In Four Years, We’ll Know

By David

During the Christmas break, Jane came to Florida. We played a number of the games families do at this time of the year. I enjoy the Internet’s trivia quizzes. Some of the questions are great. For example, who thought up these two: Who hasn’t been Prime Minister of New Zealand and where is Stewart Island? It’s all in the intonation. Who hasn’t been the Prime Minister of New Zealand?

Last night we were asked to name four of the seven deadly sins. I never get them all but apparently they are, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. It got me thinking about which sin was most common and most damaging to a swimmer’s career. Why did talented athletes capable of university full ride scholarships not get them? Why did others capable of swimming for their country never make it? Why do 90% of Florida’s young swimmers drop out before realizing their potential? Is there one sin that explains the vast amount of underachievement that goes on in this sport? I think its greed.

Lydiard would agree. He constantly stressed the long term nature of an athlete’s career. Four years of full international training, he said, was the minimum apprenticeship for a top international competitor. And yet there are hundreds of athletes and thousands of parents and a few score of coaches who want results faster than that. In the United States, it’s especially bad. Around every corner there’s a McDonalds drive-through swim team. In my first three years here I was constantly being sent emails telling me I couldn’t coach a fast swimmer. The emails have dried up a bit since our team qualified six swimmers for the US National Championships, broke two Master’s World Records, won the Ft. Lauderdale International 4×50 relay and had swimmers win the open men’s freestyle and fly events at the same meet.

In spite of that I still see examples of the sin of greed. As Lydiard put it once, “In six months they will know they were right. In six years though, they will know their mistake. And then it’s too late.”

Let me give you a few examples.

I coached an extraordinarily gifted swimmer for two years. At twelve she would hang on a bar outside my office doing repeat sets of ten pull-ups. Concerned that she might be overdoing things I finally asked her to ease off to no more than 50 pull-ups before practice. After eighteen months swimming, at 14, she was easily cruising through occasional weeks of 100 kilometer and had swum 1.02 for 100 LCM freestyle. Just after she qualified for and swam in the finals of the Caribbean Islands Championships her parents told me they were being pressured by parents from the “private school” swim team down the road. She’s swimming too far, they said. She doesn’t race enough events, her strokes all funny, her growth will be affected and she’s got no social life. Finally an email arrived. Dear Mr. Wright, it said, “Our daughter must not swim as far in training. She must race more often and she must do more stroke correction in everything except freestyle.” It was the classic over anxious parent email; Alison refers to it as our “get out of jail card”. Two months later we left what the locals call “paradise”, knowing that this extraordinary girl’s career was a lost cause. That was four years ago. Today she still swims around 1.01/1.02 for 100 freestyle, she’s doing well in school and in every way is a well rounded, good person. But she’s not competing in the finals of the US National Championships or Olympic Trials and that’s where her talent lay until her parents lost or perhaps never knew the meaning of a sound swimming education.

In New Zealand I was fortunate to coach another extraordinary talent. She swam in the finals of the Commonwealth Games, qualified for the Olympic Games, won medals in the Oceania Games, Pan Pacific Games and World Cup Finals. Although she preferred the 50 freestyle, her father said her real talent lay in the 200. I agreed and gradually geared her training toward the 200 event with the firm goal of securing that gold medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Then she met a friend/partner who convinced her that more immediate rewards could be found in her favorite 50 meter event – and so they could. She began coaching herself and successfully went on to win further New Zealand Championships, break World Master’s Records and win two bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games 50 meters freestyle. In Sydney however Susan O’Neil won the 200 freestyle final in 1.58.24. Without question New Zealand could have won that race. One hundred meters in 57 followed by a minute was well within her capability. It’s about patience. Gold can be lost for the lack of it.

Recently I coached another talented young freestyler; perhaps not quite as gifted as the swimmers already mentioned in this article. However, what she missed in talent she more than made up for in work ethic. She swam further and harder than anybody I’ve coached at her age. I forever had to tell her, “That’s enough for today. You hop out now.” Given time her ability to work would have yielded plenty. My guess is that in four years she had the potential to be around – that’s above or below – 4 minutes for 400 and 8 minutes for 800 meters freestyle. Unfortunately, she had, and my guess is still has, a classic “over anxious parent” mother who has no idea how to handle winning and losing an athletic event. Kipling’s idea of meeting, with “triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same” is a totally foreign concept. I’ve seen her walk out of events when her daughter didn’t perform as well as the mother thought she should. I’ve heard the girl accused of being gutless and not trying. I once heard the mother ask the girl when she was going to stop being mediocre and I was told that the girl had to swim faster to avoid the mother’s Boca Raton friends laughing at her. Wow, in that environment success is doomed to “blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” (For New Zealand readers; Boca Raton is the Remuera of South Florida)

Relevant to all these examples is potential. Clearly if a swimmers has the potential to swim 1.10 for 100 freestyle and does it, that is a major achievement; equal to the feats of a Phelps and Torres. But if you are a female capable of 8.10 for 800 meters freestyle and your best is say 8.52, then something has gone wrong. I am not impressed; 67 meters behind where you should be swimming by now is not good. Give me the 1.10 any time.

In a couple of years or so we will know whether the decisions made this year have worked or not. Lydiard was right, “In six months of course they are all right. In four years, I’m not so sure.”