Monday 24 June 2019

Swimmers look to science in attempt to mine gold

Darragh Greene’s physiological testing showed he has extremely high endurance capacity, so his race distances and training loads have been increased. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Darragh Greene’s physiological testing showed he has extremely high endurance capacity, so his race distances and training loads have been increased. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cliona Foley

We do indignation well in this country, especially about sport, as demonstrated whenever Irish athletes under-perform at major events.

In a country with a tiny population and very limited resources, the possibility that talent or money is not being optimised provokes strong reactions and emotions.

So, in many post-Olympic reviews the public hand-wringing and blame game often drowns out the proper analysis. Too often the answer in Ireland seems to be: "I/We just don't know what went wrong".

Swim Ireland are hell-bent on taking the guesswork and emotion out of the process with a wholly empirical, science-based approach to Tokyo 2020. Evidence of this change was clear at last week's Irish Open in Abbotstown, which is essentially the national (long-course) championships.

First up, swimmers were informed they would not be considered for international selection this summer if they weren't there, so athletes travelled from USA, Great Britain and even Arab states to take part. The Open (plus the concurrent Commonwealth Games in Australia) was also declared, for the first time, the 'sole' Irish trial for 2018.

The event was run over five days, not the usual four, in order to replicate more closely the longer schedules at World Championships and Olympics, and also to help multi-eventers by giving them more recovery between races.

Swim Ireland have also set tough qualification standards for this summer's European Championships, designing them so that anyone who gets and replicates those times should go on to make at least a semi-final.

Swim Ireland's high performance director Dr Jon Rudd, the man who has instigated most of these changes since taking over in the wake of Rio 2016, is unapologetic about re-shaping Irish swimming's high-performance culture.

Rudd is a former head coach of the GB and England senior teams. He coached 2016 Olympic finalist Ben Proud and, most notably, coached Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte to Olympic gold in 2012 when she was just 15.

His mantra for Irish swimming is that "swimmers should be swimming personal bests when it matters most" and the 2017-20 performance plan specifically targets the Tokyo Games.

To that end swimmers have been advised that non-Olympic sprint events (50m breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly) should no longer be their priority.

Some have relocated to the two national high-performance training centres, in Dublin and Limerick, others have stayed where they are but come to train at weekends or on holidays, through the 'In Touch' programme.

Rudd insists this has been a collaborative process between the high performance team, the athletes, families and coaches, saying, "I've never asked anybody to move, that's not the way that we work."

Five options in the US were presented for Rio Olympian Shane Ryan (24) when he finished his studies in Penn State and he has moved to Auburn College in eastern Alabama. Darragh Greene (22), from Newtownforbes in Longford, was based in UCD's swim programme for the past two years but has put his studies on hold and moved across Dublin to train and live on campus in Abbotstown. Their results at the Irish Open were notable.

Ryan is best known as a backstroker - he won 50m backstroke gold at last summer's World University Games - but he became the first Irishman to break 49 seconds for 100m freestyle.

That wasn't as surprising as Greene beating defending champion and Olympian Nicholas Quinn twice during his clean sweep of the 50m/100m/200m breaststroke titles. He also set a new Irish senior 100m record and knocked a full four seconds off his 200m PB while coming within four tenths of Andrew Bree's 10-year-old record.

Greene's sister Aisling starred for Longford in the All-Ireland junior football final two years ago, and Gaelic football, with Clonguish, was one of many sports he played until specialising in swimming in his late teens.

Then Rudd noticed that Greene's physiological testing showed he has extremely high endurance capacity. So his race distances and training loads have been upped since he joined the national squad in Abbotstown, where national coach Ben Higson, a young Scot who has coached a lot of top breaststrokers, is regarded as another vital piece of the jigsaw.

Greene looked a little shell-shocked after his 'breakthrough' Irish Open.

"Coming from a two-year sprint programme you think you're a sprinter and then you come here and in just 19 weeks you're pulling out these times?" he enthused. "What's really exciting is that I know I have so much still to improve."

Tallaght butterflyer Brendan Hyland also caught the eye, knocking more than half a second off his own Irish 200m record and also chopping 0.74s off his 100m record. Personal bests in major championships - that's what Swim Ireland's programme is designed to repeatedly achieve now.

The next big barometer is the European Championships in Glasgow this summer for which Mona McSharry, Conor Ferguson and Jordan Sloane also qualified. Sligo prodigy McSharry (17) and now National Aquatic Centre-based Ulster star Ferguson (18) won medals at World and European Juniors last summer, so their talent is already apparent. The ante has been upped now for more to match them.

But this is Ireland, the land of eternal squabbling and selection debacles. What happens if someone who didn't get the qualification mark last week completely shatters it in the next few months? Tough. Dashboard predictions - using science and statistics - are used to track everything, and the optimum qualification time for swimmers who must taper and peak again in August was long since decided.

"Swimmers and coaches were all told about this 14 months ago," Rudd says and indeed, every club and coach was invited to a series of nationwide road shows last year explaining the new system.

A first family liaison committee, called the Family Network Advisory Group, has also been set up and canvassed opinions from parents of current and former swimmers.

Swimmers collaborated with the association to produce a new athlete/coach team charter. It comes in the shape of a pocket-sized booklet and is full of worthy aspirations but coach/athlete relationships are not always that simple.

A shocking variety of British sports have been rocked with allegations of bullying and sexism since Rio, showing that their vaunted high performance system sometimes morphed into an ugly win-at-all-costs environment.

Rudd insists that Swim Ireland's high performance plan will strongly remain "person first, athlete second".

Some might blanch at solo trials, uprooting themselves to new programmes and coaches and tougher qualification standards, but the rules and ambition are now crystal clear.

"You can take it two ways, see it as a tough challenge or just take it on and I just took it on," Greene says. "I was well off [qualifying for] Rio and you're not going to get a few chances at the Olympics. They're only every four years so you want to be on, and this is all designed to do that. It is a hard process but sure if it was easy everyone could do it."

The precariousness of the body and mind, never mind human relationships, means setbacks will inevitably occur. It is how athletes and high performance programmes deal with them that separates the great from the good.

Swim Ireland, at least, are bidding to put more strategy, science and communication into theirs, and their methods and progress are worth monitoring.

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