In The Spirit Of Drake

By David

The town of Plymouth is in the far south west of England; three hours by very fast train from London’s Paddington Station. It is also a town of huge historical importance. It was here in 1588 that Sir Francis Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when he observed the Spanish Armada sailing up the coast preparing to invade England. Drake, it is said, finished his game before sailing from Plymouth to defeat the Spanish scourge. The spirit of Drake was needed when Miskimmin invited the Spanish to take over swimming in New Zealand.

Yesterday I visited Plymouth Hoe. Two modern British warships were parked where Drake’s vessels once lay. I have no idea whose armada they are waiting to repel, but I do know that the sense of history here is demanding and loud.

Nowhere was that better shown than at the purpose of my visit; the Plymouth Leander Swimming Club. The work the Head Coach, Jon Rudd and his team are doing there is remarkable. Jon began coaching in Plymouth twenty five years ago in a four lane 20 metre pool. His club was not even the largest in Plymouth. Today Plymouth Leander is one of the largest in Britain, operates out of several town pools including the new eighteen month old ten lane 50 metre facility known as the Plymouth Life Centre and is the club that the current breaststroke Olympic Champion and World Record Holder, Ruta Meilutyte, calls home.

I decided to visit because I’m always interested to see how successful programs operate. Are they Millennium Institutes that simply plunder the talented from local programs? Do they pillage the work of others to feather their own nest? Or, do they build and create? Are they some Spanish conquistador or do they honour the memory of Plymouth Hoe and Sir Francis Drake.

Well, the Plymouth Leander Swim Team is no Millennium Institute; no Spanish Blackbeard. The Club and its coach operate in the spirit of Sir Francis Drake. They do their own thing and they do it well. The program I watched was similar to the schedules we swim during what we call the Trials and Co-ordination speed training period. Apart from the warm up and warm down most of the Plymouth Leander practice was swum at race pace. Rudd made the point that he preferred this pace as it conditioned swimmers to the speed they would actually be using in a race. Swimmers were not practicing something artificially fast or slow.

There was a difference though. Rudd’s practice was longer and harder than we would normally do during the speed work period at West Auckland Aquatics. For example our swimmers often do a set of 6×50 hard on one minute. Rudd did the same thing but followed it quickly with another hard 6×50 with fins. Every set was the same; our set but more. Clearly this is something I am going to have to ponder. Do we need to increase the quantity of the speed portion of our training?

I didn’t see anything that would convince me to drop the tough aerobic, 100 kilometres a week portion of the West Auckland Aquatics’ training. In fact, I think if we are to follow the Plymouth Leander lead of tougher speed sessions, the importance of a good aerobic base of conditioning is enhanced rather than diminished. Speed work done to the standard I saw at Plymouth could only benefit from having a well-conditioned base.

I was interested to watch Ruta Meilutyte. Some Swimwatch readers may know that I have been fortunate enough to coach three good breaststrokers. A few years ago Jane Copland was a National Open Champion and record holder. She swam for New Zealand in the Oceania Championships and in the Yokohama Pan Pacific Games. At West Auckland Aquatics, Jane Ip is the current New Zealand short course open woman’100 metre breaststroke champion. Abigail Frink may not be as fast but has improved very quickly from quite humble beginnings.

Ruta’s slow breaststroke in the warm up was quite normal; five strokes for each 25 metres, a count Jane and Abigail can easily manage. Even at a slow speed the power and thrust from Ruta’s kick were very apparent. At faster speeds, however there were differences. First of all Ruta is fast. From a dive all her 25 meter swims were below 15 seconds; probably averaging 14.7. Compared to Jane and Abigail I thought Ruta’s breaststroke was very busy; almost verging on ugly as she drove hard from one stroke to the next. There were no pauses. Ruta’s swims were a constant drive as she crashed angrily from one powerful stroke to the next. Swimming fast, Jane and Abigail look nicer. But that’s not really the point is it?

I was interested in the relationship Rudd has established with the Plymouth Council run learn to swim program. The most advanced learn to swim class is taken by a club trained teacher. The purpose is to ensure continuity. When a swimmer is ready to leave the learn to swim program, as Rudd said, “You came here this Monday you go over there next Monday.” That has the twin benefits to the learn to swim program of promoting those ready to move and makes space available for younger swimmers wanting to progress. Years ago in Wellington where our club controlled both the learn to swim and the competitive program there was a similar easy transition from school to club. The advantages to the Club are of course obvious. Smoothing this transition is an enlightened approach that in Plymouth is yielding spectacular results to both the learn to swim program and the Club. It is a relationship model that could be of benefit to many New Zealand learn to swim and competitive programs.

So thank you Jon for your welcome and for an interesting and rewarding afternoon. I learned and I was impressed.