Dale Oen: This Shall Not Ruin Our Days
Jul 26, 2011 - Craig Lord
Those who died in tragic events in Norway may never know that Alex Dale Oen is a world champion who raced with compassion in his heart to honour those lost with a sports title across the world in Shanghai but those who remain to grieve and pick up the pieces back home will surely come to celebrate the swimmer as the true image of their country: dedicated, determined, hard-working and open to the challenges and wonders of this world.
Smart and likeable too. Very much so. He does not hail from the land of Anders Behring Breivik, whose brutal far-right rampage on the picturesque island of Utøya on Friday claimed the lives of 68 young people attending an annual Labour Party youth camp.
Among his victims was Hanne Kristine Fridtun, 19 and from the Norwegian tourist region of Sognefjord. In April she addressed the Labour Party conference and spoke about the right of people to aspire to a bright future. “We want the right to live in the best possible world,” she told delegates in a front of a slogan reading “Everybody Shall Come Together”. “We want openness, better work conditions and a better deal for pensioners,” she added.
One of Kristine Fridtun’s last acts was to post a comment on the internet using her phone at 6pm on Friday evening before she set out to swim across the lake in what would turn out to be a futile bid to escape from Breivik. “We are 20 people hiding at the waters’ edge,” she wrote. “We are talking quietly so as not to be heard.” They were the last words that the world would hear from her.
With such heart-rending events unfolding back home, would Dale Oen's very different battle in water and his sporting achievement get noticed, would it serve to lift spirits?
"I really don't know," he told SwimNew. "I think with what happened back home it doesn't matter [that anyone notices him], that's understandable. It is not important to get recognised right now. It's important that we all stick together and help and comfort each other as much as possible and try to lift spirits. The key now is to try to get back to normal life and don't let this guy ruin any more days for us. Its a tragic event and we need to keep those who lost their lives in memory and in our hearts and truly not forget them. So right now, its important just to grieve together and support each other."
Dale Oen took his grieving to the pool with him last night. Inside world record pace at the halfway mark of the 100m breaststroke final, on 27.21, the Norwegian was fuelled by high emotion. Beyond mixed zone with media, a forest of cameras and microphones from broadcasters with sad reason to focus on the Norwegian far more intently than they perhaps ever would have, beyond swim-down, doping control, press conference and photo sessions official and impromptu, Dale Oen climbed aboard the bus back to his hotel in reflective mood: "You know I wish I had gone out in 27.5 or 27.6. It would have been easier to get the world record then but today I swam with my heart and not as strategically as I should have swum it. Sometimes you just need to let it go flat out. I swam for the king, country and the people, who need to feel our love and support.”
Perspective is brought to all life at such times. Dale Oen endured a winter of disruption after breaking a bone in his foot during the world cup in Berlin late last year. Four months on, he moved to Oslo for a new beginning with coach Sondre Solberg. Conditions are far from perfect.
"We have two 25m pools. There are four to eight people in each lane. It's pretty crowded," said Dale Oen. "I don't have the same conditions as Cameron [Van Der Burgh] or others. It is important always to do the best with what you're dealt." The alchemy of turning dark to light is alive in Dale Oen. Was there a psychological advantage to be had doing in achieving against the odds? "Yes, definitely. Swimming in Norway is not a normal thing. It's not common," he laughs.
"We're into skiing and winter sports. I definitely feel like the underdog and have to rise above it," he added. "Then again, I'm very happy to represent the country and even though sometimes its horrible with cramped facilities we always try to keep our minds positive. I have an excellent team around me and these guys do every we can to make sure we can perform at the highest level so I feel very lucky."
There is no secret to his success, rule No1 a three line whip of "try to look what others are doing, try to evolve with new techniques and be as good as I possibly can be in whatever we're doing back home each day".
Not easy when you break a bone in your foot while away from home on world cup tour in Berlin last year on the back of a troubled time at the outset of the current Olympic cycle. The Olympic silver medallist struggled through 2009 and was relieved to make it to to 2010, behind him a six-month post-Beijing break and the woes of shiny suit season in 2009, when his sponsor arena responded to the introduction of polyurethane in race apparel with an X-Glide that showed precisely why the Italian brand had been right to raise objections from go back in February/March 2008. The suits fiasco had been "disastrous", he said.
Turning back to events in Berlin last November, Dale Oen revealed: "I went on to Moscow but couldn't really walk and then to Stockholm and stayed in bed the whole time. I went back home to Norway and for the first couple of months laying on my bed I tried to keep as focussed as possible. I then started to do some work with paddles but I couldn't do any turns. I did weights and gained a little muscle, a little too much. I was over 90kg back then. That's a little bit heavy for breaststroke."
It was March this year before he could do breaststroke again and get back into the water with all skills burning at his new programme in Oslo. "I think where we are now is pretty good considering the time we had. We [Sondre] been working really well together. If I can stay in good shape and not get sick in the next 12 months I'll have a clear shot at it [the Olympic crown]."
Sondre sees the champion in his charge, telling SwimNews: "He is a serious devoted athlete. His technical ability is really excellent. No matter what sport you talk about, across all sport, he is probably one of the most serious of athletes in the world and really works very hard, whether dry land or water. His ability to go into the box and focus and have triggers is really strong and good. For us as coaches he is a demanding guy. He makes us good. At the same time he's a nice guy it doesn't matter if you're a great athlete if you're not a nice person."
Dale Oen does a hefty portion of his work on dry land when home in Oslo and even on race day. "Even now here we like to work on land 45mins in morning and before the competition for 20 minutes he does core strength work exercises and stretching," says Sondre. "He will do weights right up to two days before the start of competition. Of course, not really hard or heavy but keeping it going. Normally, every week he does basic training of two dryland workouts and two with weights and does stretching after all his workouts. There is nothing magic about it but he's not really fond of swimming a real lot all year so we try to mix it up but when he is in the water he does a lot of work and when we're on training camps he is in the water a lot."
Petter Løvberg, the performance head for Norway, notes that his team will travel to camps for two reasons: warm weather training in 50m facilities and to harness the benefits of altitude preparation in places such as Flagstaff in the States.
Asked to name the strengths of the breaststroke ace, Solberg says: "Both in competition and training his ability to really keep himself highly motivated, really fired up but at the same time stay really relaxed. Technically, even though here he swam a little too much with his heart - but we're not going to talk to that right now - he is really good. The other one is his ability to stay focussed and then to really push himself when he's supposed to. He's a lot better than most athletes."
Impossible to look away and ignore what Norway is dealing with, so how to handle emotion and distraction when there is a job to be done on the other side of the world?
"We talk about it and when we are not in the pool we are on the internet and we talk to people at home and we watch TV a little bit," said Solberg the turmoil in him more than tangible. "It's an emotional roller-coaster. We're so used to living in the safest country in the world. This kind of thing doesn't happen."
Dale Oen, like other members of his entourage, had handled himself with professional aplomb. "For him and for everybody its been really emotional," said Solberg. "Its like when you're at work, athletes have to be narrow-minded and go into a box when you have to work. He's been using it a little bit for energy and national feelings give you something even stronger [that the ability to focus]. But its been really emotional for everybody."
The coach broke the news to his family back home because he happened to be watching live news on the internet when the story broke and the first images of the bomb blast in downtown Oslo came through.
Our talk drifts back to the pool and Dale Oen's voice drifts over the seat in front of us, Norwegian incomprehensible to me. The coach laughs and says: "He said 'don't tell him everything'." Was he surprised that a world-class line up like that alongside Dale Oen in Shanghai today had been unable to cope, apparently stunned by the Norwegian's opening speed? Even Kitajima, a quadruple Olympic champion of 2004 and 2009, was thrown off.
"Kosuke, yes, probably," said. "Cameron [Van Der Burgh] and [Fabio] Scozzoli went faster than I thought they would. But yes, we certainly thought that Alex's speed [affected] how the swam." Winning a world title in the way that Dale Oen did had told his rivals all they need to know about the potential of a man who can do even more damage as he aims to go one better than his 2008 silver come London 2012.
Dale Oen and Van Der Burgh are good friends and have spent training and down time together. They've shared some close calls too when out ion the wild of the wave. "I was on a rubber tube, being towed by a boat, and an orca [killer whale] came flying out of the water about 10m away," Van Der Burgh said describing one adventure the breaststroke aces shared. "It was close to us, and it was huge. I thought, 'this is it'." The competitive spirit in the pair lives on well beyond the pool, Van der Burgh topping the shark tale with another scary moment: in the Kruger Park with his family when he was 11, a baboon jumped in through the car window and sat next to him, baring its fangs in his face. "Its mouth was huge. I remember it opening Tupperware and eating licorice. My dad eventually chased it out the car."
Not used to chasing after the first 50m, the South African found himself doing just that yesterday, Dale Oen a class apart from go to gold. There is another title on the horizon, of course. Could Solberg list the boxes that now need to be ticked on the way to another big race almost a year to the day ahead?
"First of all, the perfect race: we know he can improve his start - he lost three or four tenths on the start, his turns can improve, the pace can be better but then also making sure he has no injury and stays healthy and next year can probably be a better one than this one."
To make sure that happen, down time away from the max intensity sets of the past four pause-less months of post-injury catch-up will be built into the blocks of work to be be endured in the year ahead. "We can't maintain the intensity of the past four months for a whole year," said Solberg. "We want him to arrive in London in perfect shape."