ATLANTA-"This has been a rehearsal for the year 2000," said Don Talbot, Australian head coach, as the Pan Pacific Championships ended in Atlanta's new Olympic pool." We're finding out where we've got to improve. That's putting it simply. It's a matter of consolidating our strengths, and building depth to our program. I think our depth is improving, but we are not yet where we want it to be."
"The '96 Olympics will serve as an important springboard for us into the next four years," said the chipper Aussie leader. "We were second in this meet. We're trying to lift our standing in the world, if we can. We're now fourth in the world picture. If we can get up a rung or two, we'll be very strong in our own country, five years from now. So really we're planning now."
Despite several outstanding performances, and one world record, it's likely the major teams present were not showing all they had. Richard Quick, U.S. women's Olympic coach, said: "It would be foolish for leading contenders to reveal their very best form, so soon before the start of the 1996 Olympics".
Nevertheless, all countries present will use this meet to assess their progress...or lack of it. Now comes a time for serious stock-taking, and careful final-stage planning. Then will follow eleven critical months before the Atlanta Olympics... and many a swimmer's moment of truth.
Devitt, now vice-president of the Australian Olympic Committee, will be assistant chef de mission (athletes' services) to the Australian 1996 Olympic team, and his fellow AOC executive member, Michael Wenden, will assist him. Both men commented on the resurgence of Australian swimming.
Devitt said Australia would continue to keep their program simple, as they had always done, while putting in a lot of hard, hard work. "We have the money now to expand and identify much more new talent. We've never before been in a position where we could identify nearly a thousand swimmers, as we have done now. In 1956, Australia made an almost clean sweep at the Melbourne Olympics, but at that time we didn't need a thousand swimmers; we only needed a hundred as a base. We've got the funding now to do it with a thousand, and so we should get better results.
"Future prospects are identified by several criteria: on times, positions within the peer groups, and age-group programs... and by casting the net far and wide. Since they were very young, we've been identifying our boys and girls for the year 2000. We are sure that they will be at about the right ages for the Sydney Olympics."
Devitt thought that "national training centres have their merits" but "they are only an adjunct... only a spoke in the wheel; they are not the complete wheel."
"We went through a phase when there was no recognition, or financial recompense to enable coaches to set themselves up primarily as elite level coaches. Now this has been slowly changing in Australia."
Wenden said that successful coaches are financially rewarded, based on results achieved, and not on mere promises. "There are now far more elite-level coaches at the core of our development program", he said.
Wenden added that the Coaches Association was very good at circulating information. The spread of information was also undertaken by the National Institute of Sport, as well as the individual State Institutes and Academies. These programs help to educate coaches, and bring them up to date with advances in many relevant fields, ensuring that coaches have the knowledge needed to coach swimmers to world standards.
"When the Institute of Sport was founded, it was thought that only a small number of coaches was needed; coaches with the expertise and ability to interface with sport scientists, and researchers. They would all be based at the Institute in Canberra. But the coaches realized very early, and very vocally, that this wasn't working.
"The Institute system was then set up at State levels, and, furthermore, it wasn't based on residential programs. The emphasis was: identify the coach, identify the athlete, and then give all necessary support to already existing programs. This has resulted in the large number of coaches who are now supported at the elite end of the program."
Wenden said Australia had about 50 swimmers in the Pan Pacs. "They came from about thirty different coaches. That's not a reflection of anything except that there were about thirty coaches who consider themselves at the elite end of the program, and there are others at this level, who are being encouraged and supported, but who, at this time, did not place swimmers on the team."
Wenden made the point that, in the search for talent, the net should be cast as wide as possible; not just over the potential swimmers, but over potential elite coaches as well.
Wenden gave the example of "unofficial and voluntary" visitation programs arranged between coaches to have their swimmers train together for limited periods. Coaches either accompany their swimmers, or send them on their own to train with a coach who has some particular expertise to offer...either that, or certain swimmers just benefit by training with each other.
At a more organized level, swimmers and their coaches come together periodically in event camps. For example, they may have a breaststroke camp, a backstroke camp, or a distance freestyle camp, and they will swap ideas. Said Wenden: "These camps provide positive interaction, and gone are the jealousies and the fights. Certainly, there is rivalry, but it's a very healthy rivalry these days. I'm pleased with the way it is going."
Asked whether these gatherings resulted in coaches attempting to recruit each other's swimmers, Wenden replied that he was "sure that this occurs, but the urge to change often comes from the swimmer rather than a poaching coach. As swimmers mature, and progress to higher levels of the sport, they become able to consider whether a long-term personal coach continues to offer the quality of coaching they need".
Wenden had spoken to a number of coaches whose swimmers had decided to go to another coach. "Without exception, it's been hurtful, and hard to take, but it's accepted in good faith as probably beneficial to the swimmer."
Wenden said: "Don has developed the ability to interact with people. In years gone by, he was a bit prickly, but, through hard work, he has won the trust and confidence of the coaches and the swimmers.
"You may recall, back at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, just after Don came back to Australia from Canada, there was a great fuss and conflict between some of the swimmers and Don. I think this was a communications failure based on the unique swimming culture that exists in each country, both at the swimming level, and at the coaching level. He now communicates very well. Not only does he understand the coaches and the swimmers, but the coaches, in particular, understand Don. They know when to keep away from him. They know when to approach him with specific requests. They understand his personality, and I suppose the bottom line is that it's working!"
Asked to elaborate, Talbot said that there were one-on-one visits to the swimmers' home programs "to let them know that we are interested in where they are going and that we want to watch their development, and contribute to this if we can."
Asked about his personal role in the program, Talbot said that, as chief coach of Australian swimming, his job was to set up a total plan; organize all the various programs, whether it be an identification group of a thousand people, or national camps, national competitions, international competitions. Talbot said: "I'm a team selector. I also sometimes work 'hands on.' But I'm trying to move out of that a bit more, because I feel that this distracts me from the total program, rather than acting as an aid. I guess I do whatever is needed on the technical side of swimming. When you come to think of it, the job is pretty broad. But I want to keep it that way so that I can walk in, or walk out of a situation, or any part of a program when I want to."
Talbot said that this method had come in for a little criticism but, in the long run, he felt it would pay off. "I don't like to see programs too clearly defined because sometimes a potentially good swimmer can't fit exactly into a particular definition. We're trying to keep it fairly simple if we can. And to do that is a very difficult situation in itself," said Talbot.
Asked whether it was easier to do this in Australia where there is a tradition in swimming and most of the coaching personnel have a good intuitive feel for the sport, Talbot replied: "Yes, that's true in a way. The big difference between Australia and Canada is that the coaches in Australia are much more prepared to work with one another than they are in Canada, and they are not so ego-involved. Like John Carew with Kieren Perkins, and Bill Nelson with Daniel Kowalski, and that sort of thing. As long as they are getting their recognition, they're O.K. about that, and they don't mind...I'll use the word "intruding"...or having input into their programs...and guarding them, because we debate it anyway. But the final decisions in that area go with me, and, once we've made a decision, they're prepared to cooperate. I didn't find that happening in Canada."
Asked about the attitude towards hard work of the modern Australian swimmer, Talbot said: "We are going through a bit of trauma about that, just the same as with every other part of the world. You know our tradition is distance, and we try to maintain that, particularly with people who have any sprint ability at all. I think people want to look for less, and I do believe, even though everyone fervently denies it, there is a trend to shorter racing, and that bothers me quite a bit. In fact, I've accused the Technical Committee of FINA of having a hidden agenda of trying to get rid of 1500s at the Olympic level. Now they say that's not true, and I hope it isn't true, and it would certainly strike us very hard if they did. I still think the 1500 is a great event. It is the event in which we recognize the true guts of a swimmer, if you like."
Questioned about the use of scientific advisors, Talbot said that he had four or five people assisting him in this respect. Said Talbot: "They have swimming in their hearts, or they are ex-swimmers, and they just love the sport. That's a necessary prerequisite. From each of those people, we get something that is concrete. Of course, getting them to agree is a very difficult thing to do! Scientists don't want to do that, but I arbitrate on that too, and usually give them areas in which to work. I make the sole decisions on whether or not we use their materials. The sport scientists don't decide what we will use. I decide this."
"They are doing a very professional job right now," said Talbot. "They've made big progress, and we have to be very conscious of them. We're trying to compete with them more often, and getting them involved in our program, competitive-wise, and they're beginning to do that. In fact, we have a tri-series meet each year that includes New Zealand. This year, the Japanese participated in half of the series, but next year they are going to become full-blown members and I'm very happy about that."