Personality: Mette Jacobsen

The 24 Hour Athlete


Karin Helmstaedt

Denmark's national swim coach Jens Glavind uses an expression of Britain's Deryk Snelling to describe his top swimmer and life partner Mette Jacobsen: "She's a 24-hour athlete," he says. "She does everything with her swimming in mind."

He explains: "Mette has a good long-term perspective. She's an athlete who has learned to live with swimming and enjoy the resulting lifestyle. Like Alexander Popov, she can take a long break and you don't notice it. She's always doing something else, like running or stretching."

"For example, if athletes get fat when they take a break, it must be because they're missing something in their lives. It's an important tip, as the people who have long-term success are often of this type."

That long-term perspective has translated into a long-term career. Twenty-six-year-old Jacobsen has been perfecting her exceptional self-discipline for years. At 15 she swam morning workouts on her own at her small club pool. That year she went to her first Olympics in Seoul, where she was 10th in the 200 freestyle (2:01.8) and the 200 fly (2:14.00).

The following year, at the 1989 European Championships in Bonn, she won two bronze medals. It was the beginning of a curious up-and-down pattern.

"I've never had a good Olympics!" she says. "But I've usually had good success at the European Championships." Everything came together in 1991 in Athens, where she clinched two individual titles and a relay gold and bronze.

A Nordic record in the 200 fly (2:11.6 for 7th place) was the outcome of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, only to be followed by a total slip at the Europeans in Sheffield in 1993. There she finished 9th in the 200 free, 400 free, and 200 fly. "That was almost funny," she grins.

In 1993 she moved in together with Glavind. The following year brought another low with the Chinese domination at the 1994 Worlds. Chinese women walked away with all but two titles, then a mere three weeks later seven of their swimmers tested positive for drugs. It was a tough blow and Glavind says, "after that meet Mette came very close to quitting swimming."

Mette Jacobsen
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

But by 1995 Jacobsen was back on track mentally, having convinced herself that she would concentrate on her own times and what she could do in Europe. The 1995 Europeans in Vienna were proof of her amazing versatility. She won two golds (100 back, 100 fly), two silvers (200 fly, 100 free), and a bronze (200 free). Earlier that year in Rio at the short course worlds, she had even won a title in the 200 backstroke. She was winning, having fun, and looking forward.

The Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 were, as she puts it, "a disaster." She was 8th in the 100 free and the 100 fly. "My asthma prevented me from even swimming the 200 in Atlanta." she says. "It was acting up and it's a lot harder to breathe over the longer distance."

Glavind admits that a training camp they had done beforehand in Louisiana was a mistake. Conditions there were too hot and humid-the worst thing for asthma-and in retrospect they should have stayed at home.

In 1997 Jacobsen won the 100 fly at the Europeans in Seville. In the 200 fly she managed a bronze.

After a successful 1999 season things are looking good for the push to Sydney. During the Mare Nostrum tour in June, Jacobsen broke the 2-minute barrier in the 200 freestyle, swimming 1:59.75 in Monte Carlo. In Istanbul she concentrated on the fly and won her first European title in the 200.

The quiet, soft-spoken Jacobsen trains with Glavind at the National Centre near Copenhagen. Athletes must be selected to come there, and there are 10 swimmers in the group. At the same time she's studying physiotherapy at the University of Copenhagen and stretching out her three-year program.

Her coach says a lot of technical work over the past five years, especially in the fly, has helped to keep her improving. At 26, Jacobsen has a lot of mileage behind her, so the focus is on more high quality and a little less endurance work.

As is the trend in swimming in the 90s, she's been doing more and more strength and fitness training such as running, cycling, pushups, and situps. Jacobsen says it improves not only her fitness but also her asthma. The week before her sub-2 minute 200 freestyle, she swam 50 km and ran 50 km. She averages about 40 km a week in the water.

As a 200 butterflyer Jacobsen was one of the swimmers most directly affected by the dramatic rise of Irish champion Michelle Smith de Bruin. When she and her coach heard the news that FINA had banned Smith de Bruin for having manipulated a urine sample, they felt immense relief.

Glavind remembers Smith in Rome. "But in Vienna," he says, "well, it was the first time EVER that we thought an athlete was doped without having any evidence."

"Mette has lost many times to drugged athletes," he continues. "In 1989 she got a bronze at the Europeans and was beaten by two East Germans. In 1994 it was the Chinese. But with Michelle Smith it was so obvious that we said it officially in the Danish papers. When you get to the Olympic level, doping is a big problem because it makes a big difference."

"Take a look at the all-time 25 in the 200 freestyle," Glavind scoffs. "There are seven Chinese and seven East Germans. I would like to see all times of doped athletes be scratched from the records."

Nevertheless, he says, "It was a positive surprise that FINA won this case." He laughs, "Having studied law I know there's always a possibility to get off."

Sydney will be the culmination of those years of long-term perspective. Australia's butterfly powerhouse Susie O'Neill will be favoured to dominate on her own turf, but the race for an Olympic medal looks to be firmly within reach for Mette Jacobsen. Now it's up to her to turn her own pattern around. It's time for a good Olympics.