to imagine how programs that aspire to international honors can do it without including the international bit. Some athletes do get there with little overseas experience. America’s Amanda Beard and New Zealand’s Peter Snell won Olympics medals before either had much international experience but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. The more normal pattern is that followed by the Russian swimmer Alexander Popov or the New Zealand runner John Walker. They traveled extensively and competed against all their major rivals in dozens of places around the world. They were tough mentally and physically and knew their opposition so that almost nothing could surprise them. Their Olympics were simply an extension of all that had gone before through years of preparation.

In a couple of weeks our team, Aqua Crest, begins its international education. Of course Rhi has competed internationally before but for the others international sport will be new.
I know, in the United States it is possible to argue that there is ample competition at home. It’s tempting to think that going to strange places where the natives don’t speak English and are no faster than many swimmers at home, is just a waste of time and money. Santaluces High School verses John I Leonard verses Park Vista will be excitement enough. But it’s not. The differences are the whole point. Mature men and women who have been subject to a wide range of experiences are best equipped to handle the stresses of National Championships, Olympic Trials and international competition. International experience matures an athlete for sport and for life. Besides, good and all as the US is at this sport there are still quite a few fast guys living somewhere else.

I coached Jane Copland (then aged 14) and Nichola Chellingworth (18) when they went off to Europe on their own to do three World Cup meets. Swimming New Zealand would never allow that these days but a few years later they happily reaped the benefit of having both girls represent the country. Jane went to Europe entirely on her own a year later at 15 and had a wow of a time; broke a New Zealand age-group 100IM record and attended what is still recognized as one of the best swimming parties ever, at a bar just off the Champs Elysees in Paris. Jane, who hated soda, rang me that night and said she’d found a fizzy drink she liked. I can hear her still: “I have discovered champagne” she said.

We have chosen the Darmstadt Meet in Germany. I’ve been twice before and it’s a good meet. I’m told it’s the oldest invitational swim meet in the world. It’s not as big as Fort Lauderdale’s Invitational or as fast as the Missouri Grand Prix. But for a combination of size and pretty good swimming it’s hard to beat. To give you an idea the women’s 50 meters free meet record is 24.96, the men’s 100 meters fly 53.17 and women’s 200 meters free 1.58.79.

Certainly our guys are going to have to be on their best behavior to do well. They will enjoy Darmstadt though. It is a genuinely lovely place about thirty minutes by car south of Frankfurt. It was first incorporated as a city in 1330 by the Bavarian Kaiser Ludwig. Today there are 145,000 people living there, but it seems much smaller. The town is also home to Merck, the giant pharmaceutical company and Wella, the hair cosmetics giant. Combined they employ a worldwide work force of 43,200.

The meet is hosted by the local Darmstadt Swim Club. Their facilities are among the best in Germany. Darmstadt was badly bombed in 1944. Over 12,000 people died, 70,000 were left homeless and 78% of the inner city was destroyed. From the rubble of World War II the town has been rebuilt with better facilities than would otherwise have been the case. For swimming there are now six open air swimming pools, two natural lakes and six indoor pools.

The town’s main aquatic center has a 50m indoor pool and a 50m outdoor, stainless steel pool. There is a gymnasium, weight room, massage clinic, meeting room, and club room. Best of all there is a super café/bar overlooking the outdoor pool; ideal for enjoying a cool beer on a hot day watching the schwimmen.

PS – While we’re talking about foreign things, Jane writes for another website and has just done a piece on strange place names. Here’s the link Its traffic crashed Drivl’s server on Friday afternoon and caused a headache for the webdev team while she was on her way to Idaho for the long weekend, blissfully unaware of the carnage she’d initiated. But I digress. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Fire A Swimmer If…

Friday, May 25th, 2007

You will be aware that much thought and emotional energy has recently gone into evaluating a coach’s fitness to do the job. This is as it should be. Day after day coaches stand there, inflicting pain. They should expect and should receive very critical appraisal.

However, in the interests of justice, it is only fair that we offer the other side of the coin. Are there circumstances where a coach, no matter how awful he/she might be, should sack a swimmer? We think there are. Here is a list of twenty examples for your guidance.

  1. They admit to filling Gatorade bottles with vodka to get them through flights home.

  1. They admit to filling Gatorade bottles with vodka to get them through practice.

  1. They joke about the first two crimes on international websites.

  1. They “deck change” so badly the rest of the team should be paying to watch.

  1. They eat their kick-boards or suck their goggle straps.

  1. They think the ten in 10×100 comes just after six.

  1. They think it’s okay to swim three backstroke strokes before each turn when completing backstroke “kick” sets.

  1. They get seen drinking martinis before the national championships.

  1. They fail to realize that martinis drunk before the national championships should be sipped, not gulped.

  1. They wear mini skirts, high heels or lip gloss to prelims; especially if they are on your men’s team.

  1. They think, “Looking for my goggles” is a good excuse for coming out of someone else’s room at three in the morning.

  1. They insist on being entered in the 50m breaststroke instead of the 800 free even though they’re supposed to be a long-distance freestyler.

  1. They are certain an 800 is twenty-two laps and swim all twenty-two in order to prove it.

  1. Every day, just as practice starts, they remember they left their inhaler and suit at home.

  1. They become too skilled at missing a well thrown pull buoy.

  1. They know lane lines are put there to help them through the backstroke lengths.

  1. They know 200 fly is best swum with one arm.

  1. They have seven different ways of saying, “Sorry, I’m late” and use all seven, every week. If one of them is, “My alarm didn’t work” they’re out.

  1. They think the 60 on a pace clock comes right after 55.

  1. They come from New Zealand (I had to repeat this one…)

Old Fashioned? Yeah Right

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

The best swim coaches association is the American one. Their certification process, information, clinics, magazine, service and recognition are light years ahead of anything else. If you happen to live in Outer Mongolia and are interested in swim coaching, do the ASCA certification process. That way you will be properly trained and the rest of the world will know what your qualifications mean.

ASCA should be made responsible for coaches training and certification around the world. The coaching trade is now so international it could do with some standardization. When he’s not being nagged to death by Jan Cameron a very good Pom called Rushton runs things in New Zealand. Sweetenham, an Australian, is in the UK. The Australian Institute of Sport has had its share of imports and there are even a few of us aliens in the United States.

But all of that is not the subject of this article. What I’m on about is a piece published in the most recent issue of the ASCA magazine. Have you seen it? It’s called “Old School”.

Before talking about that, and I promise this will be the last diversion, the same issue has a short piece by John Leonard called, “Rethinking the Womens’ 200 Freestyle” (Incidentally, the apostrophe should be before the s.) It’s a good piece and highlights aspects of women’s 200 swimming that have long required greater emphasis.

I disagree with one point. Leonard says, “Train children from an early age to take it out and go for it.” That’s a bit different from the Lydiard adage, “The advice to just keep up with the leaders has lost more races than anything else.” I agree with Lydiard. What should be done is to train children from an early age so that taking it out fast is physiologically easy. The trick is not going out fast; the trick is aerobically conditioning athletes so that what was fast is now slow, what was anaerobic is now aerobic, fifty-five for the first one hundred that was once an all out sprint is now just a firm swim.

You will recall it almost killed an aerobically unfit Roger Bannister to run four minutes for one mile. Today aerobically fit Kenyans can run twice that distance at the same speed. The difference? Aerobic conditioning.

And so back to the “Old School” article by Chris Davies. It’s great stuff. Just listen to this.

“Amanda (Weir) gained her speed through endurance training. If you want to go fast in the 50, 100 or 200 you do it through a concern about doing enough yardage to get the job done. Without background I am not convinced one can achieve the ultimate level. I stated it earlier and I think it bears repeating: the common denominator for fast swimming at any distance is hard work”.

Isn’t that just perfect? A guy who has the perception to see through the noise; none of that fancy stuff about 10×50 being a tough day’s work. Have you ever noticed how the phrase “training smarter” always begins a conversation that tries to justify being bloody lazy?

I see why Amanda Weir swam that American record. She was well trained. She earned it.

There are however two things I’d like to question.

If I’ve added up the mileage properly it comes to about 60,000 meters per week. Coincidentally that’s the same figure Sweetenham insisted UK coaches have their teams swim when he became their National Coach. In that case I thought his intentions were righteous enough but never understood the 60,000 meters. There are a million and one exceptions but it seems clear that if the purpose is to maximize aerobic development, then that occurs best at around 100,000 meters per week. If improving the aerobic cardio-vascular system, if increasing the density of capillaries is the goal, then that is best achieved by swimming 100,000 meters and for a long time, at least ten weeks every six months. Swimming 60,000 is better than the aerobic walk along the River Thames that Banister used to do, but it is not the physiological equivalent of the 100 to 120 miles per week of aerobic running done by those fast Kenyans.

Secondly, who came up with the title “Old School”? It’s bloody insulting to call it that. The training proposed by Chris Davis is not old school. It’s at the vanguard of where international swimming is moving. A few elite coaches, like Touretski, have had their athletes train 100,000 meters. The majority however beaver away at 30,000 to 40,000 meters mixing aerobic, anaerobic, sprint and every other category of training known to man. Physiologically their efforts bear no relationship to the aerobic work and development of those Kenyan runners. When we do follow their example then, Phelps and Hall’s times will join Roger Bannister’s. The good thing about the Chris Davies article is that it shines a light towards where we should go and that’s not old school.

PS – It has nothing to do with this article but I just got an email from seven year old Manuela:

Hi coach,

I am just writing to you because I am bord. In such little time I am going to Argentina. It happend so quickly and I am happier than I ever was before. I am going to have so much fun and the good thing is I can still do swimming there. I feel like the hapiese child on earth. Well I have to go bye bye Manuela!

Makes it all worth while, don’t you think?

Change Your Coach If…

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007
A week ago we discussed Laure Manaudou’s decision to change coaches. We offered the view that her reasons did not merit such a risky move. That claim should not have been made without offering some guidance as to what are valid reasons for heading to another team. We apologize for this error and thank those who brought it to our attention.

Here are twenty grounds we think do justify a change. We hope they help those of you emotionally struggling with this issue. In these examples the word “he” also includes “she”.


  1. He beats his thigh with a rolled up heat sheet during your races. (Don’t laugh, we’ve seen it done.)
  2. He thinks coach’s hospitality and pool deck are the same thing.
  3. He puts on a suit and tie for the last night of finals.
  4. He prowls through your Facebook and MySpace pages looking for evidence you’ve been enjoying yourself.
  5. He says he knows you better after a month than you do after 20 years. (That’s from Rhi.)
  6. He thinks aerobic training means walking around the pool twice.
  7. He spends 15 minutes convincing you 10×25 is a hard set.
  8. He has you recite the Lord’s Prayer before your National final.
  9. He thinks a broken arm is a poor excuse for missing the next set.
  10. He thinks swimming the mile before your best event is an ideal warm up.
  11. He’s thinks it’s wrong for a coach have nap while you’re swimming 10×400 meters aerobic.
  12. He has two or more stop watch straps hanging out of his trouser pockets. Worse if they are around his neck, leave immediately.
  13. He uses those energy system codes to explain how your training works and doesn’t seem to know the meaning of fast, slow, steady, hard or easy.
  14. He cheers for your competitors.
  15. He deletes your name from the team’s record book.
  16. He thinks throwing up in the pool is a sigh of a well swum set.
  17. He uses a whistle to control practice. You’re swimmers, not sheep.
  18. He thinks eight-thirty is a late curfew and drinks Gatorade on the final night of the Nationals.
  19. He encourages team parents to keep a notebook full of their child or children’s best times. And splits. And the times and splits of their competitors…
  20. He comes from New Zealand. (That’s from Rhi as well.)

Place of Departed Spirits

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

One of the comments made after the recent “Morals” article was particularly kind. It said;
“Haven’t commented before, but have enjoyed many of your posts, especially the one about growing up swimming in the river. Looking forward to many more!”

There are aspects of life at Te Reinga that are different from the western city version of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Maori people’s recognition of death. Nowhere is that more observable than at Te Reinga, my home village. Here is a description of a Te Reinga funeral for a fictitious woman raised with city material values. While the deceased is fictitious the events described are all real.

The funeral, the Maori word is tangi, was the following Monday. It was a wonderful experience. We flew to the nearest airport in the coastal town of Gisborne. Te Reinga is a further forty mile drive into the mountains and ranges of New Zealand’s east coast. I expected it to be isolated but nothing like this. The nearest shop and hotel were twenty five miles from the small cluster of shanty homes, a school and a livestock trucking company. Te Reinga is set at the point where the Hangaroa and Ruakaturi Rivers merge and spill over bleached white bluffs to create the imposing Te Reinga Falls.

Transcending its isolation is an omnipresent aura of haunted mortality. The rising mist of the falls, the crowding granite cliffs and scrub covered hills – Te Reinga is an appropriate “place of departed spirits.” We parked the car one hundred yards from the meeting house; the Maori word is marae, where Whetu’s body lay in state. The old Maori ladies sitting around Whetu’s open coffin began a haunted cry of greeting. The sound reached our ears only after it had echoed off a dozen cliffs. I swear that sound is the closest thing on this earth to the torment of purgatory. I was physically afraid. We moved towards the gates of the marae and slowly walked up to the veranda with its body and waiting mourners. A few feet from the veranda we stopped and bowed our heads. The wailing cries were a blanket of sound rising and falling around us.

Our group moved forward to the verandah. I could see Whetu’s face, her head hidden under white satin. She may have preferred a city cathedral funeral but this was a community burying one of its own. We shook the hand of each of the mourners and stepped back down from the verandah. Pat said quietly, “Come around here.” At the side of the meeting house Pat washed his hands with water from a bottle.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s a Maori custom to wash away evil spirits,” Pat explained. Alison and I washed our hands too and I felt better.

Thirty minutes later the Church of England funeral service began. It was like no other Christian service I had ever attended. We sat outside, in front of the verandah. Four young girls dressed as angels hovered around the coffin. The oratory of Cannon Rangi Ehu and the Maori tribal elders was eloquent, gentle and strong. Although I did not understand their language, the tributes were just as poignant. With skilled and beautiful timing; a sentence followed by a pause and several thoughtful steps before the next sentence. The words were irrelevant to the meaning. It was more than Whetu deserved. It was certainly more than she would have got in her inner city cathedral. Pat spoke and adeptly employed the same skills to eulogize his fellow administrator and, he said, friend.

For me though the most defining moment was still to come. As Whetu’s ex-husband and her son put the lid on the coffin and screwed it down the congregation sang an ancient Maori hymn. It had the rhythm of a slow waltz. Without even knowing the words the sound carried all the acceptance of grief and the commitment of offering this tupapaku, body, to what ever came next. In this place and sung with the soft, mournful deepness that the Polynesians do best; the compassion was more than I could bear.

The final act of burial took place in the sacred, tapu burial ground behind the marae. Pat had warned us that because of the tapu no one went on to boot-hill, as the locals irreverently called it, without a body to bury. There was no pre-prepared grave; the hole would be dug when we got to the end of the track. There were no head stones or burial mounds. It was just a scrub covered hill. On “boot-hill” we must take nothing with us and bring nothing back. To do so could cause a form of mild insanity, the locals called Maori sickness.

We followed the coffin down a track, across a small stream and into the cemetery. The pall bearers struggled to lift the considerable weight of Whetu up the steep unkempt track. Eventually we reached the shovels that signaled the site of the last grave. I was surprised at the speed Whetu’s grave was prepared and her coffin lifted into the hole. Pat had told us that Maori tradition required the deceased person’s personal effects be buried with the body. I had to smile though as Whetu’s skis were dropped into the hole beside her.

We filed back down the track and prepared to cross the stream. Two Maori ladies dressed in black including matching black gum boots stood in the stream. They used willow branches to splash water on each mourner. “What’s this about?” I asked Pat.
“The water washes away evil spirits. It’s looked on as an important cleansing process,” explained Pat.

I accepted my sprinkling and sat on the other side putting my shoes back on. I noticed Canon Rangi Ehu about to set out on the crossing. He had come prepared. He held a blue and white golf umbrella, carefully positioned to turn aside any drops of the sacred water.
The day concluded with an enormous feast prepared in a traditional Maori hangi. Large stones were heated in a fire and sprayed with water to produce steam. The food was placed on the stones and covered with earth and left to cook. The result was fantastic. Over 200 people were fed with more than they could ever eat. I was introduced to the distinctive flavors of wild pork, venison, puha, and native eel.

Whetu may have preferred a cathedral service followed by tea and cup cakes on the lawn of their Remuera home. My guess was she never knew, “rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that.” She was fortunate that in the end honest people “tho’ e’er sae poor” had marked her passing with sincerity and compassion. I knew of no occasion that better defined this celebration of the past, comfort for the present and hope for the future. I had a feeling though that Whetu was at the gates of heaven demanding to know, “How much did it cost?”