SWIMNEWS ONLINE: April 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

Montreal - On the opening night of the Maritime Life 1996 Olympic Trials, the stands at the Olympic pool were packed. The organizers - to their credit - charged no admission fee. Swimming Canada's announcer pumped up the crowd with the tried and tested battle cry of "Let's get ready to rumble!" and a selection of heavy rock tunes. For six days, this was to be the stage of exhilaration and heartache, the spectrum of emotion typical of such a contest. While everyone had worked for this, only the very best would realize their Olympic dream, and for many, entire careers were to be decided in the space of a week.

On the surface, it all looked hunky-dory.
When you looked a little deeper, however, there was a certain malaise that became more apparent as the meet went on, and it could not be passed off as mere pre-Olympic stress.

Olympic rings frame quest to quadrennial glory. For larger 40k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

The selection process was a contributing factor and had a couple of hitches, making the term "trials" somewhat of a misnomer. The Canadian Olympic Association has imposed time standards that have led to smaller Olympic Team selections for the past two Olympic Games, but things were made worse this year when FINA imposed its own "2 per country" standard. The decision was the result of an IOC bid to limit the size of the meet in Atlanta, to make room for such important newcomers as beach volleyball, no doubt. Smaller countries with lower ranked athletes can henceforth only send one entry per event and stronger countries like Canada and the U.S. can send the usual two provided they both make the FINA standard.

Automatic selection was granted to event winners and second place finishers who equalled or bettered the tougher FINA standard. Provisional selection was granted to those event winners who swam equal or better than the COA standard. Swimmers will have three more chances to meet the qualifying standards at designated meets in Phoenix, Vancouver, or Charlotte, NC, in May and June and provisionally selected swimmers could be bumped off the team if another swimmer beats them to the FINA standard in their event.

This condition, according to many, defeats the purpose of a Trials. It all made for some very confusing, and often disappointing, finals sessions. And it will make for more than a few nerves between now and the final selection date of June 16, 1996.

Two athletes prequalified for Atlanta based on their performances last summer; Curtis Myden of Calgary (400 IM) and Guylaine Cloutier of Montreal (100 breast) already had their names inscribed on the Olympic team banner. Over the next six days the list grew, but with a definite imbalance. The overall analysis was simple: Canadian women rose to the occasion and 17 of them will be off to Atlanta. The men were hard pressed to qualify 7. Probably the most alarming indication of the state of men's swimming in Canada was the fact that they were unable to qualify a medley relay - an event that has traditionally been one of our strongest medal possibilities.

The attitude among the coaches was often cynical, often perplexed. Many felt the double time standard was out of line, putting unnecessary extra pressure on the swimmers that was detrimental to performance. Swimming Canada Head Coach Dave Johnson reminds us that the downward trend in men's swimming has been there for awhile-Canada took only 6 men to the 1994 World Championships in Rome (compared to 14 women) and only three men to the short course Worlds in Rio de Janeiro in 1995.

While this is true, many feel that is no reason to shut the men out from a valuable participation experience. Johnson cites the lack of a leader, a Victor Davis- or Alex Baumann-type, as part of the problem in men's swimming, but the lack of Canadian men in the freestyle events was a problem as far back as 1988. The men's team has been "rebuilding" for years now, and to pass it off as a leadership problem puts too heavy an onus on the swimmers. Canada has a lot of male talent that, for whatever reasons is not being properly developed. Coaches (and many of them recognize this fact) have to take part of the "credit" for poor performance. In the meantime, budgetary constraints and now the new FINA standard have forced a new hardline approach, preventing Canada from simply taking the country's best, whatever their ranking, to Atlanta.

Mark Tewksbury, Canada's only gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, had this to say: "It's really tough. Everyone keeps blaming something... it's April, and it's early, and it's this and it's that. I think that ultimately people have to assume accountability for their performances. If I reflect back to my own personal experiences, I knew in the Olympic year that I had a huge margin of 1.2 seconds to drop. I made sure that I did everything possible to get there, and what I see happening is that people are not doing everything possible. For some unknown reason to me, no one is performing up to that standard that we should at least be able to expect from our veterans."

Tewksbury felt that the double time standard in Montreal was confusing and may have meant that swimmers were preoccupied by the clock, but added that for him the Olympics are about excellence. "What's disappointing to me is it seems to be the same old thing. People who had weak starts and turns still have weak starts and turns, people who were front end swimmers and died at the end of the swim are still going out fast and dying. I agree we should work on our strengths, but we cannot neglect the entire package; the world has become far too competitive and the standards are way too high not to be able to stand on the blocks at an international competition as a fully prepared athlete."

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