The next quadrennial promises to be a period fraught with difficult challenges and decisions for Canadian swimming.
The major meets during the next four years will
entail long journeys, big time changes, major expenses, and careful preparation.
This year, the national team will travel to the
Pan Pacific meet in Fukuoka, Japan. In 1998, there will be two more trips
across the Pacific: to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
and to the World Championships, in Perth, Australia. Expenses for these
long trips will probably be two-and-a-half times more than the usual costs
for travelling to the Commonwealth Games and Worlds.
Canadian Head Coach, Dave Johnson, acknowledged
that the international calendar would be very busy for the next four years.
"The prospect of travelling to the Pacific Rim region in the next quadrennial
is very much in front of us. The bottom line is the significant financial
hit that we're going to take with each of those respective competitive opportunities.
It's not like a flight within North America, which costs $550 to $750. We're
talking about two-and-a-half times that airfare to the majority of those
According to Dave Johnson, "We will need to
take a careful look at achieving world-class selection criteria."
How will the huge expense of attending these major
meets be covered? What would he do if funding dried up? Would big policy
changes be needed?
"We've planned the last twelve months on the
smallest financial contribution from Sport Canada in twelve years. We benchmarked
the contribution from Sport Canada towards the budget at $800,000,"
Johnson said. "We will have to make smart decisions. But, from the
motivational viewpoint, although we seek world-class performances, we'll
still need to be careful not to make the criteria too tight."
Johnson explained, "For the first six months
of this job, I thought a lot about the reasons for the large amount of dissension
and disharmony in the program and why we were not performing well internationally.
My conclusions were simple: If you want to improve performances, you need
to describe exactly what you want to see happen.
"When I look up and down the list of events,
I ask myself: `What do we have to do for the athletes who are in the program
now? What do we need to do for the athletes who are on the threshold, and
where are we going to get the next group of athletes to come in and support
Johnson said that he had rewritten a number of
programs and initiatives so as to reward both coaches and swimmers for achieving
"Because of limited finances, rather than
copying the United States program, which sets a targeted amount of money
for a gold medal as incentive, we have a points score. A world record is
worth 10 points; a Commonwealth record is worth 5 points; a Canadian record
is worth 3 points; and a personal best time receives 1 point. Depending
on the level of the competition, we grade placings in the finals.
"At the end of the season, we analyze how
many swimmers in the program scored points. If a total of 150 points is
scored, and one person manages to score 50 of them, this person will win
one third of the pot.
"In most years we've had $30,000 in the pot.
In the Olympic year we had $50,000 in the pot for the swimmers. We provided
the same opportunity for the coaches, except that we gave the coaches fifty
cents on the dollar, because a coach can have two or three events, and two
or three athletes competing in each one.
"The focus of this program wasn't really on
the amount of money, but the coach putting a swimmer on an international
team, and the swimmer being competitively tough and successful. This scheme
has become a badge of honour."
Johnson mentioned another scheme, based on competitive
success, called "The Enhanced Carding Program."
"There's a layered aspect to this program.
If you're an `A' carded swimmer (which is being in the top six in the world,
two per country, or placing in the top six at the Olympics or World Championships),
or if you get a second, or third or fourth or fifth event that are of `A'
calibre, or of `B' calibre (which is being in the international top twelve,
based on two athletes per country), we'll give you, or augment your living
allowance expenses, up to five cards."
Johnson said that the program was developing in
momentum, but there were "still huge holes in Canadian swimming that
need to be addressed." He said that weak areas were being identified
and addressed in an effort to improve them. "For example, I think that
our freestyle program needs a lot of work."
It is also possible to spend too much time improving
one's weaknesses, instead of enhancing one's strengths.
"I am well aware of that reality, and one
of the things we've been guilty of in the past was to bring everybody back
to the level of the lowest common denominator. We must be careful to safeguard
what is going well. To this end, I've looked at what they've done in Australia,
and initiated some programs over the last few months, based on stroke and
event camps. We're going to provide various levels of support for the development
of different parts of the program.
"In the past, we brought everybody together
into big training camps, and didn't really achieve much. We had a lot of
kids in the water training, but they didn't focus on the right things."
While it's comparatively easy to develop momentum
in a program, it's a harder task to maintain it. This is probably the most
difficult goal a leader, or a program director, has to meet.
"The biggest reality for Canadian swimming
is to not take a deep breath, and say: `Ha! We're back where we were,' because
we're not even close to what we're capable of achieving.
"We must carry out the reality check too.
Out of 58 possible `A' final positions, Canada had 11 `A' final swims in
the Olympics. So, before we become jubilant about those 11 finals, we must
realize that there are 47 other opportunities for club programs, university
programs, and national training centres to contribute to greater success
for Canadian swimming."
Countries, such as Australia in 1972 at the Munich
Olympics, achieved great results and developed a momentum, but it was based
on the achievements of three or four great swimmers. When these star swimmers
retired, Australia got a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. You
can't put all your eggs in one basket; you need successive waves of athletes
Dave Johnson said that he is working with Ian Currie
to develop a tracking system for high performance athletes. They have done
a case study of athletes in the Canadian swimming system who achieved A
or B carding status. They tracked these athletes back, to develop a continuum
or a curve to see where they were when they were 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and
"Our objective is to detect athletes who will
eventually reach A or B card status. Then we will decide what programs are
needed to ensure a continuous flow of talented athletes.
"We intend to provide a series of initiatives for our national youth and junior youth programs. This contrasts with the single opportunity we used to give them, which was competing in an Eight Nations Meet, for which we spent $70,000, just to go to one competition."
Johnson said that there was now a more balanced
program, which would be tailored to individual needs as well.
In the past, there was criticism that meet schedules
did not always meet the needs of the athletes' seasonal preparation. What
is Dave Johnson doing to remedy this problem?
"In preparing for this next four-year cycle,
I've looked at where the major competitions are, and where Canada is with
reference to world level swimming, and I've tried to structure a program
that is basically a better fit than in the past.
"The program works like this: from September
through to December will be the formal short-course season. From December
until March, part of the program will retain many of the traditional domestic
meets, some in the short course, some in the long course, culminating in
a Winter Championships that will be held in the long course.
"This year with the World Short Course Championships
in April, we will have that competition over the 25 metres course. But in
1998, 1999, and 2000, as we prepare for the major events of that cycle (Commonwealth
Games, World Championships, and the Olympics), the March competition will
be held in the long course. The difference is that, instead of having four
cycles, we will now look at three cycles per year.
"The dilemma used to be that our summer cycle,
the fourth one (basically from the end of May to the early part of August),
was too short to prepare for quality long course performances. I don't want
to destroy our short course abilities, but let's face it, the real measure
of how we come to be measured as a world swimming nation is whether or not
we can swim in the long course pool.
"But, I don't want people to get the wrong
impression. Short course is a valuable tool, and we're going to use the
international short course opportunities to develop our team to its fullest.`
"The dilemma in Canadian swimming is that,
other than the coaches of the top thirty-odd swimmers in our program, we
have far too many coaches who train merely for the sake of training, without
focussing on any particular goal.
"A good example is that the rest of the world
is getting up and performing at a very high level in the December time frame,
and, then again, at some point between the March-April time frame.
"Now that we have a `four-year-template' to
work from, the respective provincial programs can now fall into line, and
put their provincial championships, and their various other program needs
into place, and fit them around a very strong and standardized domestic
What will Dave Johnson do with the Olympic athlete
who won a gold, silver, or bronze medal? Will he give that swimmer a three-peak
season the very next year, or re-start the long, slow build-up, with only
one or two peaks in that first post-Olympic year?
"What we've tried to do is look at every individual
case on its own merits, and plot a strategy that allows for the specific
needs of individual swimmers. It's not just the swimming needs, but it's
the holistic needs of the athlete. In some cases, an athlete who got to
the Olympic podium gave up an awful lot of school time and career plans
in the process.
"We want to encourage the development of high-performance
athletes, but we also want to have good citizens, and we want them to feel
that the program can allow these elements to co-exist.
"For example, take Curtis Myden, who was immersed
in swimming preparations last year. The strategy developed by Deryk (Snelling),
and a couple of other people in his support group, was that academics would
be his priority this year, and he's now following through on that plan.
This is the strategy we would like to have for as many athletes as possible.
"For instance, last night I was watching TV,
and I saw Curtis Myden on the Special Olympics presentation on TSN. Sport
leaders, such as Curtis, have played a big part in the development of media
awareness about our sport, and this has aided the growth of corporate sponsorship."
Johnson said that someone had suggested he develop
an eight-year plan into the 90s and beyond. However, he felt that long-term
planning should be essentially quadrennial to quadrennial.
"Short-term planning is to the world championships
at the mid-point of each quadrennial. I'm trying to gear our program in
such a way that we always have a group of athletes who are in the identified
pool (say the junior team, a group of athletes who are being groomed in
international competition, and a group of athletes who are going for performances
at the podium level in major world events)."
Johnson said each category needed to have a constant
ebb and flow of people coming in the one side, and going out the other,
and not falling back to the level below.
In developing a junior national team initiative,
Johnson has introduced the idea of attaching a small group of junior swimmers
to teams going to such meets as the Pan Pacifics. He said that the nature
of the competition allowed him to swim as many people as he wanted in the
preliminaries. "We brought three men and three women to Atlanta in
1995. Two of the women made the Olympic team, and one of them, Jessica Deglau,
went on to make an Olympic final.
"It built some bridges. There was some mentoring
of the younger swimmers by the senior swimmers. This built an internal dynamic,
or pressure, and some of the younger swimmers were so enthused by this opportunity
that they transferred some of this enthusiasm to some of the perhaps more
jaded long-term members of our team!"
At one time, the Chinese used to encourage their
top athletes to share their experience, knowledge, and skills with others.
This practice was quaintly referred to as "each-one-teach-one."
Every top athlete had to be a mentor to an up-and-coming athlete.
"We actually did this in these camps that
have just gone by. We put the Olympic veterans in with some of the new youth
and junior kids who were invited to their first national camps. We have
also done this in many of our major build-ups into the Olympics. This `cross-pollination'
is a very healthy dynamic."
Because the coach-swimmer relationship is important
to the swimmer's welfare, Johnson's policy is: If a coach puts an athlete
on the team, then the coach should be part of the team, provided the coach
commits to one-hundred-percent involvement.
In preparing for Atlanta, Johnson involved the
swimmers' coaches throughout, from training camps to the Games. When Canadian
swimmers, many of them at their first big meet, did better than expected
at the Atlanta Olympics, a team coach said: "Dave Johnson turned the
team around because he allowed us to control the destiny of our own athletes."
Johnson supports the coach-swimmer relationship
from novice to international levels, and believes in the model of "from
the cradle to the podium," "as far as we can possibly provide
He says the big motivation for any coach is to
be able to develop an athlete to international class, because this has always
been the test of a coach's theories, strategies, and acumen.
Questioned on the topic of coach education and
development, Johnson said that he considers the coach as "integral
to the long term success of the Canadian program." He said it was important
to give coaches the opportunities to be part of the program, and to understand
the requirements of the sport at the highest levels. He wanted coaches to
influence everyone interested in swimming, not only their own athletes.
What about the certification program? Sometimes
it can be like obtaining a driver's licenceone may turn out to be a good
driver or a bad driver.
"While certification isn't the only answer,
we've had a tremendous number of coaches who were so resistant to this certification
idea that they basically got left in the wake of where world swimming is
today. I am talking about the types of information that coaches need to
have if their athletes are to become truly competitive at the world level.
We're talking about the performance analysis profiling that is being done,
in this case by Dr Smith, who does all the measuring of the various components
of the race."
Asked if this information was included in the certification
program, Johnson said "No. It's included in the national team protocols
that these coaches are becoming conversant with, because of the interaction
and the model that we are building inside Canadian swimming.
"I'm trying to make the learning experience
much more hands on and much more practical. I believe that certification
has missed the boat on a number of issues. But one of the things that happens
when a coach becomes involved in this certification process is that they
keep their minds active.
"It's like the coach who says to me: `I took
strength training twenty years ago.' You know, and I know, that the information
that's available to us in that particular area, for example, has changed
dramatically in twenty years. So, because you took it twenty years ago,
you're not really giving your athletes the kind of service that they need
and deserve, if you're going to call yourself an international-level coach."
Johnson said that the same applied to technique,
physiology, and psychology. "It's very important to have these component
skills integrated into a preparation model that will allow for peak performance
at the right time."
Johnson believes in a team approach to the preparation
of the athlete. "I'm talking about a team of staff: coaches, paramedical,
medical, and sport science staff. The key difference to our approach at
previous Olympics is that the coach now understands, first of all, what
the menu of services is, and, secondly, how to go about using it, and that
it doesn't all come on to the table at the same point in time."
Most decision making rests with Johnson. He says
"Canadians are great consensus builders, but sometimes this is to a
fault." He listens to various viewpoints, makes a definitive decision,
and says "This is where we're going, guys. You're going to have to
When asked if coaches would be encapsulated within
a formal national program, or remain free to do their own thing, and succeed
as a result of their individual efforts, Johnson replied, "I try to
give every coach the chance to design one's own preparation strategy in
the context of the big picture of preparing for major games. Obviously,
we have pool sessions booked for certain times, but the design of the training
program is up to the coach."
Johnson said the coaches were supportive, and were
allowed to design the programs for their own swimmers. This approach produced
the results seen in Atlanta. "I think it works," said Johnson.
When asked to comment on past Olympic team reports
that contained comments such as "We didn't have a good perception of
what we were going to encounter," Johnson said, "If you tell athletes
and coaches what you are trying to achieve, and tell them early enough,
there's time to obtain feedback and modify it. Then everybody can get onside
and support the plan. This way, you'll have a better chance of success.
"I have a simple strategy: I always give the
coaches the information first, so they are never blind-sided by swimmers
saying: `You decided we were going to have a day off on Sunday afternoon.
Now we suddenly find there is a test set scheduled for that afternoon.'
The coach should know the schedule before the swimmer, and so I always try
to set up this hierarchy of communication, and it works well."
Dave Johnson was asked about communication on the
national level. Does everybody know about the plan? Coaches say they need
the information to be able to support it. To what extent are coaches involved
in decision making?
Johnson replied, "In an ideal world, one would
like them to be fully vetted on all the issues, and to be able to come to
a position in concert with the national philosophical direction.
"However, we know that we've been guilty of
organizing ourselves to death, so much so that I accept the comment that
not everybody knows what's going on. But I believe some of the onus and
responsibility for finding out what's going on is part of becoming an international
coach, and they need to take the responsibility to find out.
"The phone is there, and, equally, I need
to take the responsibility to go around the country and deliver the program.
I've done this quite a bit by going to coaching conferences, and so forth,
once a year. We haven't had the opportunity to use the SWIMNEWS magazine
vehicle as much as we possibly could."
Johnson said it was necessary to know the big picture
in order to make clear, concise decisions. "I would like to think that
I've done this. But I'm not perfect, and I've probably stumbled a few times."
The very nature of Johnson's job always entailed
being open to criticism, whether he was doing the right thing or the wrong
"I'm more than aware of that, having coached
for long enough to know that, even when you're giving training programs
to athletes, not everybody feels like doing the same set on a particular
There have been complaints that carded athletes
were sometimes expected to travel to the other end of the country to compete
in a meet, or else lose their funding. Wouldn't this affect these athletes'
training programs, or what their coaches envisage to be part of their seasonal
"There's no question that Canada is a huge
country, but we have provided a four-year-calendar plan that's primarily
focussed on building towards international success.
"The point can be made that not everyone is
an international swimmer. But what we're saying is that carded athletes
need to understand that there is a responsibility to the community of swimming,
and to our sponsorsgovernment agencies as well as the corporate sector."
Johnson is not happy with university swimming in
Canada. He says, "We have developed a program that is modelled on the
American NCAA program. If you talk to the American university coaches, you'll
hear they are dismayed at the direction their program has taken in terms
of limited qualified time commitments by the athletes, the event selections,
and many other factors."
Johnson said Canada has the opportunity to design
its own program by "factoring university swimming into the country's
delivery system of high performance sport.
"The universities have tremendous facilities,
in the main. They have the infrastructure to support high-level performances,
and, in fact, the highest performing programs in this country, historically
in the last ten or fifteen years, have all been linked to university programs:
the University of Calgary, the Pacific Dolphins at U.B.C., where I was,
at Keyano with the University of Alberta, North York and the University
of Toronto, the University of Laval, and so forth."
Johnson said there was a need for more integration
of university swimming into the mainstream of SNC swimming. He added that,
in certain areas of the country, university swimming is still an isolated
section of the program. "They take the approach of `We're senior now.
We don't need to compete in these lower levels of competition.'"
Johnson talked about the direction taken in Western
Canada, where collegiate swimming is integrated directly into the mainstream
of SNC senior programming, and said, "This is the direction we should
"What we need is an integrated national championships,
and funds to be put aside for university programs that score in the national
championships. We should support high-performance collegiate swimming by
putting a university grant program in place, not as a `stand alone' but
rather as a combined championship, with the senior national championships
factored into the university program.
"For example, the big drawback in Canadian
sport is that we have too many duplicated programs. It is expensive to move
around this country. For example, Swimmer A wins a national club championship
in week one, and in the very next week, goes to the universities' national
championship to win the same event again.
"We should recognize those programs that can
contribute and perform at the senior national level, and reward those university
programs with high performance funding to pursue that track inside the university
"So the bottom line would be that the Canadian
collegiate program would participate in the national club championships
and be scored against the SNC senior programs. They would compete on the
basis that a third place performance in the national championships would
be third in the SNC nationals, but winner of the university championship.
"For the sake of discussion, and an even better
example, the winner of the gold medal is the SNC and the university champion,
and that's it. That will be the way we recognize it."
Johnson said that the merit of the scheme was that it would provide a greater depth that, in turn, would push competitors to better times.
Johnson said, "Right now, the dilemma that
I've faced repeatedly, in the last three years, is that I go to championship
meetsprovincial or even regional championshipsexpecting to see the best
kids standing up and competing against each other.
"In many cases, they're not even at the meet.
Those who do attend don't even swim in their main events against each other.
I think they're ducking for cover. You don't win, and you don't become a
successful swimmer if you duck for cover."
Johnson said that he emphasized the team approach
throughout the entire program. He said that his philosophy is: "Nobody
is bigger than the team" (To which I added nobody is bigger than the
"And that's one of the reasons that I've gone
down this road around the discipline code inside our national team. Although
we took a little bit of heat, and even (SWIMNEWS's) Karin Helmstaedt took
some slaps at me for having some hard lines on this, I think, actually,
the athletes appreciate knowing that there is this kind of care and concern
for them, and that's really what it is, and that they can get on with the
business of preparing.
"I'm not naive enough to think that certain
things are not going to happen, but I think that there need to be some parameters
around which you operate any team, particularly when you start to get some
younger athletes in the team.
"An athlete at the '94 Commonwealth Games
said, `Well, of course, I'm going to go out and party, and do this and do
that, because that's what they do in the national team.'
"It was appalling to me that this mindset
was considered the appropriate behaviour, and the role model was the national
team. It absolutely had a lot to do with the influence that I've brought
to the national program in terms of having athletes come back to national
championships at the conclusion of the Olympic Games, and continue their
corporate responsibilities, and show that they can still perform at the
conclusion of an Olympic cycle after the big meet is over. Although there
has been a lot of criticism about this, it's been a dynamic that's made
our program stronger. Whenever a team is disciplined, they perform well.
"If there's no internal discipline, no individual performance will create a team dynamic that will have the whole program firing. I believe that `one swimmer does not a program make.' "