Archive for March, 2009

The Cautionary Case of Nick D’Arcy

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

… or why we were not surprised.

By Jane

Last week, Australian swimmer Nick D’Arcy received a fourteen-month suspended sentence for his March 2008 assault on former Australian breaststroke star Simon Cowley. If you’re into swimming, you know about this. The assault took place hours–not days–after D’Arcy won the 200m butterfly at the Australian Olympic Trials, supposedly securing his place on the country’s Olympic team. The injuries inflicted when the mean end of D’Arcy’s elbow connected with Cowley disfigured Cowley enough to require metal plates be implanted in his face. D’Arcy was accordingly thrown off the Australian swim team. Almost exactly a year after the assault, he has qualified to swim in the Rome World Championships and has been handed his official punishment.

It was a horrifying incident and it sullied the name of swimming, a sport generally regarded as being relatively violence-free. In all the discussion about the fight, however, something very troubling was barely touched upon, and it’s something only a member of the swimming community could really vocalise. It was the fact that many of us were not at all surprised.

Of course we were surprised. No one imagines that a newly-crowned national champion and Olympian would allow himself to do something the likes of what D’Arcy did. Living in the United States at the time (a country not nearly as obsessed with swimming as Australia), I didn’t find out about the fight until I went to Sydney at the beginning of April. Sitting in a Sydney bar and listening to the story, about a kilometre from the scene of the fight, I couldn’t believe swimming had descended to the level of rugby league and British football. We’re nice kids. We don’t do things like destroy each other’s faces.

But hindsight is really interesting, and now, a year on, I am not surprised. In fact, it’s amazing that it took until 2008 for someone to do something like this.

When I began swimming well, I was about fifteen and it was 1999. I am two and a half years older than Nick D’Arcy and I never knew him, but I knew the two generations of male swimmers who came before him. They were not saints, but their culture was different.

You had your smart-arses and your idiots, and we all liked a drink, but I remember there being a lack of serious machismo in those people. When I say serious, I mean that they did not take themselves as seriously as they might have. Fantastic athletes like James Hickman of Great Britain and Bill Kirby from Australia were polite and personable, and certainly never displayed any tendancy towards violence. A few years later, I’d find some of their successors, across many countries, to be very different. Suddenly, a selection of the Aussie guys no longer smiled at you: they leered at you with curled lips and suggestive expressions. They weren’t the types of people you’d want to be around when they’d been drinking, and you’d never let yourself be alone with them, alcohol or not. You had your notable exceptions from the previous generation, such as the disgraced Scott Miller, but the culture was not one in which anyone felt uncomfortable.

Sometime in between the year 2000 and March 31, 2008, a culture grew in swimming where some of these guys really believed that they were all that. I speak from experience and opinion alone, but some of them believed their own hype to the extent that they thought they should have anything and anyone they wanted. The eventual result of a culture like this is usually an incident like that between D’Arcy and Cowley. However, it’s only a ‘wake-up call’ if the community realises what really happened.

Again, I’m not saying that the 1999 generation were angels, but they were different. Some will blame this on money: get good enough nowadays, and swimming can now make you very rich. I don’t necessarily believe that this is the crux of the problem; however, I do believe that those people in charge of swimming federations worldwide should be very mindful of the culture building in their midst. There is a marked difference between having 21 year olds misbehave, spend all night after a competition at bars, puke in a gutter and even mouth off at a teammate, and letting a culture manifest where menacing arrogance is acceptable. When I think about what I saw become acceptable swimming culture, I’m not surprised that Nick D’Arcy did what he did.

It isn’t that far fetched that swimming could be let to turn into rugby league or European football, where every second week wouldn’t be complete without a competitor being hauled before a judge for smacking someone around. I know a lot of swimmers who do embody the characteristics of those people who were great in the 90s. My father coaches some of them in Florida. In other parts of the world, however, there’s a dangerous culture brewing. Let D’Arcy’s case be a warning, and stifle a culture that could turn swimming into something none of us want it to be.

D = Square Root of (X2 – X1)2 + (Y2 – Y1)2

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

By David

Last week, an American swim coaching magazine spent several pages discussing distance. In case you’re not familiar with the concept of distance, I’ve used the mathematical formula as the title to this article. I happen to be a strong supporter of distance: not the formula, but distance training. No one who has been an Arthur Lydiard disciple for as long as I have could be anything else.

Our team has just completed their ten week aerobic conditioning build up in preparation for the 2009 summer season. The table below shows the distances several swimmers covered each week and their total for the period.

Skuba’s 880 kilometers is a long way to swim. It’s not the best I’ve seen. Both Toni Jeffs and Jane Copland got through 1000 kilometers in the ten weeks. Jane did it on several occasions [Editor’s note: I think it was only twice :)]. However, 880 kilometers is certainly world class distance conditioning. The lost 50 kilometers in week five, when Skuba was ill with a flu type bug that went around the team, cost him the chance of a build up in excess of 900 kilometers. This build up was Skuba’s first attempt at a full tens and was a very good effort. It will yield beneficial physiological changes that will result in faster swim times; but more of that later.

Just as impressive was the build up by 12-year-old Jamie. An average of 66 kilometers a week for ten weeks at 12 is the best I’ve seen from a swimmer of her age. An average of 58 kilometers by the other twelve year old, Catalina, is the second best I’ve seen. Whoever said young swimmers couldn’t swim these distances never saw these two girls. Part way through the build up Jamie’s Dad was officiating at a local swim meet. One of the officials from another club asked him how far his daughter swam each week. Jamie’s Dad said, “About 70 kilometers.” The official said that was clearly a mistake. No 12 year old could swim that sort of distance. Our incredulous friend probably does not read Swimwatch, but if he does, she sure as hell can.

On the final Saturday of each season’s build up I set the team a 600 meter time trial as a test of their aerobic conditioning. Obviously, after all that long distance training swimmers are in no shape to race fast. They should however be aerobically fit enough to swim 600 meters at a good pace with even 100 meter splits. I look for two things in this trial session. Has the overall time improved from the same swim last season and are the splits for each 100 even? The table below shows the total and split times for the last three 600 trials swum by three of the swimmers.

It may be of interest to see the result of a 600 meter breaststroke trial that I thought was pretty impressive. Jane swam it at the end of a 1000 kilometer build up and about twelve weeks before she won her first New Zealand national championship and broke her first New Zealand open record.

When it comes to distance conditioning, obviously I agree with Councilman and Lydiard. For those who may have doubts consider these factors:

  1. In Jane’s 600 meter breaststroke trial she swam 2.38 for the first 200 meters and 2.39 for the last 200 meters. That’s a pretty good sign of sound, deep seated aerobic fitness.
  2. A 12 year old female whose best race times before this build up were, 100 meters 1.12, 200 meters 2.35 and 400 meters 5.08 swam these distances during this 600 trial in 1.09, 2.25 and 4.57. That’s another pretty good sign of improved aerobic fitness.
  3. Skuba swam his first trial a year ago after having three years away from the sport. Two more build ups and this trial was 3% faster. That too is a pretty good sign of improved aerobic fitness. Faster race times will certainly result.

As you can see, although the swims are aerobic they are not exactly slow. Lydiard is often credited with being the father of the “long slow distance method” of training. He was not. Just try and swim 600 meters in 6.30 or 600 meters breaststroke in 8.00 minutes after completing 1000km in ten weeks. These times are not slow. And yet, to well-conditioned swimmers, they are still aerobic efforts. To their anaerobically over-trained peers, swims such as these would be impossible aerobically and maybe anaerobically as well. In this principle lies the reason our runners can’t get anywhere near the African athletes. It’s called aerobic conditioning. You get it by long, fast aerobic effort over many, many miles. Hold on to that idea, it might make you a champion one day.

Bloomers and Black Stockings

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

By David

On December 19, 2008 Swimwatch published a story called “Much Ado About Neoprene”. The article discussed the implications of a meeting FINA was scheduled to have with 16 swimwear manufacturers. The purpose of the meeting was to recommend amendments to the “FINA Requirements for Swimwear Approval”. Amendments, FINA thought, were needed to control the technology being applied to swimsuit manufacture. The recommendations would then be considered by the FINA Bureau at its March meeting in Dubai. That Bureau certainly does themselves well in the exotic locations department.

Arguably the suit that started it all, the Speedo LZR Racer

The meeting with the 16 manufacturers has been held. The recommendations have been published. Here is what the delegates in Dubai will consider.

  • Swimsuits shall not cover the cover the neck nor extend past the shoulder or ankles.
  • The material shall have a maximum thickness of 1mm; it will follow the body shape and shall not create air trapping effects.
  • The swimsuit shall not have a buoyancy effect of more than 1 Newton.
  • Any system of external stimulation is prohibited.
  • Swimsuits must not be modified for individual swimmers.
  • Swimmers can only wear one suit at a time.
  • FINA will establish a swimsuit control/testing program.

I have no idea whether these controls ensure swimsuits are fair and honest. They seem sensible, but then I don’t even know what one Newton means. There is a certain irony in the rule demanding suits do not cover a swimmer’s arms. It was not so long ago that the same organisation insisted girls cover those extremities. In the not-so-distant-past, this organisation would have had swimmers wearing men’s shorts like this for the 100 butterfly, and women’s bloomers along these lines for the 200 IM. This does not cheat former swimmers out of their achievements; it is simply the natural progression of the sport and its technology.

The recommendations conclude with a statement from FINA President, Mustapha Larfaoui that says, “While we need to remain open to evolution, the most important factors must be the athlete’s preparation and physical condition on achieving their performances.”

Larfaoui does not explain himself very well. Preparation and physical condition are just as much evolution as new swimsuits. However, if he means what I think he means, then he is quite right. Preparation and physical condition should be foremost in determining the quality of a swimming performance. If the seven recommendations coming out of Switzerland help ensure that is the case, then we can be well pleased. What I don’t understand is why the clearly stated efforts of some companies to push the technology envelope come in for such suspicion. Pushing technology is not necessarily cheating – it’s not even maybe cheating.

Take Rocket Science Sport for example. Their CEO is a guy called Marcin Sochacki. He’s quite open about his goals. Here’s what he says, “Our Company has pushed the edge of technology and perhaps designed a suit that is ahead of its time. The swimsuit complies with all the proposed regulations including buoyancy and thickness except for the length of the sleeve. I do not see this as a set back but proof that our company walks on the razor’s edge in pursuit of technology and innovation. We have a sleeveless version that we look forward to seeing on swimmers in Rome.”

I like that attitude. It’s the way progress is made. Equipment manufacturers do the same thing all the time. Anti-turbulence lane lines, the new Omega starting blocks, improved pool water flow characteristics, deeper pools – there are a million things that give 2009 swimmers a technological edge over their 1960 mates. Thanks to people like Marcin Sochacki, we make progress and that’s a good thing. A favourite hobby of mine is pouring over the US Swimming rule book searching for a rule that might give a clue on how to steal an advantage – not an illegitimate advantage, just an advantage. Upward fly kicks in a breaststroke kick, fly kicks after a turn, delayed breaststroke kicks, track starts and a dozen other innovations are all the result of someone being ahead of their time. So if Rocket Science Sport is trying to do the same thing for swimsuits that I’m trying to do in the pool, then all power to them. That’s not cheating; that’s just “the pursuit of technology and innovation.” It is change that should be welcomed and embraced.

Some dinosaurs, Craig Lord for example, see perils in just about every innovation. He even called the new swim suits “steroid swim suits”. He appears to go to some lengths to exclude Speedo and Arena from that label. I’ve never quite understood why. Why are the suits made by those companies any different? Did they take him to the Ritz for lunch or something? Fortunately Lord’s respect, and hopefully traffic, is declining faster than the New York Stock Exchange. I too hope Rocket Science has swimmers in Rome wearing their suits. I hope I have swimmers in London wearing them. That would certainly be better than some who wish is to see us all in bloomers and black stockings again.