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Friday, December 3, 2010

Planning And Plotting To Olympic Open Water Gold

Among the many historic moments in open water swimming history, Great Britain’s success in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics has to be up there. With two silver medals and a bronze in the event, British swimmers took 50% of the total available medals - poetic justice for the country with the English Channel.

It is also the result of the traditional British approach to open water swimming - professionalism, focus and attention to detail.

The British established the Channel Swimming Association in 1927. The British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA) has long set the standards for open water swimming and established the rules of competition for the global open water swimming community.

Decade in and decade out, the BLDSA continues to tirelessly promote amateur long distance swimming and its swimmers. And, with the vision of Sam Greetham and his colleagues at British Swimming, a full-time position with a dedicated coach was established with knowledgeable staff to manage the British national open water team and to develop its junior swimmers.

The end result was British Swimming winning 50% of the available Olympic medals in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Alas, British Swimming is the exception to the rule in competitive open water swimming. Too many swimmers go to the professional marathon swims around the world without a coach or representative from their national federation. These athletes show up to competitions in cold lakes and rough oceans with an elite athlete’s mindset: go 100% - but they have no one looking over them who really can spot their stroke from afar, knows their stroke count or their facial expressions when they are under extreme physiological stress (hyperthermia or hypothermia) or even the color of their swim cap.

Long-term strategy, attention to detail, year-round focus on the athletes, utilization of the research and resources to enhance performance - this tells part of the story of British Swimming success. British Swimming’s Open Water Performance Manager Mark Perry explains.

Perry believes the current level of public enthusiasm and support shown towards open water, from both the competitive swimming community and the general public, will be a major factor in its continued success, but he knows that it will take an even greater effort to sustain those results as the 2012 London Olympics looms on the horizon.

"We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time and achieved some wonderful results.

This is a testament to all who’ve been involved in the open water program and journey to Beijing, but in reality this is just the start – there’s still so much more to be done and work towards
."

"The success we saw in Beijing has drawn a great deal of attention to open water swimming from many coaches, athletes, the media and the public as a whole. It’s created a very positive attitude towards the discipline and sets us up perfectly in terms of preparations for London 2012.

Britain has done a great job in terms of open water swimming, but the rest of the world will undoubtedly catch up
."

"We’ve got a lot of momentum currently and that can only help to grow the sport in this country."

With long-term planning and vision, Perry was tasked early on by British Swimming to take a relatively unappreciated and unknown aquatic discipline to a level that would be competitively successful on the Olympic stage.

"I identified changes that needed to be made. I saw the competition, other strong nations and got very excited about it and what marathon swimming had to offer. When I first got involved and took on the sport it was in need of modernization. We knew we had really good swimmers out there with lots of young talent coming through the ranks. The first thing we did was to try to recruit these top swimmers and brought on board Keri-Anne Payne, Cassie Patten and David Davies immediately. We want to make the most of the new-found interest now and extend this even further."

"We want to encourage more athletes to explore the possibility of marathon swimming and to provide them with the right opportunities at the right time." Perry looks at what athletes are swimming the 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle events and think about what they would be like at 10K.

British Swimming also tries to give every one of its distance swimmers the opportunity to swim an appropriate open water event.

"A large part of the focus of the program is to work from the grass roots up. It involves meeting the different regions throughout Britain and with those working with young talent, not only coaches but those working in the background. All involved in swimming need to drive this initiative forward. Before Beijing and the fantastic British performances, when I was on the pool deck at major meets, I used to get asked about boats and binoculars. Now the coaches are asking me how they and their swimmers can get involved. The shift in attitude towards the sport has been a massive one. There’s a lot of interest now from swimmers and coaches alike and the challenge we face now is facilitating that through the future."

"[Open water swimming] used to be seen as a separate entity, sometimes a completely different sport, but I want to change all of that. It’s an integral part of the World Class Events Programme and there’s no bigger testament to this than the results from the 2008 Olympics. All medalists came from a impressive pool background and together with our knowledge, experience and commitment to open water swimming, it’s transition into the world class programme has been seamless."

"The priority of the work we do is in looking after the athletes and making sure they have all the resources they need. It’s also about working very closely with their [home] coaches. This has created a great rapport which provides a very close-knit team when we compete. The aim isn’t to create specialists in open water swimming, but rather to keep swimmers excelling in both open water and pool-based competitions."

Very wisely, Perry works closely with Development Coach Chris Martin to identify open water opportunities, but the priority is not short-term results oriented. With incredible foresight and patience, the focus is on giving the British athletes the right experience to lead to winning medals at the Olympics.

"We take our athletes and give them experience and exposure at international level. We highlight talent and work with them to develop themselves. [Competitive marathon swimming] in Britain has come a long way in a short space of time, but our strategy going forward will focus on developing technique and gaining experience. Leading into 2008, [Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten] were fairly experienced. They had a good track record and experiences of international events. They didn’t always go to events to win. It was about swimming the race, gaining more experience and creating a better understanding of the event."

"Before the Beijing Olympics, David Davies (shown on let) had very little experience and therefore his plan was to stay out in front and out of trouble.

There wasn’t a British directive to go out in both races from the front, it fell down to the athletes and how the race developed
."

Perry believes the team's results are even more impressive when one considers Britain has only June through August in which to compete in open water due to its climate.

"Our aim is to be a world leader in terms of open water racing. More races and events will go towards building experience and knowledge. It’s about being able to react to certain situations and the best way of managing this is through experience."

"2012 is our next big event, but we also have the World Championships in open water. Other than that, it's a learning curve we’'l go through to be up there at the very top in time for London. We need to develop our race plans and this will require more events and opportunities on the calendar. The race plan is a massive element of open water swimming. It’s all important."

Perry looks at training in a very specific way.

"Training for the open water and the pool-based events should be the same. We’ve been very successful with our swimmers following pool-focused training regimes. The only additional training requirement they’ve undergone is in the tactics of the race and this is something that comes from exposure to competition."

In summary: impressive planning, admirable vision, great execution.

Photo of David Davies by the Telegraph and Cameron Spencer of Getty Images AsiaPac.

Copyright © 2010 by Open Water Source

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