Friday, March 23, 2012

Breaststroker's Lament

This is the cover of my new book on breaststroke technique.  Or, well... it might as well be.

The breaststroke was my specialty in college.  I know how fickle it can be, and as a coach it can be horribly frustrating.  I have had swimmers who can't do the stroke correctly without rest.  I have had others who get the timing one day and then not the next.  I have even had some who have a lousy 100 and then ace the 200 the next day.  It can seem random, but I have enough of an eye for the stroke and for my swimmers that I know when it is "on" and when it is not and I can often help them get on target in the warm-up pool.

I once saw an interview with Haley Spencer from Minnesota where she acknowledged something I have always felt about breaststroke:  that some people practice a "different stroke" for their 100 than they do their 200.  I practiced that way myself, but it is something I had never before heard verbalized.  For me it was a "feel".  It is a frustrating concept because it is so easy to be stuck in-between where the timing can interfere with speed, and energy that should help you move forward dissipates in all directions. Plus, we also have different types of breaststroke for different body types and so on.  The kind of breaststroke you do sometimes just depends on who you are. 

Some coaches do mostly drills and avoid full stroke in practice.  I understand that... but I feel the opposite.  I never "found" the stroke until I started doing long breaststroke sets.  It forced me to get long and helped me to build a stroke where I got my head down and got my kick directly behind me.  The 200 breast became my best event when I became a 5-strokes-a-length guy, and I learned that by stretching out and maximizing my kick to survive sets of 15x 200 breast.  But do I coach everybody to swim breast like mine?  Hell no.  Like Rebecca Soni?  Nope.  Amanda Beard?  Nope.  Kitajima?  Nope.  Can we agree that they all are doing different strokes?  Yup.

Well today I had a swimmer at NCSA's who wasn't feeling it.  Even though he has been nailing it all week leading up to this and had a great meet last weekend after a week of hard work, he has felt "off" for a couple of days at juniors..  On the third day of the meet we played with the stroke in warm up to prepare for the 200 and I saw him finally get it.  We changed his head position and paced a 50.  It was a second and a half faster than the one he had done a few minutes before and it just looked right.  Long, relaxed and clean.  I was excited to see the race.  I just knew it was ready...

But when the race finally began I could immediately see that he had lost the feel again.  Rushed.  Mis-timed.  Not complete.  It is so difficult to describe, and a non-swimmer or even a coach who had never been a breaststroker, probably could not have seen what I saw.  His first 50 split was better than the corresponding split from his best race, but to me it looked like his first warm-up pace 50 and not the second.  It was just the wrong stroke.

He had it.  The feel was there... but at race time it just didn't happen.  And I could tell it wasn't gonna happen, right from the dive.  Nothing feels more helpless for a coach than not being able to talk them back into a good swim mid-race.

Ugh...  I swear sometimes that breaststroke is one of the great puzzles of the universe.  Sometimes it is more spiritual than scientific.  Sometimes it is the girl you had a crush on in school who is mean to you when you smile at her. Sometimes it is the beast you tamed and caged that decides to break out of the zoo or the puppy that runs away on your birthday.  Damn you breaststroke.  Why can't you just show up for your damn appointments on time!  We scheduled this appointment six months ago!  How rude!


Saturday, March 17, 2012

URGENT-- The Viking Needs Your Help!

Don't worry... it's for a race.  NOT so I can make a funny blooper picture.

I need a tech suit.  Not just a jammer.  I need one of those rubbery, full-body, cheaty-cheater suits, like an X-Glide or a Jaked.

I am 6'1" and 3/4 and weigh about 200 pounds.  I can squeeze into a size thirty blueseventy jammer (although size 32 might have been more appropriate.)  If you have one of the old illegal suits laying around that you think might fit me and you know someone who is going to NCSA Jr Nationals this week, please pass it on to them to bring to me.

I don't know what I can give you in return, but I am hoping to make a video with it.  I have never worn one, but I surely am gonna need it because I opened my big fat mouth and there is no way I can win the race I might have coming up unless I can make up for 15 years of anti-fitness immediately.

Help a brother out if you can, eh?!

Hey... I don't really consider it cheating. You really can't expect me to stretch out a taper that started in 1996, right?  The guy I wanna race has been in serious training!


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is it Cool to Cheer for Michael Again?

Remember this? Here's hoping for more
Olympic years are different. They have a way of making the time since the last event seem totally irrelevant. The swimmer in recent memory who this used to hold most true for was Gary Hall. Hall seemed to go into hibernation after winning gold in the 50 free in 2000. And yet there he was again, in Athens, getting his hand on the wall first. Now, witness the recent signs that "THE GREATEST SWIMMER OF ALL TIME" is starting to look like it again, dropping world leading times at the Columbus Grand Prix. There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Phelps can once again wrest his crown as the world's best swimmer from Ryan Lochte this summer in London. The question is: do we (swimming fans) want him too?

Swimming fans are not a monolith, but if I were to generalize I would say we were pretty fired up in 2008. Phelps pursuit of eight golds dominated the Olympic lead up as well as the actual event. It's damn fun to have swimming be the biggest sports news in the world. It didn't hurt that there was no shortage of drama along the way, with the meet featuring two of the greatest finishes in recent history.

At the time, I thought it was inevitable that there would be a backlash. I never imagined it would be this bad. First their was the bong incident. Then, Ryan Lochte surpassed him in summer 2010. He finished an embarassing 14th in the world in an event (400 IM) he was once untouchable in. He promptly "retired" from swimming it. Lochte mania was on- fans were deluged with stories. Lochte is doing strongman training! Lochte trains approximately 1,053,005,325 yards a day! Lochte is a model! Lochte has sneakers! Meanwhile, Phelps was called out by his own coach for his work habits and continually harassed by a Southern California master's swimmer.

The public perception of Phelps completely changed. It wasn't cool to root for him anymore- he was portrayed as a child squandering his talent. It didn't help the matter that Lochte was a "late bloomer" in comparison, a swimmer who didn't really take off internationally until entering college. Nor did the fact that Phelps had always been uncomfortable at best with media, whereas Lochte, despite saying little more of substance, managed to project a sort of "surfer" cool.

All of this ignores the significant challenges that Phelps has faced. If we've learned anything from hollywood, it's that child stardom can trap someone at the maturity level they became famous at. Phelps is now well into adult hood, yet he remains with the same coach he's had since he was twelve- a coach who from my vantage point has gained far more from that relationship for quite a while now. Not too mention- what do you do after the best Olympic performance of all time? Where do you go from there?

And so, as Phelps' Olympic swan song approached, the narrative was clear. Phelps would limp off into the sunset. Where once he dazzled audiences with his world class abilities in anything but breaststroke (not too shabby there either), Phelps would go out as a specialist. He would likely win the flys and round out the podium with Lochte in the 200 free and IM.

Only, it's looking a little more lately like that's not a given. This summer in Omaha, and beyond, I'll be cheering for Phelps again, whether it's "cool" to do so or not. It has nothing to do with Lochte or his opponents, it's just that if I'm about to see the last couple races of perhaps the best swimmer I'll ever see, I'd rather they be spectacular.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The OBU Bison Didn't Waste Any Time!

I ate at a steakhouse with three of my athletes after finals at Sectionals on Saturday night.  While there, I checked facebook on my phone and saw that a friend had posted a link to a live-feed Ustream video page of the NAIA National meet going on in Oklahoma City.  Another friend, our former club coach Eduardo is now an Assistant Coach under Sam Freas for the new Men's and Women's teams started at Oklahoma Baptist so I was interested in checking it out, but before I had the chance to even click it, I get a text from Ed that says: "We are down by one point heading into the last relay."

Holy crap!  I gotta get that live video going!  So there we were, me and three swimmers from the club watching the last relay of the NAIA champs on my phone, and on that little screen we witnessed a pretty amazing race.  The OBU men swam three seconds under the national record with a 2:57.83.  They had to swim that fast because Fresno Pacific also went under the record with 2:58!  It was intense, and it was clear that both teams know how to get a group of sprinters ready for a brawl.  What a fantastic swim and what a great way to end a championship meet!

I am not sure if there have ever been any first year programs that have won a National Championship at any level in any sport.  I would imagine that their AD is patting himself on the back for hiring Dr. Freas to build the program from scratch.  What most people don't know about their men's team success story is that there were some behind the scenes happenings at the meet that very easily could have knocked their team out of contention entirely.

You see, on Thursday night, Ed texted me to read him the Sectional deck entry guidelines from the meet info.  He told me that three of their athletes were not going to be allowed to swim at the NAIA nationals and they didn't want to waste their shave, so they thought they might drive to Jenks to get some swims in.  Apparently, OBU entered 21 athletes into the meet.  The meet info said they could only swim 18... it didn't specify that they couldn't enter more and then scratch down, which is often allowed at other meets.  When it was discovered, the officials apparently chose three swimmers to scratch according to the meet schedule rather than letting Coach Freas decide who to remove from his championship roster.  They were forced to remove some of their best athletes, including a guy who did a 48.0 100 backstroke in a time trial that weekend!  And to make it even worse, they DQ'd the OBU 200 Medley Relay since one of the swimmers they took out of the meet had already swam on it!

It was all a disagreement on the rules interpretation and from the sound of it there aren't any hard feelings.  I was just very surprised when I got the text telling me it was coming down to the last relay and I was thrilled to have a chance to watch it live.  Of course, it was a little weird when everyone else was watching basketball on big screens and we were watching swimming on a phone... but hey, I'll take it.

Congrats to the Oklahoma Baptist University Bison.  Your men and women really put on a great show.  I wish I could have watched the whole meet.  You just pulled off a spectacular feat.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Proposal

Matt Grevers and Annie Chandler at the Missouri Grand Prix last month

A few weeks ago on a cold February evening on a pool deck smack dab in the middle of Missouri a young man... a swimmer,  proposed to his girlfriend... also a swimmer.   Quickly, the swim sites went bananas but within 24 hours the video was being shown on mainstream news outlets, too:  Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN all had links to the video.  Almost 3 weeks and more than 2.6 million hits on You Tube later I watched it again last night.

2.6 million hits.  That's incredible.  Now, I know 92% of the people who clicked on the link and watched the video had absolutely no idea who Matt Grevers and Annie Chandler were.  It didn't matter.  Love is universal and only the most cynical and emotionally-damaged wouldn't be touched by Matt's public declaration of his love and Annie's reaction.  It's like visual Prozac, you can actually feel your serotonin levels rise as you watch it.

For those of us who follow swimming it was exciting for many reasons.  Many of us know Matt and/or Annie or have met them or maybe not.  It's just a tight-knit community.  If we don't know them we feel like we do.  I have met Matt and he's as kind as he is tall.  Watching it it was so familiar.  The announcer, we all know him, what's-his-name.....the coach's whistles and echoes, the din of hundreds of swimmers on deck.  It was almost like watching a family video and 2.6 million people were watching it, too.

Comments ranged from the idiotic, "why didn't she have her hair combed and some makeup on?" to "I'd say yes too with a back like that."  Fellow swimmers chimed in, "I swam with Annie as an age grouper back in the 90's and she stepped on my towel."  Most comments were just from regular people. People who had no idea who Matt and Annie were but were touched anyways.  "Good luck to them, seem like nice kids" and "we need more of this kind of thing."

I think that's what struck me.  How taken people were by this by this simple yet really sweet gesture that happens every day.   In between the school-shootings, politicians hurling insults, natural disasters and woeful economic news people just wanted to see something genuine, pure and lovely.  What also struck me was how we, in the swim community, can be immensely proud of our athletes.  Matt chose to do something very personal and significant on a pool deck very similar to the one where he met and fell in love with his future wife, I'm sure.   He chose to do it in front of his friends, teammates, coaches, other swimmers and swim fans.

It was a privilege to be let in on it and it seems a lot of people felt the same way.

Link to the video is here on YouTube.  Copyright USA Swimming, y'all.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Job is Pretty Awesome Sometimes... JROTC

As Aquatics Director for our school district I get to teach swimming a bunch of different ways to all sorts of different groups. One of my favorite units of the year is JROTC.  I offer a "drownproofing" course for our school and four others in the area. They come over to the pool and cover a little bit of basics to help them to be comfortable in the water.  We spend a little time helping them to tread efficiently. We talk to them about the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and how they might help.

You might say I am carrying on a Georgia Tech tradition in this course as one skill station is the actual "drownproofing" pioneered by their long-time coach Fred Lanoue.  I don't bind anyone's hands or feet obviously, but it is nice to be able to teach it as a skill that can help people who haven't had much opportunity to take a lot of swim lessons. Read up on it.  It really could be practical in a situation where a person might have to survive more than just a few minutes waiting for a rescue.  I actually read an article once about a pilot who survived for days without flotation by using this very skill.  It is pretty fascinating stuff.  The manual I was given when I took the job was actually printed in 1944, from back when the Navy first embraced it as a way to reduce drowning rates.

We also teach students to inflate their BDU's in multiple ways.  I never had any military background, but this was a skill that we actually learned in elementary school in Southeast Alaska.  The best day of the year in fourth grade was when we got to swim in our clothes and learn how to trap air as improvised flotation.  Serious hands-on learning.  Swimming in clothes ain't the same as doing laps in your speedo.

We were taught a lot about survival in the fishing industry through our swimming classes up there.  One lesson that sticks out in my mind is being taught that as kids that if we see someone go overboard we were to tell the adults and then throw potatoes in the oven.  That way, when the grown ups got the wet clothes off of that that shivering deckhand we could wrap the hot potatoes in towels and stuff them in his sleeping bag to help warm him up gradually.  Pretty smart, huh?!

If you are teaching swimming for a school you might want to look into partnering up with your JROTC.  You will get to see some well-behaved students really soaking up the knowledge and having fun in the process.  JROTC is a great program that does a lot of good for kids and I am glad to be able to contribute.