Saturday, December 09, 2006

Coaching & Dale Long

Went to my second stroke clinic this morning. Must say the attendance was disappointing and it baffles me. No, truthfully I’m absolutely gobsmacked. When running I attended a running clinic, where coaches utilize a rather round-about way of improving an individual’s stride. Because everyone is the most efficient runner their body will allow the process of stride improvement has three necessary stages: stride inefficiencies are first identified; next the biomechanical problems which underlie those inefficiencies are diagnosed; and then solutions to correct those biomechanical problems, such as strengthening of specific muscles or muscle groups, orthotics, or perhaps improving the range of certain movements, are recommended in order to effect the desired changes in the stride. Even so you’d have truly messed up mechanics for a running clinic to have a measurable impact exceeding, say, a second over 400 meters. Running clinics are really sold on the premise they’ll help reduce your rate of injury. But swimming! First of all water is nearly eight hundred times more dense than air. Mess up running and your technique may cost you a couple of tenths of a second over a 100, mess up in water… well that’s a different kettle of fish! Furthermore we all run, we’re designed to run and we’ve done it almost as soon as we can walk, but swimming is a learned skill. One of the primary reasons Olympic swimmers spend so much time in the water is to acquire that fluency in water which only time and distance brings. The great Russian sprinter Alexander Popov for instance routinely swam 10,000 meters a day in training and, I want to emphasize this, he was a sprinter. Since it’s a safe bet anyone reading this doesn’t take their workouts from Popov’s training sets (or share similar talent) we have a discrepancy between how we do swim and how we should swim. A huge discrepancy! HUGE! When you run it through fifty, or hundred, or fifteen hundred meters of water you can lose seconds, even minutes due to an inefficient stroke. Logically anyone interested enough in swimming to join a Masters or Triathlon swim club should be lining up to attend stroke clinics. But apparently not those swimming with the Hyacks - and these clinics are being offered virtually free!!

A short anecdote from my life related to this topic. In an earlier blog My Early Swimming Career & Crystal Gardens I mentioned several names of swimmers I personally competed against as a boy, some of whom went on to represent Canada, including winning Olympic medals; but anyone who knew us back then would have immediately noted my leaving out the name of one of the best and brightest – Dale Long. Dale’s story is tragic. One of the top age-group backstrokers in the country he was warming up before a swimming meet in Port Alberni when he ran into the wall, literally cracked his skull and nearly drowned. One of the country’s elite junior swimmers nearly drowning in a pool crammed full with competitive swimmers – what irony! I, like always, was at my usual station during a swimming meet (in the showers keeping warm), and wasn’t there to see him being rushed away to hospital but I do have a vivid imagination. Dale never returned to competitive swimming, his career over at eleven, and this was the reason why I didn’t mention him when I wrote about quitting at twelve. But this particular anecdote is about an earlier time, when Dale was my teammate and holder of the Canadian records for 10&U backstroke over both long and short course.

Shortly after Dale set his records his parents requested he be given the same stroke instruction our club gave to our elite seniors, the ‘Nationals’, as befitting one of Canada’s top age group swimmers. This created quite a stir in our community. I really didn’t understand the controversy at the time. I did know Dale held a couple of Canadian records and swimming isn’t egalitarian – those who do well get more. Then again, my logic went, he wasn’t that much better, and wondered why this special instruction couldn’t extend to me, perhaps even to my sister and some of my teammates. Personally speaking the idea of getting stroke instruction was appealing, since it would be like belonging to the Nationals group, but it wasn’t a high priority for me. After all I was one of the best 10&U backstrokers in the country so I had to have a good stroke didn’t I? In the end the Club decided personal stroke analysis could not be extended to age group swimmers, and that included Dale. In response the Longs did something shocking … they left the team! Dale joined a small club only recently formed, the Juan de Fuca Coho. There was great animosity and bitterness over the defection, but in retrospect there’s little question I’d have done the same if faced with the Longs’ choice. The Coho’s had a professional coach with no national caliber seniors to train and therefore Alyward had the time to spend coaching his more promising age group swimmers. Our head coach at the time Gary Blondin had his hands full with the Nationals and Senior groups. The fracas left me with an indelible impression stroke analysis was reserved for elite senior swimmers of national caliber or above. Now thirty seven years later I’m finally getting the high level of coaching in these stroke clinics I was denied as a youth, and have been absolutely delighted by the results. Which for me raises a question: if a natural swimmer like me is attending every stroke clinic he can and asking for more, why aren’t all the other swimmers in Hyack Masters doing the same? Life holds many mysteries doesn’t it?

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