A cursory glance at the race statistics (stroke rate, speed out of turns and so forth) from Rome 2009 world titles is enough to indicate that Michael Phelps (USA), regardless of his defeat over 200m freestyle and loss of the world record at the hands of Paul Biedermann (GER), will be the swimmer to beat over four long-course laps in the seasons that lead up to the potential defense of the American's Olympic crown in 2012.
That assertion ought not to be taken as a lack of respect for Biedermann, who will also, quite clearly, be a force to reckon with. But as we approach the end of a short-lived era in which non-textile suits that covered the body were allowed to enhance performance to a truly significant degree in the race pool, Germany is among those acutely aware of what must now happen to ensure that it remains competitive in briefs or jammers.
Those race stats from Rome tell us that Phelps is the more efficient animal and that the manner of Biedermann's victory, on a number of statistical counts, was unusual, to say the least. One of those unusual factors was picked up by many back in the summer: that the man from Halle - who improved 4sec over 200m and 6sec over 400m year-on-year and whose coach Franck Embacher suggested a gain of 0.7sec per length courtesy of the arena X-Glide - was able to race almost a second faster than Ian Thorpe or Phelps at their very best ever down the last 50m of races over 200m and 400m respectively.
Take away the suit and those 0.7sec a length (or whatever margin turns out to be accurate) and the dominance we witnessed from Biedermann in Rome is either much reduced or cancelled out altogether. Neither Biederman, Embacher, German head coach Dirk Lange nor his national programme are about to rest on laurels. They want to be sure of being suited for the season ahead, regardless what the suit of the season may be.
Biedermann had already started to prove himself a fighting force in senior waters after a stellar junior career. But there are challenges ahead in the post-shiny suit future. How to go about turning Biedermann into a killer whale once more in 2010 onwards? Answer: Battle Training, including mixing soldiers from race pool and open water. In January, middle distance, distance and uber-distance aces from Germany, Russia and South Africa will team up at a training camp that aims to expose swimmers from a variety of programmes and nations to what some may seen as the "uber-work" that epitomised a time in the sport when a swimmer would have been foolish to rely on a suit for his or her success.
The camp, from January 7 to 21, will take place at the Potsdam sports excellence centre that served as such during GDR times and remains one of Germany's best facilities when it comes to preparing elite athletes for battle. On the deck to oversee proceedings will be Lange and Andrei Vorontsov, head coaches to Germany and Russia, while at the coaching coal face will be Jörg Hoffmann (former world 1,500m champion for Germany in 1991 a fingernail ahead of a young unknown called Kieren Perkins), Nikolai Esseev, Germany based Russian coach to long-time open water ace Angela Maurer, and Stefan Lurz, brother and coach to multiple open water world champion and Olympic marathon bronze medallist Thomas Lurz.
Hoffmann was among those coaches most opposed to the wearing of shiny suits from February 2008 onwards. He noted early in the campaign of opposition that he had swimmers who learned fairly fast that what the pain of core work took to achieve all winter long, a suit could achieve simply by peeling it on in 40 minutes, for some at least. If anyone knows what it takes to develop the kind of stamina and fitness fit for the long-distance challenge, if is Hoffmann.
His task and the task of his fellow international coaches committed to battle training is not only to work with the swimmers directly but to work together as a group of mentors to develop a distance programme designed to provide an advantage over rivals - and then introduce that programme to the international group of swimmers under the working title of "battle training". Those heading to the water at Potsdam can expect to be covering 100km and more each week.
Of the 30 or so swimmers scheduled to attend battle training, 20 or so will be German, with the rest made up of Russians and South Africans. Biedermann will be put to the test by some formidable opponents, including Yuri Prilukov and Nikita Lobintsev, members of the sub 3:44 400m free club. Add South Africans Jean Basson and Riaan Schoeman to the mix and you have a potent challenge on your hands the course of those hefty and challenging training sets. Denmark, land of Mads Glaesner, may also take part.
Lange, keen to expose his troops to the kind of international challenge that many have shied away from in recent years, told SwimNews: "The idea of the training camp is to instill in all participants that only a strong performing training group will lead to success - similiar to how it is done in the US." He is keen to see the battle training programme unfold with complete transparency on a number of fronts, including anti-doping. "Germany has, with regards to training methods, nothing to hide. We want transparency and openess. Especially in long distance swimming many countries have problems with the number of strong performing swimmers."
By that, Lange means that there may well be one or two very good swimmers in one nation but then a big gap to the next best, making it difficult, on a domestic basis, to put together the kind of force that will be in Potsdam. "The same goes for Germany. In forming an international training group for long distance swimmers we hope to increase motivation and pressure in training alike. So hopefully everyone will benefit," said Lange.
Potsdam will mark the start of the process. More camps are being planned in Russia and South Africa. "It will be a very interesting two weeks in Potsdam," said Lange. "We hope to learn a lot. Germany was a big swimming nation as far as distance was concerned." He notes the likes of Hoffmann and Dagmar Hase, the 1992 Olympic 400m freestyle champion as well as Rainer Henkel, the West German world champion of 1986. Then there is Michael Gross, best known for 200m free and 'fly but a world record holder over 400m free and pretty useful up to 800m too (he held the world best time short-course).
Russia (including its Soviet past) also has a fine tradition of producing distance aces, both in pool and in open water. Vladimir Salnikov is the most famous of all of them and may play a part in any camp due to be held in Russia.
Any mention of swimmers who hark back to the GDR and the days of its dominance, of course, triggers an automatic and understandable reaction. Germany in return can point to a national (NADA) anti-doping programme that takes blood and urine samples from athletes on a regular basis and sends them to accredited laboratories not wedded to protecting cheats but catching them. Its anti-doping measures are among the most stringent in the world.
The likes of Lange and the DSV are acutely aware that Germany, perhaps above all nations, needs to wear its anti-doping heart on its sleeve more than most. Providing information about the battle training camps is part of Germany's sincere attempts to be transparent: if agents wish to test all present during the camps, they know where the swimmers will be: in the water, the gym, eating or sleeping. There will be little time for anything else as European nations and South African visitors prepare for a textile future in which Mr Phelps intends to prove himself all over again.