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Brits Home Games Review Delayed

Oct 29, 2012  - Craig Lord

The review into Britain's disappointing show in the pool at a home Olympics has been delayed by a month but the report to be considered by the board of British Swimming in December is set to recommend a fundamental shake-up in training and competition schedules for the nation's elite swimmers.

Sources close to the review have tell us that Britain's top coaches are pressing for a switch to a US model of "sudden-death" trials a month or five weeks out from big international competition. That is likely to sit well with review panel member Bob Bowman, the US coach and mentor to Michael Phelps, 

If holding British trials five months before the Games made for a long Olympic season, top-up trials in June complicated matters, the review has been told, while there is widespread support for appointing a British head coach rather than seek an overseas replacement for American Denis Pursley, now back in Alabama.

Support for the Team USA model comes as no surprise: the US won 16 gold medals out of 31 in all in London, and counted 32 performances out of 50 that were faster than efforts at US Olympic trials just a month before the Games. After £25 million of funding in the Olympic cycle leading up to London 2012, only nine out of 49 performances by British swimmers at the Games were faster than efforts at Olympic trials in the same pool almost five months earlier in early March.

Having told funders that its benchmark target was five medals, with a possible seven in mind, British Swimming celebrated just three medals in the pool. The news got worse for the aquatics federation and David Sparkes as the Games drew on: after a silver for Michael Jamieson and two bronzes for  Rebecca Adlington in the race pool, Tom Daley took bronze off the boards - and that was it from five Olympic sports.

The timing of the review report is critical if Britain is to avoid botched plans for the Barcelona 2013 World Championships next July: the timing of trials will dictate the timing of training and rest cycles.

If coaches want to embrace a standard feature of the US model with late trials, they, in turn, are likely to face a demand to take on the American culture of racing regularly in very competitive conditions, we understand. 

About a third of the Britain Olympic team are expected to compete at the World Short-Course Championships in Istanbul in December but by next autumn, the quota for showing up at major internationals may be much higher.

Michael Scott, the performance director and at the helm of the review panel, said of the review: “It’s been a positive process, overall very constructive. People have spoken honestly about how they feel and Bob Bowman has added great value to our efforts to learn so that we can move on.”

Plans for the future are, of course, well underway. A group of 24 teenagers handpicked as Rio 2016 prospects has just completed a British Swimming Development Camp at Millfield School in Somerset. Their focus was "skills under pressure" to help Britain catch up with the best in the world. The camp, led by Mark Perry and Russ Barber alongside five other coaches, was the first to pilot part of the curriculum for a nine-stage development pathway for Britain's youth swimmers in April 2013. 

Meanwhile, the revolution sparked by Bill Sweetenham 12 years ago is far from complete, according to the view from coaches in the US, some of whom must wonder why Dennis Pursley, "one of the 25 most influential people in the history of USA Swimming” and with a great deal of success behind him could not get Britain to step up at a home Olympic Games.

When asked about what Britain should do next, a compilation of views from across the Pond leaves us with these 10 recommendations from the land of Phelps and 16 gold medals in 31 in all for London 2012 dominance:

  • 1. Abandon early trials that double as national championships in favour of sudden-death trials held just four to five weeks out from the big international of the year - like the USA
  • 2. Race in tough international conditions far more often and give every race a specific purpose; being super-fit does not equal being super-race-fit
  • 3. Hire a British head coach: "make your own people responsible, make them step up; pick a British leader, one that will be bold and capable of being a British Sweetenham. The non-Brit leader is always going to 'go home' - coaches know it, athletes know it. Commitment and pride in the leader is half the battle'
  • 4. "Feed an "Us against the world" culture - its competitive out there"
  • 5. "Get David Sparkes (CEO of British Swimming) out of the way; he takes all the oxygen in the room from any leader. Pursley could not be Pursley; Sweetenham could not be Sweetenham"
  • 6. "Britain fails constantly on the world stage. They are fine in Europe and Commonwealth. Time to constantly face the music of world best as your only focus"
  • 7. Fewer national team camps and when you do hold camps make them more discipline-specific to bring the best freestylers, the best flyers and so on together in a competitive environment 
  • 8. "Sweetenham's cultural revolution was not completed. He wanted Brits to believe 'we can make any final, in any weather, against anyone and then we'll 'have a go' at big prizes and some of us will succeed'. To get there, don't worry about the failures (in the hard, cold sense, not the human caring sense), just focus on and help those who succeed"
  • 9. "Comfort equals failure: put your kids in situations where they are NOT well paid, NOT well housed, NOT comfortable [Britain's silver medallist Michael Jamieson has said the same]. Those with fire in their belly will rise. Same with coaches. Hunger is good … but, here's the last point..."
  • 10. "...Reward top performance, not effort, at the end of the journey. Some will fail. Tough".

All food for thought. 

Some in Britain maintain “we’re not the USA, that’s not for us...” and point to France, the Netherlands, South Africa and others more successful than Britain in London. But none of those nations have such a well-funded programme nor did they manage to get nearly as many in finals as Britain did, their success based on a handful of highly successful individuals (swimmers and coaches).

To emulate that model, Britain would not need five Intensive Training Centres and a new sprint programme at the London Olympic pool. The truth is, Britain has invested for something more substantial and lasting. To deliver, it could do much worse that listen to what the world's dominant swimming nation has to say.

This article is a compilation of two features that appeared in The Times, London, this week.