WILL "THE OLD SWIMMING FACTORY" PRODUCE AN OLYMPIC CHAMPION?
VIC CENTRE'S DANIEL KOWALSKI MAY TURN OUT TO BE THE MAIN CONTENDER FOR THE 1500 GOLD IN ATLANTA
Cecil M. Colwin
A week before the Australian Olympic Trials in Sydney, I returned to Melbourne
where I coached in the early 1970s. On Batman Avenue, the traditional centre
of swimming in Melbourne, I came to the Olympic Pool, where, in 1956, Australian
swimmers had re-established world supremacy in their first at-home Olympics.
There, for one exciting and dramatic week, bronzed young athletes such as
Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, and Jon Henricks, fresh from their training camp
in Townsville, Northern Queensland, brought the crowds to their feet with
cheers that raised the rafters.
Alas, what was once a shrine to true Olympic endeavour has been vandalised
over the years, and is now converted to an exhibition hall. The giant stadium,
where thousands lined up daily to see the training sessions of Australia's
greatest team ever, is now a sad, gaunt sight.
Across the road from the old Olympic Stadium is the Vic Centre, formerly
the open air Beaurepaire Pool, named after Sir Frank Beaurepaire, the man
mainly responsible for bringing the 1956 Olympics to Melbourne, and whose
outstanding swimming career lasted a quarter century (1906 to 1930).
Because Melbourne's climate is notorious for having "four seasons in
a day", most of Melbourne's swimming pools are built indoors, and so
before leaving for the national championships, we coaches would bring our
swimmers to "Beaurepaire" for a few outdoor sessions to sample
the fresh air.
The old pool is now housed indoors, and it still wouldn't win architectural
awards. Not by chance is the Vic Centre known as "The Swimming Factory"-it
is strictly utilitarian, a place plainly planned for "making"
swimmers through industrious effort.
The kindest thing one can say about the Beaurepaire Pool, in its new guise
as the Vic Centre, is that it serves its purpose, and is a tribute to the
Australian gift for ingenuity. Along the walls and ceilings of the pool,
fat brightly-coloured ventilation tubes lend a surrealistic effect.
"Where do I find Bill Nelson?" I asked. "Up those steps on
the other side of the pool," said my guide. High in the air, I saw
the coach's office, a large box attached to the far-side wall, looking for
all the world like an oversized dovecot.
Access to the office is by climbing three flights of steep iron steps. Carrying
a heavy bag, and rapidly approaching anaerobic threshold, I finally made
it to the coach's roof-top eyrie. Seated in a neat office, complete with
computers and training records, sat Coach Bill Nelson and his young assistant,
Nelson told me that he had coached Daniel Kowalski since November 1994,
but had first met him at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1990, when
Nelson and David Pyne, the Institute's head physiologist, had conducted
a national talent identification program.
"At that stage, Daniel was a fairly good freestyler, and also a good
backstroker, and 200 fly swimmer with good technique. He already had an
excellent physique and a fine mental attitude. He was all set for a great
"Because it was only a seven-day camp and Daniel was one of a group
of about 23 swimmers, there wasn't time to form in-depth opinions. We had
a brief opportunity to talk about different things, but we never had the
chance to really get to know the swimmers as well as we needed to. But we
kept in touch with Daniel, as we did with all the kids who came to the camp."
At the 1994 World Championships in Rome, Don Talbot told Nelson that Daniel
Kowalski wanted to move to Melbourne to train with him.
Nelson said that on moving to Melbourne, he had resigned himself to the
fact that it was going to take a while for him to put swimmers on the national
"So I was delighted by the fact that Daniel wanted to come to Melbourne.
But, it was a sensitive situation because, when you are on a national team,
you have the responsibility to do the right thing by the coach who is not
there, and to look after the swimmers to the best of your ability."
"When Don asked me to meet Daniel, I did so, and briefly said to him:
'I am here to do a job, and you are here to do a job. When you get home,
you think about it. Then, if you still want to go ahead, give me a call.'
And I left it at that."
"When I returned home, Daniel rang up and said that it was something
he wanted to do. I suppose the hardest thing for someone in that situation
was to decide what he was going to do, and where he was going to live. So
I spoke to my wife, and she said that Daniel was welcome to stay with us
until he was ready to move on.
"Kowalski has now stayed with the Nelson family for 18 months. He gets
on very well with my three children, Jae, Ele, and Kye. He gets on well
with my wife, Joanne. We really don't have too many problems mixing the
swimming side of it with the family life at home. I try to give him his
space, and he knows to give me mine. And it works out well. He likes to
be in a family setting. I know his parents.They are a tight family; for
him to be happy he really had to be in a family environment."
FINE STROKE TECHNICIAN
Daniel Kowalski is a polished stroke technician. He makes top swimming look
easy. There is no visible effort in his stroke. Visible effort is unproductive
effort; it's effort the swimmer uses against oneself.
With typical understatement, Nelson says, "Daniel's got a good technique.
Like everyone else, sometimes he'll get a little bit lazy on a few things,
but he's one of those people who wants to be a student of the sport. There's
nothing that he wants to leave to chance. He leaves no stone unturned. So
if I say something to him, I know it won't go in one ear and out the other.
He'll take it in, and do his best to do it."
Daniel Kowalski is an intelligent young man, mature for his age. I heard
that Daniel had won additional fame as a TV quiz-kid, and I asked Nelson
to comment on this.
"Daniel went on this nationally televised quiz show, and ended up winning
it. He was pretty happy because he beat some politicians and media personalities.
This was a different sort of pressure; it also gave him the opportunity
to feel good about himself. If swimmers feel good about themselves, then
they'll swim fast."
"You're not just trying to mature them as swimmers, but you're also
trying to mature them as people. The thing about international sport is
that it is all about pressure; being able to withstand it, being able to
Nelson said that the type of training, the stroke mechanics, and the emphasis
placed on his swimmers are probably not much different from anyone else's.
"We try to cover the full spectrum of the heart rate range, and the
lactate range, and our program is carefully planned and methodical. But,
at the same time, if I think something needs to be changed, then I'll change
it on the day. "
"Obviously, the key sets for Daniel are similar to those for any other
distance swimmers; his over-distance work, and certainly his MVO2 and threshold
work are the key themes. Kowalski is fortunate in that he has natural speed,
and can handle a variety of training without losing his speed. About two
or three times a week, he tries to do a certain amount of work, about 3000
metres, as close to race pace as possible."
Nelson divides the program into four week periods. "Basically, I have
an endurance week, a quality week, a sprint week, and an adaptation week.
These four weeks are cycled into a format depending on the individual group,
and their responses. I usually work three weeks on and one week off, every
fourth week being an adaptation week. "
"The off-week is an adaptation week devoted to recovery. What I usually
do is keep the main sets at the same intensity, but half the usual distance.
So, if we're going 3000 metres of MVO2 work, we'll come back to 1600 or
2000 metres during that week. I allow the body to just catch up after what
it has been through, but, at the same time, not allow it to go into a full
rest state. Our MAX VO2 work varies between each of the individual groups,
and it also depends on each individual swimmer."
Nelson said that Daniel Kowalski would do something like thirty 100s on
1:30, and he would hold anywhere from high 57s to low 58s. His heart would
reach about twenty below his maximum, which is in the 172 to 176 range.
"Especially at Kowalski's level of achievement, every workout is highly
individualized," says Nelson. "The whole thing with coaching is
that it is highly individual. I hand out my training plan to anyone who
wants a copy of it, because I don't think that drawing up a schedule represents
the art of coaching. It's the interpretation of that plan that counts, and
how you convince the swimmers of what you want to do."
Nelson believes that the coach has to build the training program around
each individual swimmer. "Don't try to put a swimmer into the training
program. Plan the program around the swimmer. That becomes a difficult thing
to do in any program when you have a big team. But that's the art of coaching.
It is this that distinguishes people who really want to coach from those
who only do it half-heartedly, with insufficient regard for each individual
In Nelson's experience each swimmer has favourite workout sets, which may
vary with time. They find the type of workout that really works for them.
This provides a yardstick to measure progress by repeating the same type
of set on another occasion.
For example, at the end of a training session, after seven kilometres of
freestyle and separate kicking, Kowalski may do three 200 metre swims in
a descending set of 1:56.2, 1:55.2 and 1:53.5.
"The key is to do the work that you know is going to stimulate the
response you want, but, at the same time, the workout must be put across
in a way that will challenge each swimmer. It's got to be enjoyable for
them to meet those challenges, and the stimulus you're trying to give to
the swimmer comes in a variety of ways. It's a matter of finding those different
I commented on the rivalry between Daniel Kowalski and Kieren Perkins. Nelson
said: "They respect each other, and, in fact, Daniels said, after Perkins
had swum his way into the Australian team, that Perkins had shown a lot
Nelson says that there's an interesting relationship between Kieren Perkins
and Daniel Kowalski, and even Glen Housman. "I think it has been built
up over a period of time, and it carries over into Daniels' swimming; how
he handles himself leading up to the meet, during the meet, and after the
meet. It says a lot about Daniel's character."
"This probably sounds strange, but going into the 1500 at the Olympic
Trials, Daniel was wishing that Kieren would also be on the team. He knows
that, for Australia to be successful at the Olympics, Kieren has got to
be a vital part of that team, and Kieren has got to be swimming well."
"But, at the same time, Daniel knew that he had to go out and do the
things I set him to do. Although the time wasn't what I wanted, and what
Kieren and Daniel, or John Carew wanted, as I've said before, it provided
a great race. I don't think anyone in the world would have had a better
1500 race than what those three guys did on Saturday night. That calibre
of tough, hard racing has got to help us as we go into the Olympics."
A TEST OF THE WHOLE PERSON
"It's OK to have a closely contested race over a 100, a 200, or even
a 400, but over 1500 it is a test of the whole person. And it shows a great
insight into what those two guys are about. So there were some very positive
things that came out of that race. It stood both of them in good stead,
leading up to Atlanta in twelve weeks time."
Nelson said that many people look upon swimming as an individual sport,
but it's only individual when they stand on the blocks. "You must create
a team environment, and it must be conducive to excellence. This is important
to me as a coach because it helps everyone to swim to the best of their
Asked if Daniel would stay with the 1500, or move down to the 400, Nelson
said that Kowalski would stay with the 1500. "He loves the 1500. When
you look at the times on the board, there are certainly people who are closing
the gap, but by the same token, Daniel hasn't reached the level that he
wants to achieve. And he certainly hasn't reached what I think him capable
Nelson said that Kurt Eldridge looks a good prospect. "Kurt has been
around for quite a while. He spent time at Cal Berkeley with Nort Thornton,
and then came back to Australia. He is a very, very tough competitor. There
are kids such as Graham Hackett, the 15-year-old, who went a 15:30.63. There
are a few kids like them knocking on the door, and that's good for our sport."
Nelson continued: "After Atlanta, Kowalski, who has only just turned
20, is keen to go to the world short course championships, and from there,
he is at an age when Sydney 2000 certainly is not out of the question."
"Daniel is very keen to keep going, and for him, his swimming has entered
a new era. He is enjoying his swimming more. He accepts the challenges.
He has always accepted challenges, but I think he is more interested in
the challenges. It's not a case of 'I've got to do this because it's being
thrown at me'. He tries to really be part of what is happening, and if you've
got someone like that, who is open-minded, then the future looks good. Daniel
has put in the hard work, and he is about to reap his rewards."
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