Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meeting Internet Friends

Bjarnason during Tuesday's warmup
One of the pleasures of writing this blog is that I get to talk to people from all across the country and the world about swimming. One of the hazards is that many of my friends are people I have never met "in real life", whatever that means in 2011. Duel in the Pool this weekend is going to feature some crazy fast swimming in an awesome format. It's also a chance to meet a couple characters I've written a lot about, Jon Bjarnason and Pal Joensen.

Pal is here representing Denmark for the first time. You see, the "European All Stars" is really "the best swimmers we could get to agree to fly directly from European Champs over here and not go to a silly meet in Russia with more prize money". Denmark is one of the countries invited. Joensen has thus far represented the Faroe Islands in every international meet he's swum in. However, the Faroe Islands does not have it's own IOC membership, thus Joensen must represent big brother Denmark. This consequence is not without it's past or present politics.

At this meet, however, Joensen represents just one of the swimmers who should be favored against the American opposition in his primary event. I had a chance to watch both of them in workout earlier this week and practice my Faroese. The workout went much better. It's phenomenal to see an athlete who can travel for nearly 24 hours and look sharp in the water the next day.

Jon and I had a long conversation, one which we've been having for some time and that I've hinted at before. I admire the Faroese for the efficiency of their system. Despite all the disadvantages in terms of infrastructure (no 50 m pools, just a handful of pools total in the country), they have an elite international senior swimmer and fast juniors on the way. Meanwhile, they admire the great resources we have at our disposal.

One of the things we discussed was the clustering of athletes under one coach, a practice that has in the past become even more frequent. The most recent and dramatic case was last year's crowding of Trojan Swim Club, with seemingly infinite elite swimmers choosing to train in the same place. The Post Graduate Centers are institutionalized clustering, but the process will continue whether or not USA Swimming promotes it.

Jon and I agree on one central point: no matter how good you are at coaching, the quality of training you are delivering decreases with each successive athlete you are coaching. This is particularly poignant for adult, international caliber athletes. These are athletes that have reached a point where they need extremely specific training to continue to improve and develop. For instance, even though I believe Dave Salo is the best swim coach in the entire world, there are far too many elite swimmers there.

I recognize that I am essentially making a socialist argument in the country of capitalism. This is America after all, if you are the best coach than you should have as many swimmers as will swim for you! There is also some benefit to having other elite athletes to train with. What is the magic number? I don't know, but if I had to guess it would probably be less than ten. Jon has every reason to be overconfident about his own coaching ability, but he had enough humility to admit that it has been a challenge to add just one more international caliber swimmer to his coaching responsibilities earlier this year. 

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