Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Trick!

Our Halloween practice this upcoming Wednesday is normally a ‘fun’ practice so I wasn’t particularly surprised when Coach Brad scheduled our first fly main set of the season Monday night. After a five hundred warm up we went into a dolphin kick drill:
2 x 50 fly kick on back @ 1:10
2 x 50 fly kick on side @ 1:10
2 x 25 Pablo drill @ 0:45
4 x 25 heads up free with fly kick @ 0:45; all repeated twice.

Seeing where this was leading (Brad likes to hide the upcoming sets from us until the last moment) I used my fins the entire set. I can’t do Pablo but normally I make it a contest to see how quickly I can master new drills. The heads up free pull with fly kick was a new one to me and I thought I had it down in three 25s (decent) but then Brad told me I was forcing my stroke, so when we repeated the drill the second time I eased up a bit and finally got into the groove on the sixth 25 (not good) but at least I was both smooth and fast with minimal effort at the end.

The next set was our fly (surprise!):
4 x 50 fly @ 1:00
8 x 25 fly @ 0:30
100 fly (neg. split)
I kept my fins on which isn’t kosher I know, rationalizing I would concentrate on maintaining the little technique I possess throughout the set. Besides, with close to thirty individuals trying to swim fly in a small pool it got rough out there. A couple of times I caught myself laughing as I battled through waves which would make an open water swimmer comment. By the time my 100 rolled around I was pretty well shot and did it single arm drill. Warm down was a simple 8 x 100s @1:30, with the fourth and eighth 100s supposed to be choice on 2:00. Damon, who was leading my lane, went ahead and did fly for his choice but decided to leave on 1:30 anyways, which meant the rest of us were dragged along at the shorter interval. Coming in on my first backstroke I immediately started questioning my speed when I saw teammates launching themselves past me on the next rep before I even hit the wall. All said a tiring night’s practice and the normal regrets from not completing the fly set properly. Maybe I’ll be able to do a better job the next time fly rolls around.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Less Doesn’t Mean More

When I openly declared Dara Torres, the forty year old American swimming phenom, a cheat there was a strong and angry reaction. Much of it was directed at what was perceived to be my obvious ignorance of all things swimming. Apparently there are many who hold there is nothing more natural than an ex-Olympian who never medaled in an individual event until her second comeback at thirty three to return from retirement yet again, this time after recent motherhood and several more years away from the pool, to go even faster than before and rank as one of the world’s top female sprinters while nearly twice the age of the rest of the competition in less than two years. And yes I agree, that last statement’s a mouthful. One justification I gave for thinking she’s doping is the fact she trains less than thirty kilometers a week, half that usually seen by a swimmer at the Olympian level. This was jumped upon by several as proof I didn’t understand the training of a sprinter where the saying, “less is more” is often used to describe their regime. Well they have a point, not that I don’t understand the training of a sprinter, just that I should have made my reference to the time Torres spends in the pool instead of her kilometrage. Because the more time we spend in water the more we become used to moving about in it, and a better feel for the water translates into faster times. For most Olympians this means lots and lots of meters, thousands of kilometers of the stuff, where not only their strength, endurance and technical skills are honed to perfection, but stroke technique is imprinted to the point where little or no degradation occurs with fatigue. All this applies to sprinters too, though obviously with significant differences in emphasis: endurance needs are minimal and imprinting is not to counter the effects of fatigue but rather to mitigate the adverse affects of their high stroke rates. So their training rightfully incorporates a higher tempo to enable speeds which will bring their stroke rate closer to the actual turnover they’ll see in a race. Shorter distances, harder swims (which also better trains their fast twitch muscles) requires longer rest periods in between reps and consequently less overall kilometers swum, but certainly no less effort or time expended in training. And the expression ‘less is more’ is born. This knowledge isn’t some recent innovation; it was well appreciated by track sprinters back in the early part of the twentieth century. Since then we’ve continually refined and improved upon that knowledge and so can now better tailor a scientifically based program for swimming around a specific individual, but the basic understanding to race fast you must train fast is still unchanged. For example Bill Sweetenham, one of the most highly regarded swimming coaches in the world, incorporates this into his own programs by having his sprinters train up to a quarter less kilometrage than the rest of his charges. He's Australian, however, hailing from a country which has traditionally placed a huge premium on high kilometrage so he may well have a bias towards distance training. There are other internationally respected coaches who believe going even higher tempo with still less meters is the way to go. It will take some years to sort all the empirical data out to find out who’s closer to the mark and why. The really interesting thing about Dara Torres’ training is her approach doesn’t fit into either philosophy. It’s well documented she trains only five times a week, swimming between five and six thousand meters in the two hour long sessions which constitute her workouts. With less than half the number of practices normally seen by our elites everyone can see she’s got the less part down pat; I’m just having problems finding the more part. I say this because a workout between five to six thousand meters is standard training for non-sprint events, not the sort of minimal distance practice reflecting the speed the ‘less is more’ crowd considers appropriate. Once you rule out any possible advantage from her training, factor in her less than dominating performances at her first three Olympics, consider her age and the remarkable short time she's taken to make her comeback ... and I think there's only one rational explanation. Is there another?

Update: On November 18, 2007, three weeks after the above article was posted, the New York Times published an article interviewing Dara Torres and her coach Michael Lohberg among others which goes into some detail about her current training practices. There are some differences from what had been previously disclosed about her training as described above. She's training only ninety minutes a practice, not the normal two hour workouts I had assumed based on her statements about averaging between five to six thousand meters a workout. In addition the article makes it clear in the opening paragraph Torres is working a different program than the rest of the elite sprinters of the Coral Springs Swim Club, something much more in keeping with the needs of a pure sprinter and therefore considerably less kilometrage than would be the case for just shorter practices. So it appears Torres may be swimming only a third or less of the mileage of a typical Olympian, but at least she's training as a sprinter. The article, not surprisingly, does not go into detail about the changes her training regime has seen in the past few months. Consequently this new information may reflect a recently new program rather than provide a better description of her training from the beginning of 2006.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paddling About

I’ve my problems kicking. It was never one of my strengths even when I swam competitively as a child and subsequently my years of athletics developed the good, strong ankles of a runner: great for running cross country but a huge impediment for swimming as my feet stubbornly refuse to taper backwards and instead stick out like anchors. While there are specific exercises to increase ankle flexibility another more popular way is to use flippers. Fins, of course, also help move you through the water faster; an inestimable value to those of us who are already kick deficient in meeting those interval times. As a result their use can rapidly become habit forming, something I freely admit has happened to me. I’ve belatedly decided to follow Bill Sweetenham’s lead from his training guide “Championship Swim Training”, reading while he occasionally employs flippers in training normally he requires kick drills to be carried out without fins. So this last Saturday I steeled myself and went to my local pool with a workout of Coach Brad’s in hand but without fins in my bag to get me through. A rather courageous decision if I may say so as I’d modified the workout to add an extra three hundred kicking despite knowing it also contained a fly set, something which normally sends me reaching for my flippers without a second thought. My sole compromise – the workout was heavily into reps of 25s. If I had to bail I wanted to be sure the wall was somewhere close by. Imagine my chagrin when standing on the bulkhead I look out and, despite blinking several times, my eyes insisted on seeing a fifty meter pool where a twenty five meter pool was supposed to be. On this day of all days the second bulkhead was stuck in place with a broken motor – and there I stood without my fins! I managed to muddle through learning in the process my kicking has a long way to go: a long, long way. And wouldn’t you know it for Monday’s practice Brad decided to emphasize kicking without fins. His timing is eerie. Hopefully all this bother will result in some quick improvement.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What? There Are Some Out There Who Don’t Love Backstroke?

Last Monday Hyacks Burnaby had our first backstroke themed workout and Coach Brad followed up with a backstroke based warm up Wednesday – their postings on the board drawing forth a chorus of moans and complaints from my teammates. A backstroker myself I was surprised by the number who said it was their worst stroke. Surprised because we’re all masters swimmers, not the most technical bunch around, and after freestyle our abilities generally take a precipitous dive somewhat akin to our endurance beyond a hundred meters. Still, when I'm on my back swimming yet another 200 I frequently console myself with the fact I could be trying to swim the distance breaststroke or butterfly instead. And those are the only alternatives once you rule out crawl. Perhaps the complaints come from the fact most masters will never see, or more precisely stated, never want to see a workout based on fly or breast. I could well imagine the facial expressions if Brad announced an eight hundred fly set. I can well imagine my own face if he did that! Fly is clearly more difficult to swim than backstroke: so much so most of us older folk have mentally blocked our doing anything significant in butterfly from our thoughts. That leaves the choice between back and breast, and breast is an absolute bitch to swim fast. I admit masters swimming and the concept of fast aren’t exactly synonymous but we masters take the concept of fast to new lows every time we swim breast. Amongst true competitive swimmers breaststroke surely must be the leading contender as least favorite: certainly the coaching community considers it the most technically demanding (knowing my own difficulties with fly I had problems accepting this until I wanted a 'respectable' 100 breaststroke time). Of course there are a few Masters to whom these limitations don't apply. In my lane Doug, Damon and Ian are flyers by choice but they are more than competent in the others. For just one example Ian's much declared hatred for backstroke belies the fact he would be comfortably ranked Top Ten nationally if he ever did swam a backstroke race; his distaste probably stems more from the fact his teenage son can now beat him in the stroke. In Masters merely stating butterfly is your favorite is to declare oneself one of the 'elite'; the stuff of dreams for nearly every serious swimmer older than twenty four. So with two competing strokes like that how can most not love easy and friendly backstroke? Not appreciate the gentle caress of waves flowing overhead, to watch the inverse catenary curve of water trailing from a recovering arm, and performing the simple elegance of a submerged dolphin kick. Makes me think it's time to head off and get some more backstroke practice in. Admittedly I hope I'll do better than last practice when I messed up a turn and took a shot of water up my sinuses. And there was that workout just before when I was inundated by three freakish waves in a row and left half drowned. You know, when I start thinking about it...


Would you seriously consider swimming this instead?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Establishing Priorities

I had the above title, or at least something along those lines, in mind for the post announcing I had spent enough time trying to find what I could do in the pool and had decided to move on with my life. Some day that post will come but not right now, as I’m going to write instead about my beginning to understand my training priorities: the things I need to concentrate on to swim fast. I guess the most obvious will be to spend more time in the water. It seems the general consensus amongst our elite master swimmers that twenty thousand meters a week is necessary with more (much more) being better. The few programs I’m privy to are all closer to thirty thousand every week. As I’m right now treading water at something less than twenty klicks I’ve a ways to go but the plan is to work my way up to thirty over the next three to four months. This is going to be my third attempt at dealing with the physical exhaustion coming from training several times a week; but with each attempt I’ve gotten a little stronger and with a year’s training behind me I’m sure this time I’ll prevail. Time in the pool is essential for learning and perfecting the various stroke techniques, building aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, technically mastering the various starts and turns, gaining an understanding of pacing, race experience, as well as building specific muscle strength and acquiring a better feel for the water. Clearly it’s really important. After studying all the various drill progressions for each stroke, the training cycles, and test sets an Olympian needs to incorporate into training I can understand why they need to do upwards of sixty thousand a week to do it all. Looking at it from this perspective thirty thousand a week becomes the minimum commitment required to discover my personal limits. Anything less would leave open the question, “could I have swum faster if I’d trained harder?” Another important aspect of my training will be rebuilding my strength back up from injury and a general lack of serious exercise in recent years. Unfortunately I’m going to have to rely primarily on all those meters plowing up and down the pool lane to rebuild myself back to something close to where I was in my mid-thirties. A weight program was intended to supplement this and so accelerate the process, and to that end I completed the first out of this year's planned three cycles by September’s end; but I’ve come to realize I’m not physically capable of sustaining both a serious weight program and a significant increase in meters at the same time. Just too much likely, but the limitations posed by my age need to be seriously considered. Consequently, to avoid overtraining and the downtime which happened last season, I’m deferring all weight training other than simple maintenance to another year. And lastly I need to continue my progress in overall flexibility. The more I study the technical side of swimming the more evident the need to acquire a better feel for the water becomes and flexibility is crucial to that end. While I pat myself on the back for a body which is naturally stronger and better in the water than most I’ve no qualms whatsoever in saying my flexibility has always been inferior than average and has only grown worse as I’ve gotten older. Yoga classes and some daily stretching exercises are my intended route to remedy this deficiency, and since I’ve only scheduled two classes a week they have become my ‘must do’ workouts. It’ll be interesting to see how my new training schedule translates into actual times in a couple of months, at which time I’ll undoubtedly have learned a little more about swimming, technique and my body which will require further changes to my program. Self-improvement should be a never ending search and without a doubt this will be the case for me and swimming.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Bad Night In the Pool

When Coach Brad wrote Wednesday’s warm up on the board I inwardly cringed. Not that it was a bad warm up – just it was a warm up for someone who could swim better than I can. It comprised 10 x 50s on 0:50 swum in pairs of free, breast, free, 25 fly/25 back, and free. OK, the free wasn’t a problem, and the fly/back while a trifle fast for so early on was acceptable; but that breast. I have my problems with breaststroke. To give myself a minimal five second rest on 0:50 means a 0:45 fifty and that’s not far off my 100 meter personal ‘best’ pace. I suppose at another time I could have dealt with it but right now in my training my muscles ache all the time and I start every practice already tired – and that’s in spite of the fact I didn’t do any weight lifting this past week as it was a recovery week. Somehow my muscles don’t seem to realize they were supposed to have recovered by now. I’m sure we weren’t swimming this fast last year, but then we have some new, faster swimmers with us now in Doug, Dan and Damon; more than enough to encourage Coach to drop our intervals just a little closer to the ones real swimmers use. Anyways in I go trailing Damon, Ian, and Doug (who with his asthma didn’t appear too thrilled with this opening set either). The first two frees go alright despite my thinking along the way my idea of a warm up isn’t cranking out mid-thirty fifties, and then comes the breaststroke fifties. First one I accomplished at the intended pace; the second I swam a couple of seconds slower by concentrating on my glide but still needing to work perilously close to all out to do it. I hit the wall with three seconds to spare, figure #!%* it, might as well use the time to swim my next free that much slower, and went straight into the freestyle. I was starting to struggle now and by the sixth fifty the dreaded ‘tightness’ appeared around my chest. Now I’ve had years of experience dealing with my heart’s fibrillation problem, which first appeared when I ran middle distance competitively in my twenties. It’s just that the observable symptoms for an attack when running as opposed to swimming are very different, so the first time it occurred swimming I dismissed the problem as being out of shape and therefore badly out of breath. I didn’t realize at the time I wasn’t out of breath: I couldn’t breathe at all. No surprise my second attack occurred in the very next race, unfortunately this time in the middle of a 200 IM. That was impossible to ignore. The race was an absolute disaster and I finished swimming the free portion backstroke just so I could breathe whatever little I could. And then a few months later on I suffered yet another attack which caused me to abandon my first ever practice. After this I had pretty well identified the new telltales, the pain and discomfort being marvelous incentives to learn, and now knew what that ‘tightness’ meant: my heart was telling me in unmistakable terms, “BACK OFF!”. I figured, however, with the next two fifties featuring backstroke I could slow down and still keep to the interval with enough left over to handle the last two fifties. Hey, I’m a type-A male; we’re supposed to die from a heart attack. Besides Coach had pointed out a couple of weeks prior how I started bobbing when tired so I figured this would be a good way to concentrate on both my fly and back techniques while under race equivalent conditions. So I swam the next two fifties working on my butterfly’s undulation, timing my kick with my hands entering and leaving the water, and pulling all the way back to my hips; and in backstroke keeping my head steady while rotating around my axis, starting my catch earlier, and coordinating my hip slide with my six-beat kick. They went pretty well too, except that my last twenty five backstroke felt just like the last twenty five in one of my 200 back races. This gave me a little more than ten seconds rest before heading out on the set's final two reps.

Actually the symptoms of an attack are really rather benign. The atrial (upper) chambers of the heart go into fibrillation, fluttering at a rate of something close to 300 beats a minute, which stops the heart from circulating blood in anything close to an effective manner. This manifests itself (for me at least) in what feels like a bubble lodged in my windpipe – the reduced flow of blood to my lungs preventing any significant oxygen exchange and quite possibly interfering with their actual physical functioning. I stop being able to breath in any measurable way. I’m pretty sure it was holding my breath on the turn which set it off because when I came up afterwards I couldn’t take any air in, and two strokes and a second abortive attempt at breathing later swimming became secondary to breathing. That was pretty well it for the rest of the practice. I tried again after about ten minutes rest to finish out the practice but unsurprisingly had to abandon the attempt after just three hundred more meters. I’ve now had four episodes in a little more than a year which isn’t good. Before I started swimming I had only three experiences in my entire life, two when I ran competitively and the third several years later. There have been a couple of other times when an attack was impending but in those cases I merely stopped running at the first sign of trouble and quit for the day. Obviously I have to start doing the same for swimming. The trend is disturbing however – I’ll have to do something about this.

Of course the sprinters like Joe thought this practice was pretty cool.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Troubling News

I had a different subject in mind for this post, one which veered away from what is fast becoming a major theme of my blog, the problem of doping in sports. Unfortunately I drafted the intended post on a borrowed computer while traveling and now can’t open the copy I had emailed to myself. So until I can find another means to reacquire my missing work I’m stuck with using a preexisting draft of another piece which once again deals with performance enhancing drugs. I unfortunately have lots of those.

This past week multiple gold medalist Marion Jones was forced to confess her guilt and return her Olympic medals in the face of overwhelming evidence produced by the continuing BALCO investigation. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone except the na├»ve. She had been implicated in the scandal back in 2005 and her stellar performances in the Sydney Games where she destroyed her competition should have raised at least pragmatic skepticism. We need to accept the millions which can be earned from endorsements and the fame which comes with such performances are major corrupting influences. The problem is not going away and consequently every evaluation of extraordinary athletic performance nowadays must consider the possibility of performance enhancing drugs. But Marion Jones isn’t the focus today. This particular article is about my reliance upon what I think is an admittedly crude but fairly effective way to identify possible cheats through analysis of historical performance, something I used in my previous post. My premise is simple: an athlete generally won’t start doping until they realize their performance will not reach the level of a world champion. I rely on the boundless enthusiasm of youth, still confident in their ability to continue improving, to hold off doping until their limitations are pretty well conclusively proven. This delay invariably shows up as a performance plateau extending well into their peak performance years, often beyond it, until a dramatic improvement usually attributed to a change in attitude or new training/coaching methods then belatedly raises the individual to the highest levels in the sport. Likewise I depend on already established stars not to commence doping to extend their competitive careers because they or their advisers understand any possible gains would be dwarfed by the costs and ignominy of being caught. As with most generalizations, however, my premise has some inherent weaknesses. Firstly I cannot preclude there will be the rare individual who will legitimately be a late developer at the world class level, just that the odds against this happening are prohibitive. Out of all those in sport who have shown such eyebrow raising improvement late in their career there might be one whose improvement didn’t come about because of drugs. Doubtful, but the possibility does exist and my method will not allow for this. Secondly state sponsored or program doping won’t wait for a child to discover their real potential. Knowing full well the probabilities against one of their charges actually being a world champion they typically start doping soon after the onset of puberty, a practice which has the effect of obliterating any historical evidence. But here at least evidence of their crimes often shows up in other ways. Their women are invariably much more successful than their men, phenomenally so to the point where their male counterparts often don't exist (doping is considerably more effective for women than men in swimming); and because they didn’t know the true abilities of their subjects they tend to use excessive amounts, which can cause significant and noticeable changes in appearance. Then there’s my hope established stars will act rationally in their own best interest, but that isn’t necessarily true either. There is a case pending where an established superstar is under investigation for doping. A horrible, mind boggling error in judgment if true, but it can and probably will happen even if the individual is cleared in this particular case. Yet as troubling as all this is even more disturbing to my mind is the recent confession by a Canadian cyclist admitting to her long time use of Erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone used to boost red blood cell production. Genevieve Jeanson, formerly a world junior road champion, started doping when she was fifteen on the instructions of her coach. Such an admission, the fact a fifteen year old can be cajoled into doping (and the fact there are coaches out there willing to do this to one of their charges) means my methodology will increasingly become more and more obsolete as sport continues down a path where participation becomes a career move rather than athletic endeavor. It seems inevitable a few more years will see doping for performance become as acceptable to teenagers as it now is for American youth to use steroids to ‘bulk up’ for social reasons¹. Today in Canada ethics courses are required for our certified coaches but such bureaucratic approaches will ultimately prove useless in stopping those who believe doping benefits the athlete. The money and allure of success seem just too strong.

¹Doping in Sports and Its Spread To At-Risk Populations: An International Review: World Psychiatry June 2007 issue

Postscript:
In my meanderings I came across the following interview with Genevieve Jeanson from the official site of the Hamilton 2003 Road World Championships. I thought it made interesting reading:
Q: Hi Genevieve, you are quite a petite athlete, how do you train hard enough to be as competitive as you are, yet not be injured all the time? Do you ride with some aches or pains most of the season? Also, how do you achieve that explosive power that allows you to break away from your competitors? (Reggie Dunbar, Calgary, AB)

GJ: I have a reputation for training harder than everybody else, but I don't believe it's true. Actually my coach Andre Aubut is very careful to prevent me from overtraining. We focus not so much on the volume of work, but more on the quality of the program. In other words, I don't think I train more than everybody else, but I do think, that, thanks to Andre, I train better than most. I think that the trick is to be very systematic, to do a lot of very specific training, on and off the bike. It requires careful planning, disciplined execution, yet flexibility (because I try and listen to my aches and pains, when I have some). As for the power, well, that's one of the specifics that Andre and I have worked on for several years. A mixture of power rides on the bike, and weight training in the gym. It pays off after a while...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Different Way of Looking at Aging In Women’s Elite Swimming

When I decided to actually try to quantify how much swimming techniques and training have actually advanced in the past fifteen or so years, instead of just accepting we've made significant advances, I had a difficult time coming up with a reasonable way of doing so. I finally settled on using as my benchmark the improvement since 1988 in women’s world records (1988 chosen because I figure that was the last Olympics Dara Torres ever participated in without an assist from doping). Obviously not the best measure of just technique and training as it incorporates several other contributing factors including the biggest and most obvious: the current record holders aren’t the same; but at least it does set an absolute upper limit on what we can attribute to technique and training. After spending the better part of an afternoon creating a database to obtain the desired number I started thinking about some other way of using it. It didn’t take long for me to decide to see if there was an age related pattern to female world record holders. So that’s what I did, and not particularly surprising there is a relation between the athletes and the age at which they set the current world record. But what is truly important are the stories behind the ladies involved.

Hypothesis: On the assumption a swimmer must necessarily be at his or her best in order to break an existing world record, and of those historical few who have broken their own world record an overwhelming majority did so within a period spanning less than two years, that there is a strong correlation between the age of the current world record holders when they swam their races and their physical peak.

If the hypothesis is true we should find world records clustered together within a range of two to no more than four years given normal human development patterns (i.e. the four year Olympic cycle was correctly chosen to include every participant’s period of peak performance). There are seventeen events recognized by FINA, and with world records granted for both long and short course it makes for a total of 34 world records for women. I’ve limited my analysis to Olympic long course or half of these – and in so far as their ages when they set their records they range from seventeen to twenty seven, a far greater range called for by my hypothesis. So let us look more closely.

The youngest current world record holder is Krisztina Egerszegi, setting the 200 back record only one week after her seventeenth birthday. Two others also made the list at seventeen: Janet Evans just one week shy of her eighteenth birthday in the 800 and Katie Hoff taking home the 400 IM record with a couple of months to spare. Most surprisingly we only have one woman whose world record was set when she was eighteen – Kate Zeigler, giving herself a birthday present just ten days before her nineteenth. I’ll return to discuss the lack of eighteen year olds later on. The greatest cluster of records occurs in the twentieth year with five; counting in Therese Alshammar, Jessicah Schipper, Yanyan Wu, and Laure Manoudou with two. And lastly Leisel Jones’ two breastroke records were set six and seven months after she turned twenty. These eleven records then are contained by the bounds set out in my hypothesis. Of the eleven only three have ever had any doping associations to my knowledge. The Chinese swimmer Yanyan Wu was caught three years after her record taking anabolic steroids for a rather conclusive ‘positive’ association (Katie Hoff has stated it is her singular goal in swimming to take the 200 IM record away from Wu to which we can only say our hopes go with her). I actually debated whether or not to mention the other swimmer as they were only rumors, but in the interests of full disclosure I will reveal there were whispers when Leisel Jones showed up at a major Australian swim meet with considerable muscle gain a few months after she had set her records. But this is the only instance where the name Leisel Jones and doping come up in a sentence together. It seems there’s only one probable doping in this group, and even this case can be linked to a state sponsored doping program where the athlete is often an unwilling or unknowing participant in the fraud.

And now there are six. American Leila Vaziri is the next oldest with a world record at twenty one years and seven months. But her story veers away from the pattern of unbroken successes shown by her younger counterparts. We pick up Vaziri’s relatively undistinguished career as an Indiana University sophomore where she finished 7th in the NCAA 100 back. At the start of the summer break her father was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter and obviously she was grief stricken. Her swimming fell off in her junior year and she ended the season with a 10th place finish at the 2006 NCAA finals. After taking some time off from swimming she returned in 2006 for her senior year “with a renewed focus and drive. Mental strength, she says, is more important now than physical strength.”¹ She almost immediately won her first and only national title at the ConocoPhillips National Championships to explode onto the world scene, and ended up chopping 2.5 seconds off her 100 back in less than a year. Her world record in the 50 back came as a complete surprise to everybody – it was the first time she had competed in the event internationally. She graduated from Indiana U this past May and is now training with the Coral Springs Swim Club, the same club the ageless Dara Torres belongs to and trains with.

With a world record at twenty two years nine months German Britta Steffen was another surprise. A phenom at fifteen with a 55.66 100 free at the 1999 European Junior Championships it would be another seven years before she recorded a new personal best. She was a substitute on Germany’s 2004 Olympic 4x100 free relay team and afterwards took a break from the sport; not swimming at all in 2005. She came back with a bang though, finally breaking through with a new PB 100 free time of 54.82 March 2006 and then five months later at the European Championships raced to a new world record in the 100 free with a 53.30. From nowhere close to the world’s top rankings to world record holder in a few short months her late career improvement has been attributed to a change in coaching and extensive psychological counseling; enough for her to deal with an eating disorder and see a dramatic turnaround in both motivation and attitude. Shortly thereafter Germany’s swimming federation announced a “blood passport” program in conjunction with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to protect German swimming against accusations of doping.

Australian Jade Edmistone, world record holder in the 50 breastroke, is quite the enigma. Her career path is remarkably similar to our teenage world record holders except for one striking difference – her international career started about four years later than everybody else mentioned here except for Vaziri. She only appears on Australia’s national stage in 2002 at the advanced age of twenty, reaching the 50 breast finals at the Long Course Australian Championships and taking silver and fifth in the 50 and 100 breast respectively at the Short Course Australian Championships. Prior to 2002 it appears she didn’t even qualify to swim at her country’s national championships. Even her own website gives no information about her history in age group swimming. But once on the scene Edmistone showed steady progress. She set the 50 meter short course breaststroke world record in September 2004, broke her first long course record (50 breastroke again) ten months later at twenty three years and five months of age, and then went on to break that record again a week before her twenty fourth birthday.

Next oldest on the list is of all people American Natalie Coughlin. I would think after reading about some of the backgrounds of the older world record holders a few of my readers may be getting a little uneasy, but Natalie Coughlin has such a well documented history of continued excellence over the past several years I won’t spend anytime detailing her career here. I can and do point out her first long course world record (in her best event the 100 backstroke) was set a couple of weeks before her twentieth birthday which fits in nicely with my hypothesis. Her recent improvement on that time by the scant margin of 14 hundredths of a second at twenty four years and seven months of age I believe can be rationally explained as her not significantly slowing over the past 4½ years rather than getting faster. Whatever the explanation swimming a world record at such a late age represents an exceptional achievement accomplished by only very few in history.

Finally the oldest female world record holder is Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn with two world records in the 50 free and 100 fly, both logged a month into her twenty eighth year. Her story makes for especially good reading. She appeared on the world stage at the VI FINA World Championships at seventeen in 1991, and the following year at the 1992 Barcelona Games finished 8th in the 100 free and ninth in the 100 fly. Questions went unanswered over her ejection from the Dutch Olympic Team preparing for the 1996 Atlanta Games for ostensibly a “poor attitude”, but her times had already started to falter the year before after three years of competing at a consistently high, though not spectacular, level of performance (satisfyingly the performance curve shown in her early career conforms exactly to my hypothetical ‘classic’ years of peak performance). Apparently no longer welcome in the Netherlands she began training with well regarded Paul Bergen in Oregon and by 1997 saw a return to her past form. Thus started a period of four years of continually faster times which culminated at the 2000 Sydney Games winning four medals (three gold and one relay silver) and three world records, including the two which still exist today. Her improvement over those years was nothing short of phenomenal: three and a half seconds off her 100 fly, three seconds off her 100 free, and over one and a half seconds off her 50 free. Suspicions her times were aided by doping were rampant and openly discussed, but she never failed a test. Until recently it was my opinion Inge de Bruijn represented what has been the most egregious case of successful doping in swimming; that is until Dara Torres assumed the crown.

So what happened to those eighteen year olds? We should be seeing something very close to a normal distribution (aka a bell curve) when charting the ages of our current world record holders and obviously it doesn’t come close. You can understand the odds against being a world record holder can be likened to those encountered to win a major lottery: the odds of even one of them also physically maturing at a markedly different rate than normal would multiply those odds several fold. We have four or five here. Of course there’s another explanation – the individual is so much better than the rest of the human population they have the ability to continue swimming past their peak performance years and still break world records – but the odds against that are quite incredible too. Nevertheless that is exactly what I’m ascribing to Coughlin’s latest world record. She’s long dominated the 100 back, and without a serious challenge I believe she was never pushed enough to test her true limits, or for that matter has ever known them. Only recently has the rest of the world caught up with her and unsurprisingly she responded with a new personal best. I’m of the opinion her recent record shows she had a mid to low 58 in her during her peak years. As for the rest forget it, and if you disagree with me just read their stories again. That means we have five world records that belong somewhere else. So where did the eighteen year olds’ records go? Simple – they were stolen.

¹Leila Vaziri: Peaking at the Perfect Time – USA Swimming Mar.22, 2007