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Verhaeren: Only FINA Can Save The Sport

Apr 20, 2009  - Craig Lord

Jacco Verhaeren, Dutch director of performance and personal coach to many of the nation's top swimmers, such as newest world-record holder Marleen Veldhuis, today reminds the world of swimming that "ALL" fast suits of 2008 need to be banned if balance and fair play are to be restored to the sport and if the work of coaches and swimmers is not to be continually undermined  in a world where equipment is king. Equipment, he notes, that produces different results on different strokes, among different swimmers, according to research in the swimlab at Eindhoven.

In revealing statements that say much about the Hobson's Choice faced by swimmers and coaches around the world, Verhaeren, mentor to one of the all-time greats of swimming, Pieter van den Hoogenband, told SwimNews: "After the Olympics me and my swimmers tested almost every possible suit in the world. Nowadays, unfortunately, it is part of your job as coach and elite swimmer to not only train, eat and rest in the best way but also find the best suit.

"You can be very principalled about it and wear a normal suit, or for men small swimwear like in the "old days", but there's a big chance you will lose. We don't train 25-30 hours a weeks to get beaten by a better suit and I think no one should.

"During this testing we also found out that it's impossible to find out what is the best suit for everyone and the picture can even be different per distance and stroke. In Eindhoven we have in our swimlab the opportunity to measure passive and active drag. Doing this it seems that a LZR, Jaked, TYR, Arena have hardly any difference in these values and that, for eg, a Blue Seventy is the "best" suit. But measuring swimming speed in diffent strokes and with different swimmers shows all kinds of results with hardly any swimmer preferring to use Blue Seventy.

"Because I don't coach breaststroke swimmers I was surpised to see the progression for eg in Jaked of the Dutch breaststrokers. Lennart Stekelenburg didn't want to swim the competition in Jaked so he did a time-trial. In the evening after being for at least 9 hours in the pool he was to tired to make an honest comparison wearing a LZR but I was (and so was he) sure it wouldn't be 59.5! But I know what he will wear in Rome.

"As technical director of the Dutch Federation, I'm happy (and lucky) that there were no swimmers who were victims and dropped out of the selection for Rome [because of the wearing of a particular suit]. But it's luck, I didn't see it coming. I'm thinking with my colleague coaches how to make the selection trials more honest in the future but it's not easy. 

"Banning FINA approved suits is not the solution as I have seen during our testing. Nowadays alot of people see the LZR as the 'normal' suit and a newcomer as Jaked as cheating. I think this is not true. They forgot what we have seen in 2008. Banning one suit will make the other one the better suit and so on until there are no [2008] suits anymore ... and this is the ONLY fair solution: ban all suits [2008-09 generation].

"In 2008 we only talked about LZR and in the end about Blue Seventy and TYR (consider the times of Leveaux...). Four months later it's Jaked and I'm sure, because we test, there will be another one extra [to add to the list of problems] in Rome. It's not fair and it will never be. All suits are more or less performance enhancing.

"And more or less is the problem here, we don't know for sure. This also means we don't know for sure if we have seen the right winner or the right record. Only one party can prevent this and make honest comparison possible ... FINA. Until that time I will try to find the best suits for all my swimmers. Because performing is my job."

Bravo Jacco Verhaeren. Over to you FINA. As we have maintained throughout: all responsibility ultimately rests with those who govern the sport and they will be judged on the nature of the sport that their decisions deliver. We await news from the independent suit testing process. Meanwhile, the sport of swimming continues to be damaged and the wrongs of 2008 have spilled over into the wrongs of 2009. Only FINA can call a halt to torn relationships, where suit makers are at loggerheads with swimmers, coaches, federations, where swimmers within the same team are torn as to what to wear and what advantages there are to be had from one suit or another. Only FINA can draw a line.

If FINA tells its sport that it is officially acceptable to pursue advantage through equipment, the step from that to suggesting that finding advantage in other ways beyond hard work, talent and legitimate sports science will be seen as a small one by those of a mind to cheat in ways that very few in the sport would find acceptable. It is a fine line. Better then for FINA to deliver absolute clarity of purpose and position in drawing its own line when it comes to suits. 

Wednesday is independent testing day in Lausanne. Regardless of the commercial sensitivities of suit makers, the outcome must be meaningful - and if it brings swimming only part way down the tunnel to lasting solution, the light at the end of that tunnel must be clearly visible if the sport is to avoid having to live through yet another season of damage.