SWIMNEWS ONLINE: June 1996 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

Surviving the Circuit

Terry Gathercole commented on the effects of too much competition on the annual training cycle. The swimmers arrive home from the international circuit fatigued, and although they need to renew their aerobic base, they are soon competing in State and National Championships.

"Australia competes in the World Long and Short Course championships, the Commonwealth Games, the World Cup meets, and numerous other meets around the world. Eventually it may not be the fastest swimmers who succeed at these meets, but rather those who can survive the travel and non-stop competition, almost day after day. They may not necessarily be the fastest, but those who can handle these conditions."

Gathercole said that he was not sure that this was good for swimming. "We in Australia probably suffer more than most other nations, because everywhere we go offshore is a long way, and we have to recover from the large time changes. We have spent a lot of time working in this area to ensure that our competitors get into as good a shape as they can."

Gathercole mentioned that sports, such as tennis, appear able to overcome this problem. "You often read about a world top tennis player who gets off the plane, and, within five hours, is on the court playing. But swimming is somewhat different because it is an individual sport, and you have to be the fastest over specific distances."

Distance Events Affected

A program of constant travel must affect the various phases of cyclic preparation. Gathercole believes that today's swimmers don't have enough time to do the distance work, and, as a result, the 400 and 800 have become very 'soft' events. "Look at today's world standards in these events. We haven't been able to get anywhere near what we were doing in the 80s."

Terry Gathercole
For larger 64k photo click on image.

"Despite these difficulties, Australia has become very experienced in being able to swim well at any point of the year. We have had to handle this for years, as most competitions are held in the northern hemisphere. But with our small swimming population, we can only go to the well so many times with any one swimmer.

"You can't keep asking swimmers to come back and swim at a very high elite level, week after week, month after month. Now they can keep up fairly high, but may not be able to produce the really high quality times specifically when they are needed, especially in events that require endurance."

Constant Competition

When asked how many top Australian swimmers travelled the world, and competed almost continuously, Gathercole said "We take virtually the same people. Since the world championships in Rome, we've had the Pan Pacific championships in Atlanta, the World Short Course meet, and just before that, they were at the Commonwealth Games.

"Now they have come back, and only in December, a few months ago, they were in Rio at the World Short Course championships...the same people virtually. They came straight back from that meet into our mid-summer, and competed from January onwards in our domestic program. A coach has to decide what meets the swimmers will use as a 'swim through,' and what meets to take more seriously."

Asked whether the swimmers had to swim in their State Championships in order to qualify for the National Championships, Gathercole replied, "Not specifically. It's a time thing, but the tradition of Australian swimming has been that competitors swim in their State Championships. That's the show-piece of each state. The various state championships are held from January to February."

Improving the Domestic Program

Gathercole said that, previously, most Australian states had their championships in January. "It is recognized by coaches and swimmers that good, hard fast competition is required to reach top performance. Therefore, we lobbied for the state championships to be held at different times so competitors could go from one State to the other to seek the best competition. As a result, we don't have all the State Championships on the same weekend.

"Changing the state championship dates has proved successful because many swimmers now enter the different State Championships. But this still involved a certain amount of travel, a stay in a motel, and getting back and forth to the pool."

Commenting on the sequence of state championship dates, Gathercole said "Queensland is always the first to have their State Championships, and these are in January. Then follow Victoria and New South Wales. The swimmers travel mostly to these eastern states to compete in their State Championships. A swimmer wanting to go over to the west coast to race against against a specific rival would be looking at a $500 to $1000 return airfare."

Asked about the potential clash between the World Cup Series in Europe and the dates for the various Australian state championships, Gathercole said: "Well, that is their coach's choice, depending on what they're coming back to. Usually, the World Cup Series competition in Europe is in January and early February, and then they come right back into the thick of the Australian season. I believe that the intelligent coach and swimmer, in the next little while, will select very specifically what they want to do, both in international and national competition."

"This raises the problem of swimmers having to say to their own state: 'Look, I'm not going to swim in our State Championships,' and this causes a problem for the state people because of their promotions and their sponsors, and so forth, and of course, the athletes themselves. Many of them are now privately sponsored by various organizations. These people want their exposure, and so swimmers have to appear at high profile meets."

Australian Olympic Preparation

Gathercole said that, following the Trials in Sydney, the selected Australian team members would go into a twelve week cycle of training in preparation for their first Olympic races in Atlanta, starting in mid-July.

The swimming team will train at altitude in Flagstaff, northern Arizona. "The Australian plan is that we will go to altitude training on June 6. We will leave to go to Athens, Georgia, on June 28 and stay there until July 10. At this point the Olympic Association takes over, and the swimmers will go into the village on July10. The opening ceremony is on July 19. The first race is on July 20."


Terry Gathercole, who has been deeply involved in planning altitude training facilities for the Australian swimming team, says that Flagstaff, Arizona, has a number of advantages. "Flagstaff is an extremely nice city. It's at 7,000 feet, or 2000 metres. The facilities are excellent at the University of Northern Arizona, (a beautiful 50 metres indoor pool). They have set up there a high altitude training complex which encourages people to come from all the world. When we were there, the Japanese team, the Italians, and the Irish team were there. The Japanese were training in the lanes next to us.

"I don't believe that it's harmful at all. We put our training programs up on the board. Whether those training programs are of specific use to another competitor is something else, because they are written for the aims and goals of specific athletes, and, as such, may not suit individual swimmers.

Colwin: I'm digressing slightly but I believe that some of the drug testing teams descended on the Hungarians, while they were there. Do you know anything about that?

Gathercole: I do not know anything about that. I have not heard anything, but I would like to think that we are adhering to the policy that, if a nation is sending any of its swimmers to another country, they must notify that country that they are there. That's the first thing I do when I arrive in the United States with the team. I call United States Swimming Inc. and I tell them that we're there, and where we are, and how long we'll be there. Their policy is that you come under our drug testing policy while you are in our country, and that's why I call them to let them know we have arrived.

Colwin: Is that the correct protocol? I was speaking to Niels Bouws at the ASCA Conference in New Orleans, and he told me that, in Germany, swimmers have to obtain a 'passport' to go out of the country to train, and also report where they will be, and from what dates, so that the testers know where they can go to find them. I think that is very important.

Gathercole: That is extremely important, and I know that international competitors who come to Australia are under Australian Drug Agency rules, and are eligible to be tested. But, if you don't know that they are in the country, that's very difficult. A team can come and be training in Broome in Western Australia, and unless somebody in Broome told us they were there, we would never know. That's why it's important that each national federation tell FINA where they are going, or tell the country they are going to visit, that they will be there.

I know from the 1991 World Championships in Perth that the Hungarian team, had been in Perth, up to three months at a time, on a number of occasions before those world championships, and we Australians had no idea. They knew more about the swimming facility, and the Perth environment, than most of our Australian kids who come from the East. Not many of them had spent very much time in Perth at all. The Hungarians knew more about it than we did.


Colwin: We were talking about swimmers using their funding to swim inter-state against main rivals; on what basis are swimmers given funding by the Australian Sports Commission, for this or any other purpose?

Gathercole: At this point, the Sports Commission gives our national federation a pool of money. Australian swimming, in turn, has a system of awarding dollars to rankings in world swimming. This has taken a couple of forms in the past, such as outright world rankings, two per nation, and we've even used the international points score chart to apportion those funds. But the higher your ranking, the more money you can get, and that ranges from $2000 to $6000.

Colwin: Is it correct that swimmers earning over $50,000 a year, are not eligible for that?

Gathercole: The Sports Commission has a policy that, if you are earning more than $50,000 a year, you should not apply. Now they don't have a means test, or whatever, and it's more an honour system. But they are asking people in that bracket not to apply, so that there are more funds available for people who aren't in that area.

Colwin: So, after the Olympics, each national federation is reassessed on the basis of its performance in the Olympics?

Gathercole: Yes, the Australian Olympic Committee and the Sports Commission, and the Government, have said that, following the Olympics, each of our Olympic sports will be assessed on their success, or lack of it. Those that are the most successful at this point will be apportioned more funding. Of course, this is all to do with 2000, and the four year plan for the Olympics in Sydney.

This is one of the reasons why we want our Atlanta drive to be as successful as possible. Swimming has a very proud tradition in Olympic sports in Australia, because we've virtually won more medals than all of the other sports combined. Unlike some other sports, we've had women in swimming since 1912, and so our medals have been fairly equally split between men and women in the Olympics.

Colwin: The bottom line is that you get grants from the Australian Sports Commission based on your performance at the Olympics, and so there is accountability. You have to produce results or your funding is reduced.

Gathercole: That's the indication that we have at this point. One of my concerns, looking at that statement, is that I'm not sure how they are going to measure success. If it is just straight first, second and third at the Olympic Games, that may be just one measure of success. There is also the depth of your team and what you are achieving in your own country in the age group program, age group nationals). All those sorts of things measure a sport's success. I would think that, with our Olympic Games coming up, what our people are really looking for are winners.

Colwin: Do you think that the 'Third Golden Era of Australian Swimming' has arrived, or is it still four years down the road?

Gathercole: I had made a statement as the head coach of the Australian Olympic Swimming Team in 1976 that, from 1956 to 1976, it took us 20 years to go downhill that far, and I made a statement that it would probably take us another 20 years to regain our former status.

Colwin: This could be the start of the new Golden Era?

Gathercole: That could be so.

Terry Gathercole Bio

Terry Gathercole, Vice-President of Australian Swimming Inc, was born in West Wyalong (pop. 3000), a small country town in New South Wales. He first broke the Australian breaststroke record in 1953, without any previous coaching. Then Forbes Carlile sent him instructions through the mail, before he came to Sydney to train under Carlile in person.

During Gathercole's career, FINA was constantly changing the breaststroke rules, first allowing underwater breaststroke swimming, then finally disallowing it in May, 1957. Gathercole was a surface breaststroke swimmer, and, for most of his career was at a disadvantage when competing against expert underwater swimmers, with their double-length pull through to the hips. Nevertheless, in 1958, at the age of 23, he had his revenge when he broke the world breaststroke records six times within a two-month period.

Gathercole won two Commonwealth gold medals at the Cardiff Empire Games in 1954. In 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics, he came fifth in the 200 breaststroke, competing against rivals who spent most of their time completely submerged, surfacing only to take the occasional breath. A few months before the Rome Olympics, Gathercole was involved in a car crash. Nevertheless, he led the field into the final lap of the 200 breaststroke, when his lack of conditioning caught up with him. He finished unplaced after one of the most exciting races of the 1960 Olympics.

As a coach, Gathercole has produced two Olympic breaststroke champions, Ian O'Brien (1964) and Beverley Whitfield (1972). At the 1991 World Championships in Perth, Linley Frame, yet another Gathercole protege, won the 100 breaststroke.

Gathercole coached in Midland, Texas, for five years, and was president-elect of the American Swimming Coaches' Association, an unusual honour for a non-American. However, he decided to return home so that his children could be raised in Australia.

Terry Gathercole, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1985, is highly respected in Australian swimming for his knowledge and experience, not to mention his well-considered opinions on many aspects of the sport.

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