Canadian Personality: Erin Gammel

How Good It Feels To Just Go For It


Nick J. Thierry

VICTORIA - Before the Maritime Life Spring Nationals got underway, Erin Gammel was scared.

"Nothing was going well," she said. "In my mind I was really scared. Two days out in full taper, my body was not in the fast mode. One day out I still didn't feel good in the water. My turnover was slow. Nothing was going right and I was very worried. It came on the day of the race so everything was OK in the end. No matter what you go through in your life, if you're strong you can always recover.

"The morning of the 100, my heat swim was my best ever with a 1:03.17. That would put me in lane five and a perfect position for the final. It was amazing."

Erin won the 100 backstroke final in 1:02.84, another best-ever swim.

"At the end of a good race I can always feel all the other swimmers, but I couldn't see Kelly Stefanyshyn in the next lane over. I do remember thinking how good it felt and to just go for it, go for the time. When I touched I was amazed by the placing. I was really happy. But I don't really remember the last few strokes."

No smile like a winners smile, Erin Gammel after the 100 backstroke
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Greg Kinch

Erin had low expectations in her second event. "In the 200 back I'm hoping for a best time (under 2:20). It's not a big goal, and just being among the top 8 would be a big step." As to medalling in the 200, "I'm overwhelmed at winning the 100 and I don't want to consider that right now.

"I've improved fours seconds in my 200 before coming here. I think I can take off a lot more."

Erin surprised everyone by qualifying second in the 200 back with a 2:18.16 and then finishing second in the final with a 2:15.46, a five-second drop from her pre-meet best.

Erin Gammel, CAN
PLACE Kamloops, BC
HEIGHT 6 ft. / 185 cm
WEIGHT 140 lbs / 63 kg
HOME Barriere, BC
OCCUPATION High school student
REPRESENTS Kamloops Classic Swimming
COACH Ken McKinnon
99 Spring Nationals 1st 100 back 1:02.84,
2nd 200 back 2:15.46
98 Commonwealths 4th 100 back 1:03.46
98 Summer Nationals 2nd 100 back 1:03.84
97 Pan Pacs 4th 4x100 Medley, 7th 100 back 1:04.07
97 Summer Nationals 1st 100 back 1:03.51

Erin feels her main technical strength is that she's a smooth swimmer with a fast turnover. If she tries to get more aggressive, it doesn't work. She works on keeping her stroke smooth and strong. Her favourite stroke drill is the log roll. "It helps keep my kick constant and my pull strong."

Erin's family lives in Barriere, B.C., an hour from Kamloops. Erin moved into Kamloops and lives with her sister a mere five
minutes from the pool. This move allowed her coach, Ken McKinnon, to move her workload up from 8 workouts (or fewer as she did mornings at her home pool alone) to 10 workouts a week. An eleventh workout was added in January, a kick-only session. More time was available for easy volume and leg work.

Coach McKinnon also went looking for advice. Long-time friend Don Talbot, now in charge of Australian Swimming, but a former Technical Director in Quebec where McKinnon coached, observed that Erin was "way undertrained."

"He explained to me why and what do to about it. He suggested lots of band pull (feet tied with rubber band) and small hand paddles," said McKinnon.

Another suggestion (discarded) from Jim Fowlie, a Canadian coach working at AIS in Canberra, was long swims with big fins and large paddles. McKinnon didn't feel this would translate to faster backstroke. Talbot confirmed his analysis.

McKinnon was always worried about increasing the volume of work, since Erin had hurt her shoulder when younger. He was always trying to get improvement without increasing the volume of work.

"I started watching the kick-swim ratio. Some additional workout time was achieved by adding a kick-only workout or bringing her in early ahead of the rest of the team. You have to be innovative to prepare a world-class athlete in a club with mostly age groupers."

The extra work on kicking was needed. National Coach Dave Johnson and Kevin Thorburn, former coach of Kelly Stefanyshyn, observed that Erin's kick was really low at the end of her races. "I noticed good backstrokers like Mark Versfeld had a big kick at the end of their race," Erin said. "Maybe I'll be a better swimmer if I work really hard on my kick. I'm really amazed at how much it has helped. I don't get as tired. One of my favourites is 3 sets of 5 x 100 kick, free, back, and fly on 1:40, which is big-time endurance. I was able to go 1:25 and get better."

Unfortunately, there are financial constraints from the club that don't always allow McKinnon to accompany Erin to major competitions. "It's not lack of support, it's the financial reality of a smaller club. We just don't have the budget," McKinnon explains. "Even though she's an anomaly in our club, everyone is onside with what we are doing."

Working with coach Ken McKinnon has been the one constant throughout her swimming. "It's working well for me and I'm doing better," Erin said.

It's a difficult decision whether to stay in Kamloops or move away. "With the 2000 Olympics coming up, I have no plans to change anything. When the time comes it will be a very big decision." Erin trains mostly freestyle and backstroke, with no fly or breast. She knows when to switch to freestyle in order to give her main specialty a rest. She has the ideal body type for backstroke. She's 185 cm (6' 2") tall and lean.

This past season there has been extra work on her turns and kicking. "In my turn, the cross-over stroke has been really weak. With the extra emphasis, I'm not getting behind in my turns so much. I'm also working on the push-off out of my turn trying to be more aggressive so as not to fall behind. Improving all the small technical details will pay off in faster times.

"I want to go to Sydney for the Pan Pacs in order to be able to see the Olympic pool. Visualizing it will be an important part of my Olympic preparation.

"My rivalry with Kelly (Stefanyshyn) is good for both of us. We have a friendly relationship, which is so much better than not being able to talk to each other. Kelly and I are good friends. We even talk about our swims, which is unusual for two people in the same event."