THE ONCE MIGHTY AMERICAN TEAM MAY APPEAR BEFORE A HOME CROWD IN ATLANTA AS UNDERDOGS
Cecil M. Colwin
A pall of gloom hung over the recent U. S. Olympic Trials. For the first
time in 76 years, not a single American record was set. In fact, 20 of the
26 events produced slower times than those recorded in the 1992 trials.
Without dramatic improvement, the once mighty American team may appear before
a home crowd in Atlanta as underdogs to the Australians, Europeans, and
Chinese. Only four gold medals are predicted: Jeff Rouse in the 100 backstroke,
Tom Dolan in the 400 I.M., and two mens' relays.
Present in Indianapolis was retired Olympic coach George Haines, who said:
"Older athletes don't like to hear coaches of my age say that we're
going down hill, especially when the facts show that older athletes have
very little chance of making it to two Olympics.
"Only about five to six per cent manage to repeat by going to the Olympics
twice" said Haines. "For example, just look at the percentages
between 1992 and 1996; swimmers such as Tom Jager, Melvin Stewart, Anita
Nall, Summer Sanders didn't make this year's team, and Jenny Thompson, who won two golds in 1992, only managed to qualify for a relay. Of course, there
always are exceptions like Jeff Rouse, etc."
"Who is this guy, Haines?" newcomers to the sport may ask. The
quickest answer is that George Haines is not only one of the most successful
swimming coaches who ever lived, but is famed as one of the sport's all-time
As coach of the renowned Santa Clara Swim Club in the 60s and 70s, Haines'
swimmers achieved the remarkable tally of 43 national team titles, no fewer
than 55 Olympians, and 33 Olympic gold medals, 11 silver medals, and 7 bronze
medals. And, moving into the 80s, six of his college swimmers made the 1980,
1984, and 1988 Olympic teams. Not a bad record at all.
Haines remains as fit, dynamic, and charismatic as he was in his coaching
heyday. Put it this way: he is far from being your run-of-the-mill old-timer
engaged in the luxury of idle anecdotage. To the contrary, "King George"
doesn't sound out too often. But when he does, the wise take time to listen.
Haines' astute comments on American swimming today could well apply to other
countries too, especially those who mistakenly think that to throw enough
public money at a problem is to solve it.
George Haines in 1988 upon retirement. For larger 32k photo click on image.
Haines said that many articles on swimming often blame the predominance
of sprint events in the college programs for the decline of American swimming.
Club coaches say that the college coaches are only interested in recruiting
swimmers who can score in sprints.
Over-distance from an early age
Haines said: "We have to sell the club coach that it is everybody's
fault. It isn't just the college coach's fault, it is your fault as well.
It's long been an accepted fact in many leading swimming countries that,
if you don't know who your potentially great distance swimmers are before
they are 16, you can kiss them goodbye. If you have not selected athletes
to be distance swimmers by the time they are 15 to 16 years old, you cannot
expect the college coach to develop distance swimmers."
As an example, Haines mentioned that he had first seen Brian Goodell, who
was later to win the 1500 at the 1976 Montreal Games, when he was only ten
years old, and at the time had told his mother that he would be one of the
best. Haines added: "Under Mark Schubert's coaching, Goodell went on
to become one of history's great distance swimmers. In fact, Mark started
a great tradition of providing a good basic distance background to all the
very young swimmers at Mission Viejo."
"We have to go back to the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds" said Haines.
"Mark Schubert should write up the program that he used to develop
all those great young distance swimmers. He'd make a lot of money selling
"Everybody should be in an over-distance program from the time they
are 10 upwards. It's easy to say who the sprinters are. You can tell that
right away. But, if you don't get good athletes to participate in distance
events, they'll never get good," said Haines. "It is easiest to
come down to shorter races than to go up."
"I can reel off name after name of great short distance swimmers who
started by swimming distance events, and then swam down from these longer
distances. The examples go right back to Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller
in the 1920s, then in the 1930s and 40s, to Jack Medica, Clark Scholes,
Wally Ris, and Alan Ford, and then more recently, to Tom Jager, Rick de
Mont, Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, and Matt Biondi, who all started as distance
and middle distance swimmers. You have only to look back in history to see
the number of swimmers who were good at distances and became great at the
Haines added: "The moment Matt Biondi stopped trying for the 400 and
200 in training, his 100 and 50 ceased getting better. Here, at these Trials,
you could tell by the fall-off in time between the first and second half
of a swimmer's race that many swimmers had an insufficient background of
distance work in their preparation. Amanda Beard had a 'fall-off' (difference)
of 3.48 seconds in her second 100 of her 200. Almost all the other breaststroke
swimmers had a difference of 5 seconds or more. However, Tom Dolan's splits
were really impressive!"
Haines said: "The writing has been on the wall for a long time. Jeff
Float, a member of the 1984 Olympic Team, and the winning 800 freestyle
relay team, called me after my return from Indianapolis, and said that his
1984 time for the 200 freestyle still would have made the team. A statement
like that brings the truth home to us. There's no point in hiding it."
(Jeff Float swam for Sherman Chavoor at the Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento,
and also for the University of Southern California.)
Get back to big teams
Haines said: "Recently, I was talking to Nort Thornton's son, Richard,
and he commented that in the 1960s and 1970s, when American swimming led
the world, eager-to-learn coaches from many countries came to visit us.
It's ironic that today many of those countries have swimmers who can now
beat ours. They train like we did prior to 1980."
Quipped Haines: "The exergenie and the swim-bench have given way to
the lactate machine. Now I'm not saying there's not a place for science,
there is. You can learn a lot from lactate testing. I learned a lot from
Bill Heusner on interval training, and I learned a lot from 'Doc' Counsilman,
but now 'Doc" says 'They've gone goofy over science; they're not doing
enough work between blood tests.' However, the results produced by Jon Urbanchek
at the University of Michigan suggest that American coaches should take
a good look at both his program and its work ethic."
John Hencken, one of 33 Olympic gold medallists coached by George Haines, at an awards dinner in 1972 after his Munich win, a world record in the 100 breaststroke. For larger 32k photo click on image.
Haines expressed the view that "the leadership is spending a lot of
money in promoting the older athletes but we have to go back to big teams
with large numbers of swimmers. Initially, I was one of those against the
national training centre concept, but I'm not sure now that I'm still against
it. But they need to improve on it by adding a co-coach, who is distance-oriented
to encourage more aerobic training, to enhance Jonty Skinner's sprint-oriented
program. I've mentioned this to Jonty and I think he agrees. At the moment,
I think they are spending a lot of money on only eight people, but Jonty
had eight swimmers at the Trials, and five of them made the team...so you
can't knock that. But, as I say, Jonty needs a co-coach who is a distance-oriented
"One of the problems we have today is that no one wants to coach big
teams," said Haines. "In fact, one guy, whose name I won't mention,
came right out and said that big teams wouldn't work today. But team training,
or racing in practice, is not something to take lightly."
Racing in practice
"Mark Schubert is the coach who showed the value of training in a big
team where the distance swimmers compete against each other in training.
But nowadays, when swimmers get a little older, they don't want to train
with the age-groupers any more. It's nice to train with only two or three
swimmers in a lane. Often, the college swimmers don't want to go home because
the pool is too crowded."
Haines said that there was a great deal to be said for having top swimmers
race each other in training. "But today everyone wants to do their
own workouts in the training camp, and they blame the Olympic coaches for
interfering with their own schedules set by their home coaches," said
Haines. "The club and Olympic coaches must come to a common ground
"Our Olympic team could improve a great deal between now and Atlanta
if they could race against each other more in practice; breaststroke swimmers
competing against each other, backstroke swimmers versus each other, butterfly
versus butterfly, etc." said Haines. "They could put in some great
and valuable sessions in three and a half months. When Olympic swimmers
train together like this, they really start to put it together, and they
make the coaches' eyes pop out. I think we have a good team but they need
more race training; to race more in practice with good people, two or three
times per week."
Said Haines: "The Santa Clara Swim Club trained swimmers in stroke
groups. Race-pace training happened a great deal. Eight men and eight women
made the 1968 team to the Mexico Olympics through racing each other in practice.
At Montreal, the 1976 Men's Olympic Team, after a great training camp of
racing each other, was the best ever."
Haines said that the Trials should have been held a little later. "Indianapolis
was cold. It's not natural to swim fast when the weather is cold. It would
have been a lot better to have had the Trials at the end of April or early
"Finally, I think it vital that everyone should get on the same page
in trying to improve our sport. You can't improve a national program with
'club coaches versus college coaches', and vice versa. There are a few great
programs to look at for guidance, and we need to share our theories on training.
Get on the phone to each other."
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