Thursday, 21 February 2013

"A fish rots from the head" - What the Aussies are saying facing Olympic scandal

IN HOT WATER: The Australian mens 4x100 freestyle relay team is set to tell their story on friday.
The Australian fallout post the Olympic reviews is the gift that keeps on giving, if you like a good melodrama.

As Jade Neilsen more or less names and shames James Magnussen, Jason Roberts and Cameron McEvoy from the team-building-event gone horribly wrong in Manchester, the mens 4x100 freestyle team looks set to tell their story on Australian TV. 

Exactly what they will say, and what they hope to achieve is hard to estimate. However - I'm expecting a tearful sorry.

Meanwhile a lot of opinions has been voiced in this matter down under.

Wednesday Speed Endurance argued the public wash-up will be a gain for the sport in Australia.

That opinion is shared by Lisa Forrest, a 1980 Olympian who in the Sydney Morning Herald tells the tale of when Bill Sweetenham in no way sweet-talked the athletes before the games. This was four years after the shambles that was the 1976 Olympics.

She claims tough talk is the tonic to create a team of serious swimmers. Sweetenhams speech left her in tears but also galvanized her.

Lisa Forrest at the 1980s Olympics.
" On the sporting battlefield (or in the pool) of today, if you can't win for Australia then all you've got to do is lose well. Silver medals can be celebrated; bad sportsmanship cannot. [....] The road to recovery after the London Olympics is the same one we took after Montreal. Swimmers need to be serious and tough, as Bill Sweetenham said. If that isn't a job you feel up for, then try another sport."

Anthony Sharwood of the Herald Sun makes no one wonder how he feels about the teams mental strength. He claims the Bluestone Review lacks two words: Grow up. Between the lines you also get the feeling he is saying: Grow a pair.
  • Mollycoddled swimmers are on social media for the fan love but the poor darlings can’t handle a bit of gentle trolling.
  • Mollycoddled swimmers all want individual coaches, individual sponsorships, individual “brands”, individual wealth and fame while still young enough to live at home, to the point that they have no idea what teamwork means.
  • Mollycoddled swimmers who aren’t as good as other swimmers don’t deal with their status well.
  • Mollycoddled swimmers who are better than other swimmers don’t like to hang with the slow ones and sometimes bully them.
  • Mollycoddled swimmers complained they had no private refuge in the magnificent, new athletes’ village constructed entirely for their use.
    And so on...

James Magnussens success-coach, Brant Best, has come out in defence of his adept and claims the elite squad of Australia is not in fact "pampered brats".

Maybe so, but they were in dire need of leadership and guidance, something the reports conclude they were not. Leadership is not only sanctioning, it's preventing. The Morning Heralds Chief sports columnist Richard Hinds writes:

David Brent from hit TV-show "The Office" is not what
you would normally call a a good leader.
"IT DOES not seem long ago that Australian swimmers were beacons of athletic supremacy and models of wholesome virtue. [...] Now, after the release of two reports on Tuesday, a far less flattering image of Australian swimming has emerged. That of an Olympic team deeply confused and divided. Young swimmers distracted by troublemakers, daunted by unrealistic expectations, depressed by failure, belittled by a star system and led by befuddled coaches and officials whose management skills make David Brent look like Donald Trump."

Great leadership also means assembling a great team with supplementing skills. In wednesdays post I critizised the fact that Magnussen was not taken down to earth, and the fact that the swimmers seemed ill-prepared for bad results. Now it seems they were not prepared for anything on the mental side of things at all.

The lack of a sports psychologist among the team is being voiced by Kenrick Monk, but maybe more heavily by veteran Libby Trickett.

The before mentioned Lisa Forrest in an interview with the Herald Sun also criticize the lack off competition leading up to the Games, claiming that this was a bad choice - on the mental side of things.

But now we are digressing into the sporting side of things. A very few is actually voicing that point of view. It's all the things that happened outside of the pool that led to the poor results. That seems to be the widespread opinion.

Alan Thompson, former Australian head coach
Stathi Paxinos, a sports journalist, has a really interesting take on the lack of team spirit in the YouTube-video embedded under. He claims that even with big, big names like Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett etc. the feeling of a team was more present before.

As the new breed of Australian swimmers, undoubtedly good swimmers but as a whole maybe not the standard of the era before them, came through there was a shift in culture. The senior swimmers expected to lead the team was not able to, and neither were the coaches replacing names like Don Talbot and Alan Thompson.

Video via Swimmer's Daily.

This, he argues, is a combined effort between weak leadership from coaches and staff, but also due to the difference in characters.

That is probably as close to the reasons we are going to get, but fridays Australian relay revelation is going to be an interesting one. Who will they bring with them as they plunge into the deep end?

Nicole Jeffery writes for the Australian that "A fish rots from the head." Swimming Australia needs their best swimmers performing. Their best swimmers need good leaders to perform.

And perhaps a good old wake up call.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Olympic public dirty laundry beneficial to Swimming Australia

The backwash and dirty laundry from the Australian swimming team at the London Olympics continue to be splashed into the open. Swimming Australia is hurting, but in the long run it will help the sport "down under" - in more ways than one.

The two reports that dissect the Olympic effort of the Aussies has hit swimming Australia like a bombshell, despite reports of unsuitable behaviour emerging soon after the Olympics.

It seemed that the early news of bullying and team-mates sabotaging each other were just the tip of the iceberg. The report slams the team atmosphere as "culturally toxic" and that a distinct lack of leadership led to a deteriorating team feeling. Misuse of prescription drugs, bullying and breach of team rules and protocol when it came to alcohol was not acted upon by team leaders thus leading to athletes describing the games as "the lonely and individual games".

In addition the emphasis and focus solely on gold medals as a measure of success meant that team spirit took a new plunge as athletes felt undefended, alone and alienated by those in charge.

Who's the villain(s)?
The outrage of course puts head coach Leigh Nugent under pressure, but the ones seem to be cutting the worst deal is the men's 4x100 freestyle team.

As Australian media cries out for the drunken crew to be named and shamed, that relay team, whom had so much expectation to bear on their shoulders - seem to be the ones in the centre of most attention.

James Magnussen was the focal point of that team, and the one getting the most attention. "The Missile" has admitted trouble handling expectation during the Games, leading to a lack of sleep. The use of Stilnox, a sleeping aid, is in such a way not very surprising. A misuse is a very different matter, and is subject to a probe.

Members of that relay were also in the media's attention for the alleged bullying incident of a junior male member of the team. In addition unsuitable behaviour towards team members, disrupting their preparations, also occurred during a "team-building exercise".

The report concludes that there was enough incidents, involving a large enough part of the team, that measures should have been taken.
UNDER FIRE: Leigh Nugent gets a
fair bit of media attention at the moment.

Numb Nugent
Leigh Nugent denies knowing anything of bullying or the misuse of Stilnox. He does admit that he should have acted sooner on some incidents, but still wants to keep his job, despite coming under fire.

The fact that the coaches themselves are being investigated for their relationship to alcohol also tells you that these leaders are being criticized not only for the lack of active leadership - they were not leading by example either.

Nugent has been getting some support, but I doubt that Nick D'Arcy, with all due respect, is the sole man he wants standing next to him bearing in mind D'Arcy's somewhat turbulent past.

It's hard to imagine Nugent keeping his job. Ironically what might save him, is the controversy surrounding the Olympics. He might be able to hide bad results behind internal struggles.

If everything went perfectly, and Australia still only got one gold medal, they would certainly not stick with the man responsible for results, would they? Now - the blame could be carefully placed among the athletes or some diffuse entity which no one really knows what it is.

My aussie experience
I trained for one year in Australia (2011). My stay at Norwood Swim Club in Adelaide, under coach Peter Bishop, was for me not the best year when it came to results in the pool, but I learned so much about swimming - in and out of the pool. (I just couldn't execute it.)

First of all it gives perspective to barely be possible to find on results at Australian nationals with a time that, albeit not a good one for me, would place me handsomely in the final at Norwegian nationals. It also gives perspective to have a team mate, eight years younger, around the same level as me saying: "I'm a crap swimmer." In Norway he would be lauded as a great talent.

That attitude and the fact that the bar is raised that high is one of the main reasons Australia (a nation of 21 million) often fights above it's weight. Not just in swimming, but sports in general.

It's an attitude also used by Norwegian skiers. If you're the best in Norway at cross-country skiing, odds are you are the best in the world. (For the record: I'm under no illusion the international competition is comparable.)

No longer unbeatable
That's the way they are used to having it "down under", when it comes to swimming. However the nation's best swimmers seems to have adopted a minority complex when it comes to the big stage.

Advertising during the Olympics.
Pressure much?
James Magnussen went into the games seemingly very confident of his own ability. Some suspected his cockiness might be his downfall. It was all a charade.

After London, and with results in hand, it's easy to say that he was fazed by pressure. He even admitted it himself.

And no wonder - watching it all from the outside it seems he not only carried the relay team, he carried the weight of the nation.

But he, and the others, should have been given the tools to handle it.

The question is: Why wasn't he?

Probably because they have been spoiled by athletes managing it themselves.

The fear of failing is something most swimmers have felt during a swimming career. The immense inner pressure and feeling that if "I don't succeed, it will be disaster". I dare the statement that it is the most common psychological barrier in sports as well as the most paralyzing way of thought.

Especially if you feel alone, and not a part of a team.

It is such a common thing, that at the top level it should be 'easily' handled.

Smells of bad team spirit - but who's to blame?
The fact that the team failed to make use of the boost that was 4x100 freestyle shock gold medal of the women tells a tale of a group of people who was more together by coincidence, than a team proud of each other.

Huge egos, competitors for most of the year, coming together competing for their nation is a challenge for every national team across every sport.

To me, team spirit comes naturally. If I'm part of a club or team I automatically wish the others well and feel connected. However I've realised that this is not the case for most. But it's not all due to a lack of leadership.

The athletes are adults and should be held responsible for their actions. A "toxic team culture" is not the sole responsibility of the management, but a cohesive effort by swimmers and staff.

That collective effort clearly does not pass the mark.

Media attention: Pure gold!
BUT: No one would care about the swimmers drunken behaviour on the flight back home if they returned back with 10 gold medals. No one would give a rats ass about James Magnussens use of Stilnox if the relay team won took home gold, or if he didn't just miss out on Nathan Adrian in the individual 100 freestyle.

The bullying should still be an issue, though. It's just not acceptable.

However - this media frenzy in Australian and world media will not itself improve results for the team. It's still excellent for the sport of swimming in the country.

Why? Because controversy is the bread and butter of media attention, and media attention is the bread and butter of financial development of sports.

So while it's detrimental to the athletes and coaches currently involved in the long run a washout like this is good news for Australian Swimming, for more reasons than one. The reports should be used to improve performance, by athletes and staff alike. In addition it creates a stir and the "sensation" of something happening amongst the public.

A poor result with some controversy surrounding it is better than an average result with a "let's carry on doing what we're doing attitude".

In the long run the fact that its all out in the open is great news for Swimming Australia. No matter what happens to Leigh Nugent.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Marseille Update: Camille Lacourt Back In Training, Florent Manaudou Branching Out

Romain Barnier, the head coach of CN Marseille, has updated the swimming world on two of his most successful charges, Florent Manaudou and Camille Lacourt. In an interview with Vosges Matin ahead of the Meeting International d'Hiver FFN he reveals that Lacourt took 5 months off after the Olympics and that Manaudou is planning to add a few extra events to his repertoire in Barcelona.

100 backstroke world champion Lacourt only returned to training on January 5th after spending 5 months away from the sport after a disappointing Olympics. He will be in a race against time to get back to full fitness in time for Barcelona, but has reportedly returned in a different mental state. "With Camille, we advance every day. Five months off is a bit of a novelty. For him, it is a bit like starting a second career.What makes me happy is to have found a Camille Lacourt with his doubts and uncertainties. His desire to be the best, too. There is a little extra something" says Barnier.

Barnier's 50 free Olympic champion Florent Manaudou set his sights on qualifying in the 50m sprint for all four strokes, unfortunately he eventually gave up on breaststroke due to doubts that Barnier had that he could challenge for a medal. Barnier is more bullish for the backstroke and butterfly. "Outside the freestyle, his greatest chance is likely the backstroke, even though he is still working on his start. But whether backstroke or butterfly, he has potential in both."

In an exhibition event last weekend Manaudou beat Lacourt in a 50 back duel. Given his lights out natural speed the revelation that Manaudou is aiming to add the back and fly to his Barcelona schedule should give sprinters the world over cause for concern.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

University of Tennessee does the Harlem Shake

Swim teams do tend to enjoy doing different kinds of viral music videos. You had various versions of Call Me Maybe and we saw even more versions of Gangnam Style.

University of Tennessee Swimmers are gearing up for the conference season and the Southeastern Swimming Championships in a couple of weeks time by doing the newest viral video craze: the Harlem Shake.

"This is what happens when our team starts tapering and gets an abundance of energy", says Norwegian team member Øystein "Oy" Hetland.

(Øystein is the little brother of Aleksander Hetland who gave up his professional swimming career after winning a World Championship Gold Medal in Istanbul before Christmas. Read that story here: Hetland goes out with a big bang.)

Tennessee earlier this year were accused of tapering for a small-scale dual meet against Georgia after creating a bit of an upset by beating the favorites. Read SwimSwams story.


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Alshammar pregnant - but swimming career might not be over

Swedish World Champion Therese Alshammar is pregnant and will not be swimming the Barcelona World Championships this summer.

Alshammar (35) reveals that she and her coach and partner Johan Wallberg are expecting in an interview with Swedish national broadcaster SVT today.

"I've got a new challenge and a different perspective on life" says Alshammar, who is expecting her child in june.

"It's a big change for me, of course physically, but also mentally. It brings along with it a lot of thoughts and philosophizing about life which are about far bigger subjects than before".

Alshammar is a two-time long-course swimming World Champion, but in addition has ten short course titles. The Olympic Gold medal though has eluded the two time silver medalist from Athens 2000. A grand total of 71 international championships medal makes her one of the most successful athletes ever.

The freestyle and butterfly sprinter, who has taken the crown and $100,000 cheque of World Cup Winner on several occasions is held in high regard in her native country, widely thought of as one of their all-time great athletes - regardless of sport.

Although out of the World Championships this year, the 35 year old refuses to draw a line over her swimming career.

She says shes been training during her pregnancy, albeit not as usual.

"It's strange to feel that no matter what I do my physical condition gets worse" jokes the swimming star with a tattoo that reads "Diva".

"One of my greatest dreams is to continue to try to compete and see if I can still improve. I still have a longing to be the fastest in the World"

The safety and well-being of her child naturally comes first, but the Swedish swim Queen does not even rule out swimming in Rio for the next Olympics.

"Never say never. I find swimming really fun and as long as I feel that way I will continue to do my sport. I don't promise anything, but it would be really great if that could happen."

Alshammar has not previously revealed in public that Johan Wallberg in addition to being her coach also has been her boyfriend for the last couple of years. Wallberg and Alshammar returned this year to Sweden after several years of training and traveling mainly abroad.

"Every relationship has its challenges, no matter if it is of a private or professional nature. It has been important to us to separate those two roles, so that we could focus on swimming" says Alshamar.

Listen to the interview here:
(In Swedish)

Monday, 4 February 2013

Michael Phelps and Ray Lewis: Swimming's Super Bowl Connection

When you're Michael Phelps, you don't watch the Super Bowl from the cheap seats, instead you go to the locker room after the game to congratulate your victorious home town Baltimore Ravens.

But this wasn't just a perk of being an Olympic great, the connection between Phelps and Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis has been forged over the years as the two have become friends, and it goes deeper than just mutual admiration. Who do the US have to thank for Phelps returning to swimming post-Beijing? Bob Bowman? Milorad Cavic? Ryan Lochte? Turns out it was Ray Lewis.

“He was probably the single reason I came back for four more years,’ Phelps said. “A lot of people don’t know that, but things that he has said to me, I can never thank him enough.”

Amazingly Phelps isn't the swimmer with the closest link to one a Super Bowl winning Ravens player. (via Texas Swimming)

PS. WADA and USADA must have broken into a cold sweat when Ray Lewis gave credit to Phelps saying "you gave me the formula". Hopefully he wasn't talking about Deer Antler Spray...

Friday, 1 February 2013

Welcome Mr. Rollason!! Yesterday you made my day!

Yesterday the name of the new high performance coach in the national training center in Denmark was announced. Much to my surprise but also delight it was Shannon Rollason. I was surprised because I have been told now for ten years by the Danish federation and its coaches that all Danish coaches and clubs are "too soft" on their swimmers. And I expected that to be the case for the direction of any newhire this year too.

When reading up on mr. Rollason (and asking about him in the small part of my network who have actually spoken to the man) a very different picture than "mindless pursuit of toughness" emerged. It seems that Shannon Rollason incorporates a new way of coaching - new at least to the Danish federation. As I could figure (I am sure he will tell us more when he starts) his starting point is to listen to the swimmers and encorporate a regime that allows them to be as much a part of the process as the coach. I even found a site which stated that Shannon Rollason was frowned upon in Australia because he was not "tough enough" on his swimmers. Hallelujah! (I was beginning to doubt it ... but it seems that maybe people CAN perform without being yelled at and scared/ridiculed?!)

For ten years now the general consensus in our federation has been to work against the general attitude in the educational sectors in Scandinavia: That young people should be able to think and make decisions for themselves. The result being that a ludicrous number of swimmers in the national training centre quit their careers or huried to the United States to swim in the college system. And every time someone left or quit it was excused with the phrase "He/she was not tough enough. They did not have what it takes". The swimmers that succeeded were praised for "Having what it takes". And they DID perform - no question about it. But it was never accepted that there might be swimmers that could reach world class level without "toughness" and yelling. There was one one way towards the target - the hard, yelling, tough, Alpha male-way.

I thank God (and this comes from an atheist) that this seemingly acknowledged process from a national body is about to change.

I welcome you to Denmark Mr. Rollason! If just half of what I have read and heard about you is true, this "could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship" ....

Ricki Clausen
Danish club coach and a very firm believer in the power of own thinking!