SWIMNEWS ONLINE: April 1996 Magazine Articles

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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 great motivators.

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 it!"

"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 shorter distances."

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 person."

"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 on training."

"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 May.

"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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