Archive for December, 2008

Their Bests

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

By David

Most good athletes provide their coaches with a host of special memories. It is also not unusual for one event in an athlete’s career to stand out above the rest.

In Alison’s running career, her victory in the UK indoor 1500 meter track championship is most memorable. Her 1978 1000 meters in Berlin is still the New Zealand record for that event. Her Commonwealth 1500 meter run so soon after suffering a serious pulmonary embolism was a special occasion. Her surprising wins in two Scottish cross-country championships and fifth place in the Montreal Worlds were also important. But as a complete demonstration of all that was good about Alison’s running, the Cosford UK Championship stands out.

The Cosford indoor track was not the most propitious location. At the time it was the UK’s only indoor track. A fast tartan and wood 200 meter circuit built in an old Royal Air Force aircraft hanger. Alison’s light, bouncing stride was well suited to the track’s pliant surface and tight bends. I didn’t think she had any chance of winning the race. All Britain’s best 1500 meter runners were there; the stamina types who loved a fast pace and the sprinters who looked forward to using their speed at the finish. Whatever the tactics, Alison was going to be out run – or at least that’s what I thought. Alison sat comfortably in second and third through the early laps. With 600 meters to go the pace lifted as the runners prepared for their run to the finish. Alison looked fine but Colbrook and Dainty were just behind her and were noted international fast finishers. With 200 meters left I noticed Alison move into lane two. And then she was gone. In 100 meters she opened a ten meter gap on the field and strode easily to the finish. It was a rout. The 300 mile trip back home to Scotland was a happy occasion.

Toni had her fair share of good races. She was third in both the World Short Course Finals and the Pan Pacific Games. She swam in the Barcelona Olympic Games and won the Oceania Championships. For me, however, her best race was a 100 meters freestyle she swam at the 1990 New Zealand Commonwealth Games trials. She had only joined our team six months earlier and at the time was not a serious contender for the Game’s team. In fact we already had Michelle Burke, New Zealand’s fastest sprinter, on our squad. However, as the trials drew closer I noticed Toni getting nearer to Michelle’s training times. It seemed it would be just a matter of time before Toni became New Zealand’s fastest swimmer. Before the Trials 100 meter final the TVNZ broadcaster, Keith Quinn, called to find out what I thought Michelle’s winning time would be. I told him Michelle would be second. The race would be won by Toni. He said I was the only person in New Zealand who thought that would be the result. Fifty six seconds later Toni was the new national champion. She had won the race with a terrific sprint after the turn, in the third 25 meters. I think it was the elements of surprising the New Zealand swimming community and Toni’s clinical execution of her race plan that make this race special. I was certain she would go on to have a successful international career. Keith Quinn rang me minutes after the race to say he too had become a believer.

Nichola won New Zealand open titles, Australian age group titles and New South Wales open and age group titles but the race I remember most was one she lost, at the 1995 New Zealand nationals in Hamilton. The day before, Nichola, Toni Jeffs and I were driving to training when a utility truck pulled out of a side road in front of us. We hit it at 100kmh. Toni went to hospital with a partially crushed vertebrae, I felt as if a herd of elephants had tramped over me and I know Nichola felt the same. We could hardly move.

Nichola’s 50-metre race was important. It offered the prospect of her first open title and selection for her first national team. She had bettered the Pan-Pacific Games qualifying time two weeks earlier but the selectors said she must qualify again in Hamilton or miss selection

Although I knew Nichola felt terrible, she would not hear of the suggestion that she should withdraw from the event. Discussing the final, we determined that to win meant beating Alison Fitch and Sarah Catherwood, who were seeded in the lanes beside Nichola. On the way to the pool, I told her, “Don’t worry about the time, just beat Alison and Sarah and you’ll win the race.” I could see and feel her gearing up for that one task.

She swam amazingly well. She beat Alison and Sarah but she was still second — away out in lane one, Melissa Bishop swam the race of her life. She had never swum as fast before, she has not swum as fast since. The injustice of it all was overwhelming; not because Melissa won — she deserved to — but Nichola had done more than anyone had a right to ask of her. She had delivered on what she was told to do but a freak circumstance robbed her of the tangible reward.

Nichola’s reaction was revealing. I expected enormous and justified frustration. A flood of tears and recrimination would have been excusable. Those of us who knew her best saw the hurt in her face but there was no complaint, no expression of injustice. Whatever she does, she will never display better character or more courage than she showed that night, in the way she swam and in her dignity and control when she learnt that what she had been told would be enough was, freakishly, still short of the mark. A top person.

Jane too had her share of memorable races. Her New Zealand IM record in Berlin was unexpected. Her 2.14 win in the Minneapolis 200 yards breaststroke to qualify for the NCAA finals inducted her into the small group of New Zealanders who have swum in that prestigious event. Her first NZ National Championship win in Rotorua was very special as was her 2.30 New Zealand record in the 200 meters breaststroke in the tiny New Zealand town of Waipukurau. But the swim I remember most wasn’t even a race. When Jane was three years old I used to take her swimming most days. Much of her time was spent riding the Moana Pool’s huge hydo-slide. I would tell her stories of my swimming days; of when I got my 800 meters certificate when I was only four years old – all those patriarchal tales. Some of it must have registered. On the way to the pool one Saturday morning three year old Jane said, “Can I swim 800 meters this morning?” Now, I must tell you that every Saturday morning New Zealand’s best swim coach, Duncan Lang, converted Dunedin’s Moana Pool to 50 meters. It seemed to me 16×50 meter lengths might be a bit much for a three year old. But I said, “If you must.”

An hour or so later she finished the 800 meters, 16 lengths, without a stop. Duncan had taken time out from training Danyon Loader to watch Jane’s swim. Anyone who has met Duncan knows he was never one to exaggerate. On this occasion however he muttered an extravagant, “That’s very good.” Years later Jane was on several New Zealand teams coached by Duncan Laing. Each time they met at the airport, Duncan would begin the conversation with, “G’dday blondie. Do you remember that time you swam 800 meters when you were three?” He hadn’t not forgotten and neither have I. I wonder if Jane remembers?

Much Ado About Neoprene

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

By David

This week I received an email from the American Swim Coaches Association. It copied an article, written by Craig Lord, discussing the dangers of swim suit development. Actually that’s not true. The article doesn’t discuss anything. It’s a genuine Craig Lord rant. You may not be aware of this but Craig Lord can out-rant anyone on any subject. This time his focus is the development of “LZR-type” swimsuits. According to Lord we have just entered the era of steroid-suits. A time when the suits swimmers wear will determine their success. Bubble wrapped zombies will soon be able to beat us all.

Lord’s indulgence is classic Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. I’m told that phrase “is often used today in reference to persistent engagement in a futile activity or attacking imaginary enemies. At one point in the novel, Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines to be giants. Quixote sees the windmill blades as the giant’s arms”. Lord too sees windmill blades as giant arms. Only in his case they’re wrapped in Neoprene.

For some reason Lord tries to exclude Arena and Speedo from the nasty group of swim suit manufacturers. Their suits “enhance performance” but it seems in a good way compared to other manufacturers. The really bad windmill is a guy called Marcin Sochacki, the CEO of Rocket Science Sports. Quite why Speedo’s version of “enhanced performance” should be more acceptable than Marcin Sochacki’s I have no idea. Lord does not provide us with that insight.

Apart from trying to panic us all into an assault on his windmills with giant arms, I think Lord’s point is that at a meeting to be held in late February between FINA and 21 swimsuit manufacturers, FINA had better make sure a set of standards is agreed upon that prevents swimsuit manufacturers taking their slippery, buoyancy developments too far. That seems to be a fair enough goal. FINA should prevent suits inflating or wing-foils deploying at speeds above 1.5 meters per second.

But there is not sufficient evidence to support Lord’s view that wearing some suit “is no different than knowingly popping steroids.” That is way, way over the top. It is the feature of the Lord article that generates the most disgust. His position diminishes the fine feats of modern athletes. What else do these two paragraphs mean?

As we approach the last big week of international swimming this year, we know that 91 world records have fallen, 54 of them long-course. Was the status of Gross, Darnyi, Dolan, Biondi, Jaeger, Evans, O’Neill, Meagher, Perkins, Morales etc not enhanced because their achievements were considered as extraordinary and not just one of 100 such swims in one year? Add up every world l/c record broken in Olympic years 1980 to 1996 and you get to 93 (including some swims we now know to have been driven by steroids and other performance-enhancing substances). Gosh, how boring it all must have been. Hold on – no it wasn’t. It was fabulous. Swimming and breaking world records can be fabulous again.”

Modern suit manufacturers “lead the sport of swimming further down the slippery slope of shattered contracts, loss of faith, divorce, descent and on towards the bottomless pit of the doping suit.” They sweep “some swimmers past rivals who under other circumstances would still be out in front.

For Mr. Lords benefit, let me explain what’s wrong with all that emotive claptrap. I have been privileged this winter to sit and watch the three European World Cup Meets in Moscow, Stockholm and Berlin. In the process, seven or eight world records were broken. They were all fabulous. The underwater work of Bal’s 50 backstroke, the tough determination of Marieke Guehrer in the Berlin 50 butterfly, the lightning speed of Therese Alshammar in the same event in Stockholm, the pace and strength of Paul Biedermann in the 200 freestyle, the wonderful rhythm and tempo of Cameron Van Der Burgh’s breaststroke and the sophistication of Peter Marshall’s 100 backstroke; all a feast of high class swimming. It is abhorrent to see these athletes compared to Evans and Biondi and in some way portrayed as inferior. Lord has no right to do that. It devalues both generations, but not quite as much as it devalues Lord.

I wonder which World Records Lord considers diminished most? Which ones are not worthy of the title World Record? If you make the accusation Mr. Lord, please have the guts to provide the examples. Or is it Phelps’ Olympic record that’s stained because he wore a Speedo LZR? Perhaps Lochte’s World Record was the result of his suit and had nothing to do with the thousands of kilometers set by his father in Daytona Beach. Perhaps Oussama Mellouli only beat Grant Hackett because of his superior suit. Lord is just a bloody joke.

I was in Atlanta recently with a swimmer competing in his first US National Short Course Championship. During the week Skuba improved his short course 50 yards freestyle by 0.47 seconds and his long course 100 meters freestyle by 1.34 seconds. He wore a Speedo LZR suit in both races. But how dare Lord or anyone else suggest the suit produced the result. Not when I’ve sat and watched Skuba swim 100 kilometers a week; week after week. Not when his Atlanta results were obvious in training a week before we left for the meet. Skuba’s work and talent produced his Atlanta result, not a swim suit. And that’s true too of Phelps, Alshammar, Lochte, Marshall and all the rest.

Swimwatch wishes the February FINA meeting well. However, we do it without diminishing the World Records achieved in 2008 by hard working and deserving athletes.

Altanta: 1996 and 2008

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

By David

Some of the world’s great pools are those built for an Olympic Games. I’ve coached swimmers who have competed in the Olympic pools in Paris, Moscow, Barcelona, Sydney, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Rome and Atlanta. Toni Jeffs and Michelle Burke competed for New Zealand in the old Olympic Pool in Melbourne Australia, but I don’t know whether it was the pool used for the 1956 Games.

The pools are all mammoth structures. As well as their size, each one leaves you with an impression of how time has treated them since they were the center of the world’s attention. The pool in Paris, built for the 1924 Games, is the oldest and has the most character. It is located just off the inner ring road that runs around Paris and is a lovely blend of modern and historic . It home is the perfect town for such a union. One of history’s great Olympians, the American Johnny Weissmuller, won the Olympic 100m and 400m there. Weissmuller would later star as Tarzan in the movies and became one of Hollywood’s biggest names. The Paris pool, officially named Piscine Georges Vallerey, has been modernised but preserves the traditions of its history. Today it is 50m, and is divided most of the time by a moveable 25m boom. The water is deep and the pool has a fast reputation. All in all, it’s a lovely place to go swim. Its most amazing feature is that it is built on the third floor. The offices of Sport France and the French Swimming Federation are located under the pool. The punch line has something to do with a drill.

The pool in Rome has fantastic character. It’s one of Jane’s favourites. She wrote a good description of the pool in a recent Swimwatch article that listed her favourite swimming pools.

The biggest pool, bigger even than Sydney, is the pool in Moscow. It is huge. With the exception of the Olympic Games, it is also the site of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at a swim meet. At this year’s World Cup meet the massive stands were packed.

The Mexico City pool is in most need of some tender care. It was built for the 1968 Games and has been sadly neglected. I was there as coach of the Virgin Island‘s swim team. I managed to get one of the swimmers reinstated after he had been disqualified for a dodgy breaststroke turn. The disqualification slip was so badly prepared the officials had no option but to allow the protest. The meet referee was incensed. At the end of the protest meeting he stood up and yelled, “If you were a lawyer, you’re the sort who would get rapists off on a technicality.” Even if you belong to the conservative heartland that believes a badly performed breaststroke turn should be severely punished, I doubt you would put it into the same category as rape. Some of these guys take themselves far too seriously.

The all time acme performance by a New Zealand swimmer occurred in the Georgia Tech Swimming Pool in Atlanta. In 1996, Danyon Loader won the Olympic Games men’s 200 and 400 freestyle there. I was there for the first time last week at the United States Short Course National Championships. It’s a lovely pool and has been well looked after in the years since Danyon swam there. There is none of that awful chlorine stench that plagues some indoor pools. It’s kept at a comfortable temperature. There’s a nice café, an impressive scoreboard and a huge, well equipped weight room. My next comment may be a touch personal but for the life of me I cannot understand why such a well designed facility only has one urinal in the male swimmer’s locker room. I’ve never seen as many guys leaning on a wall waiting to have a pee.

The meet was well run; comfortably up to the standard of the other four United States Nationals I’ve attended. There were all the things we’ve come to expect at US Nationals; a well stocked athlete’s lounge, coach’s hospitality and rapid and easy access to heat sheets and results.

The officials were friendly. I got at least a dozen “welcome to Atlanta” and several “good luck” greetings. The pool was divided to allow women’s and men’s preliminaries to be swum at the same time. That avoided those endless sessions of heats that must rank as one of the worst aspects of this sport. Facilities that hold National Championships from now on should supply those new Omega starting blocks that were used in this year’s Sweden World Cup. I suspect the new blocks will soon be standard issue at international meets and US swimmers, at this level, should get used to using them. I had only one complaint. There was a dreadful cue of spectators waiting to purchase tickets for the finals. It was not the seller’s fault. Whoever designed the system she was expected to use needs to come up with something better. Certainly, it’s not right to charge people full price when it’s a tardy system that results in people standing waiting for a ticket while the races they’ve come to see have been underway for quarter of an hour. US Swimming will not fill their stadium with a Moscow size crowd that way.

Our team had two swimmers qualify for the meet but only Skuba traveled to Atlanta. He swam four races and recorded four personal best times. His 50 yards free improved by 0.47 seconds from 21.32 to 20.85 and his 100 meters free improved by 1.34 seconds from 53.73 to 52.39. After three years off, Skuba has been back in training for less than a year and is doing very well. It is good to see someone respond to the stimulus of a US Nationals in such a positive and successful way. Atlanta is a bloody nice place to do it as well – just ask Danyon Loader.

A Sad Story

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

By David

Flying airplanes has long been a passion of mine. On a clear day, flying in New Zealand is a privilege. It is true: there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. New Zealand does not have the domestic order of England’s southern counties or the endless expanse of the Australian outback or even the manufactured theme park quality of Florida’s south east coast. There is a youthful fresh variety about this place. Human toil has tempered but not tamed the enthusiasm of nature here.

In an hour and twenty minutes after leaving Auckland’s airport I’ll have flown over the populated rush of the nation’s largest city, out over impossibly green dairy fields and passed New Zealand’s longest river’s troubled exit into the Tasman Sea. There, brown river silt stains the white tipped blue of the southern ocean. Further south the triple cones of the central North Island’s mountains still hold on to small pockets of winter snow. Even here, in this most barren central plateau, the scene is awash with color. Light brown tussock, grey rock, a dark emerald canopy of native bush and smudged into the hillsides are purples, whites and reds of thriving imported heather. Approaching the Ohura beacon, the scene changes again to the gorges and ridges of the Parapara Ranges; a place of harshness and angles; an undisciplined jumble of busy streams, steep hills and narrow valleys. As far as I can tell there is not a flat paddock anywhere. This is the last place on earth you’d want to try a forced landing.

“Auckland Radar, this is Echo Kilo Romeo, overhead Ohura Beacon, 8500 feet; transferring to Ohakea radar 130 decimal 6.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo. Have a good day.”

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo overhead Ohura Beacon 8500 feet. Flight plan to Wellington and Christchurch, one POB”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo”, says a lovely soft Scottish accent.” We have you on Radar at 8500 feet.”

Straight on to Paraparaumu and then the decent across Wellington Harbor to the airport. It is a most diverse view. Around the harbor, steep hills disguise the sea’s exit to the ocean. Away from the city, the hills are the uniform green of their bush and scrub cover. Nearer the city, the green refracts into a multitude of blues, reds and browns of suburban houses before the colors refocus again, this time into the grey of the city’s glass and steel office blocks.

Canet en Roussillon has long been a favorite town of mine. Toni Jeffs and I spent three weeks there preparing for the Barcelona Olympic Games. I’ve been back three times since with swimmers competing in the Canet leg of the Mare Nostrum series. It is one of this world’s truly lovely places. It is a small Mediterranean coastal village, close to Perpignan and the Spanish border. Little restaurants sell fantastic French food along a wide sandy beach. It’s just so incredibly French. Old men play boules and smoke pipes and talk about how bad things are in Paris. Young women swim with far too little on for sensitive eyes. Best of all it’s not on the foreign tourist trail. It’s more a place where the French go to holiday.

The pool is 50 meters, open air and has all the facilities – good lane lines, flags, a well equipped gym, electronic timing, good blocks at both ends, eight lanes and massage. It’s all there. A first class, air conditioned hotel is right across the road. But if you don’t like modern, one hundred and fifty meters away is a lovely old, small French castle called the Clos des Pins. Their restaurant has a huge brick, wood fired oven that produces food that is to die for. Order anything on their menu and you are in for a wonderful dining experience. If I was ever organizing a training camp before a major Games in Europe, I’d go back to Canet. But, I hear you say, “What say it’s a long way from the meet?” Who cares?

The town of Canet and New Zealand aviation were sadly brought together this week. An Air New Zealand Airbus 320 had just completed maintenance and repainting work at Perpignon Airport. Prior to returning to New Zealand two German pilots, four New Zealand engineers and a New Zealand pilot took the plane up for an hour long check flight. Five kilometers off the Canet beach, on their approach back to Perpingon, the Airbus plunged into the sea. There were no survivors.

This summer Skuba, Andrew and I will be back in Canet for their International Swim Meet. For this New Zealander the visit will be that bit more important; remembering five of my countrymen who died, flying aeroplanes in this lovely part of the world.