Saturday, July 28, 2007

I Came to Praise Torres, But Intend to Leave Seeing Her Drowned

Part 3 – Can it Possibly be True?

This is the third part of a three part series looking at the question of whether Dara Torres has used performance enhancing drugs to enable her remarkable return to elite swimming at the age of thirty nine.

Well if superlative talent doesn’t dictate comeback ‘success’ how is she doing it?

(Richard) Quick (Torres’ coach in 2000) told USA Today, “She’s packed in three years of training into one.” – Web Biography “Beat the Odds”

“Age I’m realizing is just a number. I’m just going to keep training hard and hopefully make the Olympic team”- Swimming World interview July 16, 2007

Quick doesn’t seriously expect us to buy that does he? I’d like to take a poll of Olympians and physiologists and see if they believe Torres can train three times more effectively and harder than anyone else. At least without doping. Heck, even with doping!

With this latest comeback, however, she’s taking a completely different approach to training than she used to qualify for Sydney.

Torres already has begun laying out a Beijing training program with Coral Springs coach Michael Lohberg. She says she can't do the near around-the-clock training and body work she did for Sydney but will focus on quality workouts - and plenty of family time - USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

Even people 10 years younger than Torres will be delighted to learn her training program is dramatically different from that which took her to the Sydney Olympics. Her secret: less is more. She weighs less than when she competed in Sydney and she is swimming about 5.5 km each morning, five days a week (half the workload of most elite sprinters). She also does four strength and conditioning sessions a week, three stretching sessions (which last two hours each) and has two massages – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

It was reading about her current training program which convinced me there was no possible way her performance could be clean. Ever since the great athletics coach Arthur Lydiard introduced his training concepts in the fifties about the importance of maximizing aerobic conditioning the pathway to the elite ranks in every sport where endurance plays a role is paved in hard work and then more of it. But the fact the more you swim the faster you race has been known by swimmers decades before Lydiard even if the underlying reasons weren’t understood. There hasn’t been a swimming champion since Duke Kahanamoku who hasn’t put in countless hours in the pool. You just have to look at the workouts of our current and recent stars to know this sporting axiom hasn’t diminished over time: Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker, Janet Evans, Ian Thorpe, Laure Manaudou, Alexander Popov, the list goes on and on without an exception; all spend or spent prodigious amounts of time in the pool whether they were distance specialists or sprinters. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of heavy training workloads has in modern swimming. American George Haines, widely recognized as one of history’s great swimming coaches (Santa Clara Blue Bells), talked about the importance distance training has in swimming by referring to the case of sprinter Matt Biondi who lowered the 100 free world record by nearly a full second over four years. In an excellent undated piece by Cecil M. Colwin (likely an excerpt from one of his many swimming books) titled “Learning from Great Athletes” Haines was quoted saying:
Matt went 41.8 for the 100 yards. He still holds the record. The reason he went 41.8, and the reason he went his 48.4 world record for the 100 meters in Korea, was that the guy was training overdistance; he was training for the 500, he was training for the 200, he even swam the 500 in dual meets, and he was our greatest 200 swimmer. But, as soon as he stopped training for the 200, and overdistance, he never ever, even in the 50, swam as fast again.
So for my mind Dara Torres making a phenomenally successful comeback at age forty in a matter of months after several years in retirement, all on only half the mileage normally put in by world class sprinters, is difficult to comprehend to say the least. I especially like the reference to her concentrating on ‘quality’ workouts, as if the rest of the world’s elite swimmers and their coaches are deliberately scheduling crappy ones.

“I don’t remember going through this in 2000,” she says, “but even when I am swimming I an having these conversations in my head, about whether I can swim fast again – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

The fact Torres shows a pattern of quitting and then coming back just before the Olympics is most illuminating. There was a lot of suspicion the reason for the absence of any top ranked Chinese women participating in the major international meets the past couple of years were because they didn’t want results which would allow FINA to test for drug enhancement on site or commence unannounced testing. The unstated belief was they were heavily doping right up until the very last moment and then would ‘coast’ into the Olympics on the overwhelming advantages thus gained. As it turned out the Chinese didn’t have a good world championships at all this past March which seems to pretty well put the kibosh on that theory, but the idea you can avoid being caught by not competing internationally until the last moment is perfectly valid and well known.

Torres says she is prepared for the naysayers. She has seen a few blogs questioning whether she is using performance enhancing drugs. "If people came to the pool, they would see how hard I work,” Torres said. “My whole career I swam against swimmers who were taking drugs. That’s not me.”- South Florida Sun-Sentinal “Olympian Back for More” Jun.3, 2007

Torres’s results have drawn doping allegations, which she understands and is prepared to openly address. She faced the same insinuations in her previous groundbreaking comeback, so she knows they will resurface. She has asked US head coach Mark Schubert to organize extra drug testing, including blood testing, so she can answer the doubters – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

National head coaches aren’t responsible for drug testing, especially for arranging special testing for someone who’s not on the team and located a continent away in Florida. Has anyone asked Mark Schubert what testing he’s actually instituted for Torres? Nor would having her current coach Michael Lohberg monitor her be appropriate or practical. If she was serious about being squeaky clean why didn’t she instead contact USADA, or even FINA or WADA, the institutions actually responsible for keeping drugs out of our sport, and request to be placed on their testing lists immediately? I’m sure with her history they’d have loved the chance to test her early in her comeback.

"Is a relay spot doable? Yes," Torres says. "Can I do what I did in 2000? Absolutely not. But could I make the team? I've got a shot. Why do this? Because I want to!" - USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

“Now I hope I can do my best times ever. I was hoping to make the Olympic team, but I am much further ahead than I thought” – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

Of course the money which could be earned from winning an Olympic medal at forty one would be really nice too. In a discussion thread on the popular swimming website Timed Finals a reader raised the point Dara had had her Olympics and if she qualified again she would be taking an Olympic berth away from a younger and more deserving swimmer. This attitude was universally rejected by the rest of the website’s readers who maintained the Olympics were for the best and fastest bar none; all which is perfectly good and true, but then we swimmers are perhaps individualistic to a fault. Someone with a background in team sports may understand better given at the start of every new season sports teams everywhere have to decide whether to stay with proven but aging veteran starters or go with young and inexperienced players and hopefully see them step up their play to their full potential. Looking at Torres’ attempt from that perspective I have to say for U.S. Swimming it seems better for some promising fifteen or sixteen year old gain some Olympic experience instead of seeing Torres swim another relay yet again.

There are many other aspects of Dara Torres’ remarkable success I’d like to discuss; how closely her swimming career parallels those of known drug cheats, or how after the mid-twenties any cessation in high-level training results in permanent, irretrievable performance decline¹, or ... but this post is already too long. If you haven’t come to a decision from what you’ve already read here throwing still more facts at you probably won’t help anyways. And there will be those who believe without actual evidence of Torres taking prohibited drugs she should receive the benefit of doubt and be considered innocent, even though I’ve pointed out it’s exceedingly unlikely Torres will be caught by a drug test at this late stage. Yet the evidence is everywhere, circumstantial but overwhelming. I, for one, will be cheering for everyone but Dara Torres when the U.S. Olympic Trials finally do roll around; and if she doesn’t qualify outright for the team then I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping the selection committee does the right thing and leaves her behind when the team heads off to Beijing. Unfortunately for those of us who believe she cheats there’s little more we can do other than voicing our collective disgust, for until we can make the costs of cheating higher than the profits gained swimming will continue to be plagued by this. So if by chance you do attend one of Torres’ meets give her a whistle – let her know we don’t accept what she’s doing – for the good of the sport.

“The older I get, the less I do, the faster I go,” Torres says – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

¹ The Competitive Edge, Clarence Bass, undated: about the positive impact of high-level training has on deferring most deterioration associated with aging up to possibly early seventies for males, and argues actual physical peak for male swimmers closer to early thirties than conventionally accepted late twenties.

Web references:
The Competitive Edge:
The Jewish Virtual Library:
San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim”:
The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40”:
USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold”:
Web Biography “Beat the Odds”:
New York Times “Near 30, Swimmer Resumes Sport for the Young”:
Learning from Great Athletes:
South Florida Sun-Sentinal “Olympian Back for More” - now archived and available for fee
Swimming World interview podcast July 17, 2007:

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Came to Praise Torres, But Intend to Leave Seeing Her Drowned

Part 2 – And Her Many Comebacks ...

This is the second part of a three part series looking at the question of whether Dara Torres has used performance enhancing drugs to enable her remarkable return to elite swimming at the age of thirty nine.

She had no thoughts of trying for a record fifth Olympics before she became pregnant in 2005 and dipped back into the pool three or four times to stay in shape – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

During her pregnancy, she laid off exercise until she was safely into her second trimester. Then she began swimming – USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

Torres, 39, who has won nine Olympic medals in her illustrious career, set a world record in her age group (35 – 39) during the mixed 200-meter freestyle relay in last week’s Masters World Championships in Stanford, California. Just 3½ months after giving birth to her first child, she swam a leadoff 50 freestyle relay split of 25.98 (the world mark was 26.53). She also won the 50 free (26.67) despite carrying a nursing mom’s extra pounds – USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

So if I’m calculating this properly Torres started training around the beginning of November, 2005 after six years retirement and little more than nine months later, most of it pregnant, swam a sub-26 second fifty free. Really, I’m having problems with this. Less than a year ago I returned to competitive swimming after a long absence to rehabilitate a back injury – a case history I believe is very much comparable to Torres’ situation. Considering her six year absence, her pregnancy, and discounting her advantage in youth as mostly offset by the superior testosterone-based advantages accruing to my sex, then I believe an argument can be made Torres and I started our programs from roughly the same level of conditioning. Even our training programs are remarkably similar (more on that later). But I almost immediately ran into problems overtraining and perforce had to ease off and recuperate. Taking roughly three times the number of months Torres took to go from giving birth to setting a masters world record I’ve only made it to the level of a marginal AA level fifteen year old. One year more and she’s progressed enough to now be one of the top female sprinters in the world. How has she developed so much more quickly than I, a human male supposedly with all the advantages? It’s not that I wouldn’t expect her to do better; it’s the fact she is just blowing me away which causes the problems. That and the dizzying, nosebleed level she’s ascended to. I can well imagine the mutterings about comparing myself to a multiple Olympic medalist like Dara Torres and daring to accuse her of using drugs because she’s doing better than me. That’s the sour grapes dismissal: those who suspect drug assisted times are merely envious individuals who cannot face their own inadequacies in the face of the greatness exhibited by the accused. You’d be wrong, but I freely admit I’m nobody. So let’s then pick someone else to compare to. How about another comeback attempt by a former Olympian, but this time someone making the attempt at the same age as Torres, and who commenced the attempt about the same number of months before the Olympics as Dara has this time around? And he had talent to spare, no mere relay participant like Torres, but a true Olympic champion. In fact Mark Spitz is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. When Spitz started his comeback attempt in late 1989 he had some realistic expectations of success, after all his world record time for the 100 fly seventeen years before would have given him a ranking as the year’s third fastest in the world when he reentered the sport, and he was going to concentrate only on the 100 fly instead of swimming multiple events as he had done in 1972. Certainly he was highly motivated. If the massive media attention he received wasn’t incentive enough the million dollars offered by filmmaker Bud Greenspan for Olympic qualifying certainly would ensure his complete dedication to the effort. Yet in the end his comeback fell short. In 1991 he raced Olympians Tom Jager and Matt Biondi in two separately televised fly match sprints but lost both; and after two years he quit the attempt, leaving with a comeback best 100 fly time of 58.03 - a superb time for a forty year old but well off the minimum standards for the U.S. Trials, much less qualify for the Olympics themselves. Even the great Mark Spitz cannot reach peak performance in a couple of years and undoubtedly he could see the road ahead would be far harder and longer than he expected or desired. The shrinking chance of reward had ceased to be worth the mounting cost.

In view of her fervor, fellow Olympic swimming medalist Donna de Varona surmised that Torres had quit before reaching the greatness she was capable of – Web Biography “Beat the Odds” (regarding her 2000 attempt)

One of the positives Mark Spitz noted about his comeback possibilities was how much training regimes had changed since he swam, especially dryland training, and how much faster he could have been if he had competed today. In a May 21st, 1990 interview with Time Magazine he was asked about his experience weight training for the first time. “Yeah free weights, he responded, “they've learned a lot in the past 20 years. Today the weight training can specifically exercise certain muscle groups for freestyle sprints or butterfly sprints or whatever.” Looking at his Munich pictures I can well believe strength training back then would’ve allowed even greater performances by this remarkably talented man. However even better training couldn’t overcome the handicap of age nor speed up his rehabilitation. He needed years, not months, to rebuild his body. So if correcting a clearly flawed training program couldn’t help Spitz I wonder what de Varona, a former teammate of his, thinks Torres’ problem was back in 1984, and 1988, and 1992 that held her back from the ‘greatness’ which finally showed up less than a decade later in her thirties?

The results since then shouldn’t be all that surprising, Torres said. The seven years away from the pool saved her body some wear and tear, she said. She eats better and works out differently. The time away has given her what she called “a newfound love for the sport” – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

It’s difficult to overstate just how phenomenal Torres’ 2000 and present comebacks have been, both in how rapidly she returned to her physical peak after an extended absence and the level of excellence reached at such a late age. Let me use another Olympian’s return to the pool for some further perspective. While not the female equivalent of Spitz Allison Wagner’s past accomplishments in the pool were still of the highest caliber. At the Atlanta Games in 1996 she took silver in the 400 individual medley by beating the defending Olympic champion, Hungary’s great Krisztini Egerszegi, and two Chinese favourites – only to see the now disgraced Michelle Smith of Ireland cheat her out of the gold. Eleven years younger than Torres Allison Wagner then quit swimming for several years before returning in 2004. After two years in a ‘low-key program’ (a strange way of saying she swam Masters²) she applied to and was accepted by the California Aquatics Swim Team for training at an elite level³. And like Torres a year later she’s swimming in international meets, albeit local ones. At the recent Santa Clara International Invitational she placed as high as sixth with a 25.97 50 free and finished 32nd in the 100 with a 57.99 (the endurance required to swim a 100 takes some time to acquire), 39th in the 100 butterfly, and 112th in the 200 free (the endurance to handle a 200 obviously takes even longer). Excellent times by a woman who, though arguably at one time was the world’s best all-round female, is still almost thirty and has been training for only three years. But certainly nothing which would make anyone believe she’s going to challenge for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team – at least for this Olympics.

² Wagner is currently is ranked as one of the world's All-Time Top Ten Masters females in the 200 and 400 IM 25 to 29 age group
³ New York Times “Near 30, Swimmer Resumes Sport for the Young” July 7, 2007

I would ask that you hold your comments until all three parts have been posted and append them to Part 3 so the discussion is not fragmented into parts as well - thank you

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I Came to Praise Torres, But Intend to Leave Seeing Her Drowned

Part 1 – Introducing Dara Torres ...

Dara Torres recent comeback glory in the pool at the age of forty despite giving birth only little more than a year ago inspired me to write a post on why swimming differs from other sports when it comes to elite performance over thirty. I started to set out my reasons: the overriding importance of technique, the emphasis of strength over reaction times, advantages of sprint training, etc, but in doing so realized the obvious rebuttal to my theories needed to be addressed – that Dara Torres’ accomplishments have not come about because of a unique talent and the special nature of swimming but from doping. Of course I had certain preconceived ideas of Dara and her story before sitting down to write the piece. I knew, for example, all her Olympic gold medals have been won in team relays as I knew she owned two or three bronze medals from individual sprint events. I also was aware she had participated in four Olympics, three in a row with the fourth coming after missing the Atlanta games. These few facts came together to form two basic assumptions about her current swimming performance: the first was she won her individual medals in the first and/or second Olympics; and the second that she was a water rat who never really left the pool. But it only took a couple of hours to establish both these assumptions were flat out wrong.

The first assumption rests in large part on a personal belief an athlete who accomplishes something extraordinary without drug assistance needs to have a pedigree, a history of extraordinary achievement throughout his or her career. One doesn’t reach the pinnacle of sporting success from a standing start; there must be a clear progression of performance leading to the noteworthy event. This assumption also rests on the medical science’s consensus human physical performance peaks in the mid to late twenties. So with these in mind I looked for Dara Torres to have peaked sometime in her first three Olympics, most likely in her second, when she would be at her physical best. Yet I discovered all of Ms. Torres’ individual medals were won at the Sydney Olympics when she was thirty three while setting several personal bests in the process. The second assumption was based on the factors needed to create the physique of an Olympian or professional athlete. People don’t take up a sport and two years later stand on an Olympic podium or score goals in the World Cup. At least not anymore. Similarly the longer one is away the more performance degrades and the greater length of time it takes to recover lost musculature and coordination. An absence counted in years would also begin to run up against the inevitable and negative consequences of aging. These well known facts lead to my assumption she must have continued on actively swimming after her formal retirement and so retained her conditioning base¹. But again deeper inquiry found the exact opposite. The alarm bells started going off.

Obviously she has never been tested positive for contraband drugs so I’m raising the question of whether she uses them on entirely circumstantial evidence. Rather than just present my opinion I’m going to provide what quotes and facts I’ve gathered together with some commentary and let you, the reader, make up your own mind about Ms. Torres. It should be noted I have not obtained third party verification of any facts or statements presented by the sources used below unless stated otherwise. So judge accordingly and let’s begin.

Dara Torres was an insignificant figure in international swimming until her comeback in 2000 at the age of thirty-three and there are practically no references to her career on the internet until a year before those Games. The Jewish Virtual Library website (her father is Jewish), however, has a short blurb about her third Olympics citing the magazine Sports Illustrated as its source:

Torres retired from swimming for the first time in 1989, after a stellar career at the University of Florida, including 28 All-America honors – The Jewish Virtual Library.

There is very little in today’s press releases that this current attempt is her third comeback, not her second as most current articles either suggest or state outright. That’s a lot of quitting for someone who’s now once again back swimming internationally at the age of forty. If she isn’t in it for the love of the sport then I have to wonder perhaps if she’s in it for fame and fortune.

In January, 1991, after two years away from the pool, Torres put her TV career on hold and began training for the 1992 Games. With three Olympic relay team medals to her credit ... her aim was to win an individual medal. – The Jewish Virtual Library.

For a girl whose first international meet was the 1983 Pan American Games when she garnered a gold in the 400 meter freestyle relay at sixteen she would have trained at an elite level for at least six years before she left the sport having only won relay team Olympic medals, effectively leaving as an also ran in the quest for glory. Then, after two years off, Sports Illustrated reports she returned with the belief she had a shot at an individual Olympic medal. What changed for her to think she could swim faster?

Within weeks of her comeback, Torres was setting records in the 100m freestyle and the 100m butterfly – The Jewish Virtual Library

Within weeks of training she’s already swimming close to the times she swam at the Seoul Olympics? That’s amazing development, but evidently her comeback did not go far enough to allow her dream of winning an individual Olympic medal. While she did qualify for and swim at the Barcelona Games it was only as a spare for the 4x100 free relay, where she picked up yet another team gold and then promptly retired a second time from the sport. We then must go to a thirty two year old Dara training for the 2000 Sydney Games after seven years away.

Those who have seen Dara Torres the past two years on late night TV – talking to fitness guru Billy Blanks and his sweating, spandex-clad followers – might not recognize her now. The face is the same, but the blonde hair is cropped short, and she’s layered on about 20 pounds of lean muscle – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

Twenty pounds of muscle! The Chronicle mentions she left a career in acting, modeling and broadcasting in July, 1999 so in a year’s time she added close to a kilo of muscle a month. Wow, any twenty something male would be absolutely delighted with that!

To hear her tell it, once she stopped swimming competitively after the 1992 Barcelona Games – after winning her fourth medal in three Olympic Games, all in relays, including two golds – she couldn’t even stand the sight of a pool. As a fan at the ’96 Games, she said, she attended nearly every major event except swimming. “In March’99, in New York, me and some friends went to Nationals,” she said, “I walked in the pool and said, “Ugh, chlorine.” And I saw the swimmers with these huge backs, and I thought, “They have to get up a 5 in the morning and I get up at 8 or 9.” I turned to one of my friends and said, “I’m so glad I don’t swim anymore.” “And three months later”, she continued, “I get back in the pool.” – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

Nope, not in it for the love of the sport. A cynic such as I find it impossible not to note how an Olympic medal at the age of forty one would without doubt make her chosen career path as a television commentator, motivational speaker and corporate spokesperson a hugely successful and profitable one.

By March, she had re-entered the national radar, breaking seven personal bests and winning the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyles at the national championships. What she did in June at the Santa Clara International Invitational meet, the next-to-last major competition before the U.S. Olympic Trials, proved her smashing re-debut was no fluke. On the final day of the meet, Torres set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle at 24.73 seconds, breaking by 14-hundredths of a second the mark set by the runner-up in that race, Amy Van Dyken, in her four-gold-medal performance at the 1996 Olympics. It was the last of Torres’ four victories that weekend, following the 100 and 200 free and the 100 butterfly – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

“Don’t get too complacent,” Torres said she tells herself, “I know there’s more I can do. If I stay injury free, I can go even faster – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

“Now I hope I can do my best times ever. I was hoping to make the Olympic team, but I am much further ahead than I thought” – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

Just how much faster was Dara at thirty three than when she was in her early twenties? Significantly so as evidenced by her Olympic Trials times: in 1988 she recorded a 55.74 100 free, 1:00.21 100 fly, and a 25.83 50 free; in 1992 she clocked a 55.48 100 free, 1:00.30 100 fly, and a 26.07 50 free; but by the time the 2000 Trials rolled along she was flying - a 54.62 100 free, 57.58 100 fly, and a 24.90 50 free. At this rate she should be setting world records by the time she’s collecting social security. With a 54.61 100 free in Rome this June and a 24.81 50 free at the Ft. Lauderdale Sectional this July apparently she’s well on her way at forty to doing just that. That this is occurring in her third comeback attempt – this time trying for her fifth Olympics – after six more years away and the birth of her first child is quite incredible.

¹ The Competitive Edge, Clarence Bass, undated: about the positive impact of high-level training has on deferring most deterioration associated with aging up to possibly early seventies for males, and argues actual physical peak for male swimmers closer to early thirties than conventionally accepted late twenties.

I would ask that you hold your comments until all three parts have been posted and append them to Part 3 so the discussion is not fragmented into parts as well - thank you

Monday, July 23, 2007

Abby Swim Meet

Well it was supposed to rain this weekend, and it did; but the rain held off until late Saturday evening and after some early morning rain on Sunday stayed away until late afternoon today. This was all good for the Abby Swim Meet because being a summer swimming league was outdoors. Of course everyone missed having the sun overhead and was grateful for the liberal use of canopies and tents throughout the pool and surrounding campsite. Here in the Pacific Northwest what’s good for shade is also good for rain.

Of course we did swim. I had to scratch an event as there was a four event limit and decided to scratch my 100 back as I’ve raced it more than any other event. On the other hand Sheree, the head coach of the Sunfish, put me in both free and medley relays, so I was still getting my race meters. Much more racing in fact, as I discovered there were finals to be raced. “Oh no,” I argued, “BCSSA rules say O-2s (winter swimmers over 12) don’t swim finals.” “Aahh, went the reply – but O-2s only go up to sixteen, and then everybody older goes into Div VIII which is open to all, and Div VIII has finals.” Changing tacks I protested to Ian who swims Sunfish with his two boys during the summer (the same Ian from Hyack Masters) that our Div VIII event only had six swimmers anyways. “Couldn’t we,” the whine in my voice perceptible even to my ears, “all agree to make the prelims final?” All I received was a shrug and a wry smile, “You’d think so wouldn’t you?” So when I went to Sheree to tell her I wouldn’t be swimming in the finals (I was swimming the 200 IM and the 100 fly that day for goodness sake!) she looked so forlorn over losing the points I told her I’d swim them. After the Sunfish so graciously allowed me to swim with them I’d be a very poor guest if I had refused. Etiquette aside, this left me with swimming the IM and fly twice with a 50 sprint thrown in between, something I’m not embarrassed to say left me rather anxious about how my body was going to react to all this punishment.

The event which brought me to this meet, the 200 IM was my first. Not only is my endurance a big problem in anything over a fifty but the fly portion of an IM seems to suck away what little strength and endurance I do have leaving me running on empty by the end of the back leg. Determined to figure out a way to avoid this my new pacing strategy had me swimming the fly portion easy and then picking up the pace slightly on back and I was anxious to try it out before Nationals. Well I did slow from the disastrous pace I set at May’s Hyack Invitational, but by only 1½ seconds, not enough to make any significant difference other than reduce the level of hurt by a significant degree. Luckily, because I was racing for the Sunfish in summer league as opposed to swimming in front of all the Hyack Coaches and ‘real’ competitive swimmers, I had no trouble in easing off a notch and just swim it in at 95%. I even started getting my breath back on the last lap. When all the pluses and the minuses of the race were netted out my time was only marginally better than May’s disaster. This slight improvement wasn’t particularly bothersome, ranking considerably lower in my mind than the fact my medley pacing was still completely off. So in a fortunate stroke of bad luck BCSSA’s finals policy meant I had a second chance to get it right. Of course I’m always seeking improvement but since this swim meet was more of a continuation of practice than a targeted swim meet, and with Nationals only three weeks away, better times this weekend were only part of my plans. My performance in Abbotsford was further impeded from the host club having only the single pool, which meant no warm down or warm up to prepare for the next race. So I swam the 100 fly which followed cold and still feeling the effects from my earlier IM. The first fifty in the 100 fly went as planned but as I tired my technique began to slip noticably in the latter part of the race, something which happens whenever I swim fly so no real surprise. At least my technique’s deterioration was markedly less than when I last raced the event back in April, though that may well be because, like in the IM, I eased back a bit to gather myself back together. Sheree made some very practical observations concerning my stroke, with emphasis on a couple of flaws where I was putting in too much effort. She also encouraged me to work on lengthening my reach instead of trying to power myself out of the water and to work on not breathing every stroke. All excellent advice I’ll try work into my training.

When finals followed right behind the prelims without a break I was tired and feeling it. Just intending to get through my 200 individual medley I approached the fly portion as I would a practice 50 fly with a conscious effort to go slowly while maintaining rhythm and body undulation. The rest of the race was treated like the fast rep at the end of a long set, the whole time spent concentrating solely on technique: steady with lots of shoulder roll and coordinated legs in back, elevation and a lengthy underwater stroke in breast, and a good long stroke with still more shoulder roll in free. I finished without significant fatigue and was breathing normally only a couple of minutes later, finishing only three seconds slower than the morning’s race which had laid me low for fifteen minutes. Even more interesting was the split for my slow fly was also only a tad over a second slower than morning’s split, pretty clear evidence trying to muscle out my fly instead of relying on technique only serves to tire me and does nothing for increasing overall speed. The 100 fly about forty minutes later was a repeat of my IM fly split except I went even slower going out and that allowed me to actually finish strongly. Technique still suffered badly the last fifty as usual so lots and lots of work to do. But before I sign off an amusing note to end on. My last race on Sunday was as a member of the Sunfish’s Div VIII 200 medley relay where I was assigned backstroke, with Ian following right behind with breast. The fly and free were performed by two other Sunfish, our anchor being about twelve. There were a couple of other teams like us (racing with at least one non-competitive swimmer for points) but there were serious teams with full complements, one right beside us. My lead off had us in second place ahead of our next lane rivals, and Ian’s leg saw us move into first overall with a sizeable lead over our neighbors. We lost the lead on the fly, but we did finish in fifth place beating three other teams after a hard swim by Jordan to bring us home. Packing up I overheard a member of the next lane’s team commenting on being behind us at the half-way point. “Yea, but they were Master Swimmers” replied another. I couldn’t help but smile. One has to love summer league.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Abby Swim Meet This Weekend

This weekend I’ve arranged to attend a summer association swim meet with the help of a teammate of mine. I’m swimming all four strokes plus the 200 IM to better gauge where I am in my training and consequently just how fast should I be going out when it comes to the real deal at this year’s USMS Long Course National Championships, now less than one month away. The Woodlands event will also mark the end of my ‘rehabilitation’ phase of training and is an appropriate venue to mark such an august milestone. Beginning September I’ll be training to swim fast rather than just working to return to full physical health. Actually the only change to my program will be limited to a psychological one – the difference coming after the Championships when whatever times I have, both short and long course, will become ‘official’ best times. Up to now as every swim was invariably faster than the last the significance of a new faster time was only how much the target for my next swim needed to be adjusted. From this point on, however, it will become increasingly difficult to routinely chop seconds off every race. In the same spirit the Abby meet will allow me to post new bests in 100 free, breast, and fly short course so I can start this new phase with up-to-date PBs I can work on.

As mentioned earlier I’m concerned about my pacing for Woodlands. Not only have I made advances in my conditioning despite several work induced absences, but I’ve seen considerable technical progress in all my strokes (and turns to a lesser degree) so I’m right back to where my pacing needs are once again a complete mystery. Because summer league doesn’t compete above a hundred meters except in the individual medley I’ll need to extrapolate my results and then be conservative in determining what my pacing should be come the Championships. Going out too fast and bonking at Woodlands would be completely unacceptable. This attitude, however, contrasts sharply with what Michael Phelps recently did at Santa Clara, when he deliberately risked bonking in the 400 free. While the SCAQ blog has reported Phelps’ 400 free pacing as a mistake, with apologies to Tony, even if Phelps characterized it as one his pacing almost certainly was not. His coach Bob Bowman wanted Michael to go out fast in the first 200. You can disregard Bowman’s statement, “I didn’t know it was an order” when questioned about it (access to the LA Times article is free but requires the viewer to sign up). Coaches at that elite level don’t make jokes when giving out race instructions to their charges. The reasons for a coach not misleading a swimmer about his or her pacing should be obvious. It seems clear the reason Bowman and Phelps are being so coy is because they’re actually evaluating going after Ian Thorpe’s monster 3:40.08 world record for the 400 free and don’t want the world to know about their plans. It isn’t a coincidence the ‘joke’ pace was fast enough to match Thorpe's world record if held to throughout the race. A good clue is the fact Phelps having been told to swim the first 200 in 1:50 did it in 1:50.29 – a superlative job of pacing which suggests some preparatory work behind the effort. What impresses me no end is to determine where Phelps stood in relation to Thorpe they decided to just go out at the necessary pace and then find out where he bonked. That shows real courage by Phelps and a brutally efficient approach to coaching by Bowman, who’s handling Phelps as one might a champion thoroughbred. If the attempt is made and Phelps is successful in beating Thorpe’s record he will reach Gretzky-like status in swimming, the undisputed greatest ever, and leave behind the likes of Meagher, Thorpe, Evans, and Spitz. A reward commensurate with the Herculean effort required to relegate Thorpe to the dustbin of history.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Isn’t It Wonderful When the Light Goes On?

Monday’s practice was dominated by distance work but did include a short drill right after the main set. The set emphasis was on crawl technique comparing stroke counts obtained swimming with fists to swimming with normal open hands. At the time I was just glad to get through the main set and really didn’t care about the drill, mainly because in spite of the fact Coach Brad has explained the purpose of the fist drill a couple of times I’ve never really understood how it’s supposed to improve my technique. I took 53 strokes to cover the fifty meters with fists, and 39 strokes without. A couple of teammates either lost count or simply forgot about the stroke count, but for the rest it seemed counts averaged around mid-fifties for fists and mid-forties for open handed. I was perhaps mentally preening a bit for having a better stroke count when Brad turned to Doug and asked him what his counts were. For those readers who aren’t conversant with the Hyack Masters Swim Club hierarchy Doug is one of our few legitimate ‘elite’ swimmers, even if he only trains with us occasionally, so I was very interested in his answer. “40 for fists and 28 or so for the swim”, he replied to Brad, who nodded apparently finding those numbers in agreement with his expectations. Holy cow! While I expected Doug would have better numbers I wasn’t expecting him to be as efficient swimming with closed fists as I was open handed! Quickly running through Brad’s explanations of the drill in my head for clues and not finding the now greatly desired answers I turned to Doug and asked him what he concentrated on when doing the fisting lap. “Shoulder roll”, was Doug’s eventual answer, but while he was saying this he was also going through the motions and I noticed he was holding his arm at a much more obtuse angle than I do mine, as I tend to sweep it under my body. And the light went on (i.e. deeper water is more stable). So for my warm down I repeated the drill set with a deeper, more vertical stroke and saw my stroke count drop to 44 for fists and to 35 open handed, a 10% improvement in stroke efficiency in a matter of minutes, a mind boggling qualitative improvement in my stroke for such a simple change. It’s particularly encouraging because it shows just how poorly I’m swimming right now – once all these flaws are corrected my times surely will improve by leaps and bounds! At least that’s the hypothesis I’m working on. Now all I have to do is incorporate this change into my current new stroke without forgetting all the other changes I’m trying to make in my freestyle. It will take some time ... and likely a lot of kilometers. But it’s something I can look forward to eh?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Turn Drills

In our Friday night practice Coach Brad scheduled some turn sprints – just eight fifties starting from the middle of the pool requiring us to swim easy most of the distance but all out between the wall and flags. It has been a long while since I’ve worked on my turns at speed. Among several other problems the set highlighted my severe streamlining problems coming out of the turn, as well as an overpowering need to breathe immediately rather than take some strokes off the wall and conserve speed. I can work on better streamlining but I’ll leave off delaying my breathing until my VO² max improves more. As a child we had a set, used primarily by our coach as a punishment drill, called a lung buster. It was a 200 breathing three, five, seven, and nine for the four laps. I didn’t enjoy the seven, despised the nine, but the worse part were the turns because we weren’t allowed to breathe at the wall. I just hated that. The turn just added on an extra couple of seconds before the next painful breath. Thank God I swam long course! It was a punishment drill because we’d get it whenever we acted up or complained about a set. The true punishment came afterwards, however, when the extra laps were doled out. Take some extra breaths, or breathe at the wall, and a swimmer could be told to repeat the last 100. Very few young age group swimmers could do a lung buster perfectly, so if the coach wanted to make an example out of some one it was rare some infraction of the rules wouldn’t allow the imposition of the extra laps. If you didn’t do the repeat correctly and Coach was in a particularly foul mood you could be ordered to do it again while the rest of the group went on with the regular workout – and an imperfect repeat was something practically guaranteed because of exhaustion from the initial attempt. I still vividly remember a teammate being ordered to repeat the extra 100 and the gasps coming not from him (he was breathing too hard) but from the rest of us waiting for the clock. And there are people who wonder why I quit? But our Nationals group did lung busters as a matter of pride, often trying to see how far beyond 200 they could go. The star of Canadian swimming at the time was Ralph Hutton, a former 400 meters world record holder, and it was said he could swim a 400 lung buster, which would call for fifteen and seventeen strokes per breath the last two laps – three, or at most four, breaths for the last hundred! Crikey! Nowadays as an old man I’m struggling when breathing every five strokes, and I hate the wall even more if that’s possible.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Just Getting Back Into the Swim of Things

Well I’m back, at least sort of. After a hectic two weeks of work where I just couldn’t squeeze in any swimming I resumed training with my team at our outdoor practices (well, most of them) last week. Even so I’m still putting in solid hours at work, dealing with some pressing family matters, and clearing the deck for an extended three weeks away from my office, a vacation which includes my long weekend at this year’s U.S. Long Course Nationals. Desperate as I am to put in some kilometrage to prepare for the fast approaching contest I’m finding it most difficult. Due to the interruptions I’ve dropped my weight conditioning program and will now rely solely on more conditioning mileage and an emphasis on technique to lay the groundwork for some faster times this August. My turns would benefit from a lot more attention too. But with only two weeks before the start of a working vacation I don't have much time. On a positive note I finally received confirmation I’m registered for the Nationals. There was some concern until I received the email because my fees haven’t yet cleared after I mailed in my entry over a month ago, and what with prepaying airfare, hotels, and shuttle fees I was headed for Texas regardless! Consequently an advisement there won’t probably be much blogging over the next few weeks until I’m back. Still I do have a couple of posts lined up, especially an interesting one concerning Dara Torres, which I want to get out so look for them over the next few days. Other than that I apologize for this extended absence.