SWIMNEWS ONLINE: April 1998 Magazine Articles

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We're All In The Same Boat Now


George Block

The hotel was much nicer than I was used to on these kinds of trips, but then again, I was used to travelling with the Nicaraguan swim team.

The front desk opened directly onto an elegant bar that was surrounded by an expansive horseshoe of easy chairs, love seats, and coffee tables arranged into concentric circles of conversation pits.

It was there I sat alone, conversationless, companionless, with my notebook and tape recorder, apparently looking dumber than usual.

Glancing up from by blank page, I noticed one of the world's coaching legends walking towards me. Thinking he wouldn't know who I was, I was wondering if I should greet him as he walked by, when... "Hello mate! Mind if I join you?" he said extending his hand. I half-stood, fumbling to shake his hand, dropping my notebook and pen. "What 'cha workin' on?" he asked.

"Nothing successfully," I replied, my blank tablet now in the middle of the table.

"Well, Nick told me you're writin' for him now. Glad to hear it."

"Thank you," I mumbled, stunned at the recognition.

I was already experiencing his legendary charisma. Not only had he made me feel like an old friend, but he proceeded to attract a coaching hall of fame to our table.

"So what does Nick have you working on?" he asked.

"He wants me to find out why we're going slower," I replied. The others at the table laughed.

"Nick just gave you that as an exercise," said another coach, now retired. "He knows what's going on. He sees every significant bit of swimming data in the world."

"If this is just an exercise, what was I supposed to find out?"

"Well, mate," said a third, who had coached more world records than I had years in the sport, "What did you find?"

I looked around the table, feeing suddenly like I was in an examination hall. There was more swimming knowledge and history around that table than I had ever seen in one place, and I was supposed to tell them what I had discovered.

"If I eliminate Germany," I began, "the situations in many of the leading swimming nations is surprisingly similar.

"There are top ranked swimmers breaking world and national records, with a simultaneous lack of depth. There seems to be a lack of training space and time. Even the political situations seem to be surprisingly similar. There are complaints worldwide about excessive centralization and lack of support for the most productive clubs."

They all laughed at once. I couldn't tell if I had struck a responsive chord, or made a complete fool of myself. I hoped for the former, and feared the latter.

"So what did ya find out, mate?" another coach asked, unwilling to let me off the hook.

"I've found out-so far-that we're all in the same boat. I just can't figure out what boat it is! I can't see that much evidence that we're getting slower. There are 'pet events' that individual nations are worried about. Distance in the U.S., sprint in Australia, breaststroke in Japan. But on the whole, total participation is up in each country and records are being broken."

"The key issue appears to be depth, especially depth of quality," I went on. "In the U.S., we have more good swimmers that we've ever had but, especially on the men's side, fewer great ones.

As a result of the fraudulent success of the socialistbloc, the socialists in swimming in the rest of the world used their country's defeats to centralize and control swimming
The Canadians seem to view their lack of quality depth as a crisis issue. The Australians have some events with awesome depth and others almost vacant. Almost a breadth issue."

I felt that I had defended myself well in front of this panel of inquisitors. I had given them my findings-much of the information straight from their lips. But I was wrong. "So?" came the question. "What's going on? What's the cause?"

I had hoped he wouldn't ask. "I don't know. I can't even tell if it's real."
"It's real, all right," another chimed in.
"I don't know where to look for the cause," I finally admitted, hoping one of these experts would run with the ball.

"You have to look at history," said one. His distinguished voice silenced the table. I relaxed, hoping that he would begin to lecture, then he looked to me. "When did these symptoms first appear?"

"In the U.S., we first started complaining in 1988. We said that 1984 was our last year with depth." "So, what was going on at that time?" Just as I could feel that the lecture was about to begin, he was interrupted.

"Well, for one, we had two boycotted Olympics." Another piped in, "Which made the World Championships much more important." "And gave FINA a lot of clout and a boat-load of money," added a third.

The professor now stood up from his chair. "Excellent! We're setting up the chess board. But what else was happening? Why are we here?"
I ventured a guess. "Drugs?"

"Precisely. The Eastern block drug machine was cranking to maximum usage by the early 80s and evolving to maximum sophistication by the late 80s."

"There was always the suspicion that East Germany was dirty, but the Russians were clean," began another who had been sitting silently. "If you Americans hadn't led that stupid boycott in 1980, the world would have seen how dirty Russia was and you Yanks could have caught them in 1984. Then we wouldn't have gone so far down this road."
He slowly sat back down.

"This is all about drugs?" I asked, more confused than ever. "
Yes," he responded.
"So how do steroids make you slower? I thought they made you faster?"
The rest of the table laughed. I sat silently, confused.

The senior American at the table straightened his tie, looked at me and said, "Don't you see where he's going with this? It is really an excellent history lesson."

I kept my mouth shut and thought to myself, "No." My blank look must have betrayed my thoughts. He continued to look right at me. We apparently had a new teacher. "What was our response to the increased drug use?" he asked.

"Nothing. I mean, denial. Not even that really." I could hear myself sounding exceptionally stupid.

Deep breath. "It wasn't denial like, 'No, they didn't do it.' It was more...head in the sand. (Our Olympic coaches) basically said that (the East Germans) were out-training us and we just had to find ways to work harder."

"And did it make a difference?"
"Did what make a difference?" I said, now completely lost.
"Did working harder make a difference?"
"No. I mean, we couldn't really work harder. The kids were already going all out."
"And, then...?" He was silent, looking right through me, when my Canadian friend spoke up.

"And then, we didn't have to work harder, we had to work smarter. They started importing all these East German training theories and telling us we had to train like them."

"And who was 'they'?" inquired our original teacher, apparently regaining control of his class.

The Aussie firebrand finally chimed in. "They were the goddammed federations! Every place you looked, we suddenly needed a national training centre, national team directors, scientists running our training..."

"Without taking any responsibility for the results, I might add," interrupted his countryman.

"It became wonderful political irony," sang out the professor, clearly relishing his point. "As a result of the fraudulent success of the socialist bloc, the socialists in swimming in the rest of the world used their country's defeats to centralize and control swimming. The conservatives lost politically, because they were losing in the pool."

The two historians were grinning smugly.
I was silent for a moment, "So why did we get slower?"
They both looked at me incredulously. "We didn't," said the American. "We just allowed ourselves to think we did."

The other picked up where he had left off. "And when the free world allowed themselves to be conveniently duped, the swimming socialists took over. Suddenly Canada, Australia, the U.S., and Britain, were all under central control. The way we had been doing it was all wrong. At least two generations of coaches were taught false training theories. Theories that only worked with drugs." When he took a breath the American again began.

"Instead of learning fundamental coaching art and science, these kids were raised on East German theory, presented as pseudo-science. And it was pseudo-science, because it won't work without drugs!"

The leader again took charge. "Meanwhile, all of our best coaches began doubting themselves. As the international defeats piled up, so did the self-doubt. Even they began to experiment with trends and quick fixes.

"That was another great irony. The steroids that made them faster, made us slower."

My older American mentor summed things up. "As the world watched, the socialist political system crumble before our eyes, we let our system of sports organization be captured by the socialists from within."

"Come on," I said. "Carol Zaleski (USS President) isn't a Socialist. For God's sake, she's probably a Republican." Again they all laughed, but he looked at me even more firmly.

"Either you're for centralization and control, or de-centralization and freedom. You don't get to mix and match."

The waitress came to collect her tab. She was ready to go home. The arguments over who owed what broke up the group. My head ached. I gathered my papers, filled my briefcase, and stood to walk toward the lift. The Dutchman greeted me as we began to walk together.

"Do you think it is the revenge of track and field?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" I asked, collapsing into my now familiar confusion.

"In the late 60s and early 70s we used to give the track people a hard time. We (swimming) would set as many world records in a week as they (athletics) would set in a year. They would tell us, "Wait, someday (swimming) will be a mature sport and records won't come so easily."

"Maybe we are now a mature sport," I said. "What do you think?"

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