Here are two stories about the same coach. In the first one, a hard-nosed, demanding and singularly focused man pulls some exciting results out of a long dormant swimming culture, starting the current golden age of Danish swimming.
In another story, that man actively works to destroy the same swimmers' lives. This is an all too familiar story in swimming. "But he can coach..." is the all too familiar disclaimer for coaches who produce high level "results" and simultaneous abuse.
Dawn (?) of the Danish Swimming
Mark Regan became head coach of the Danish National Team in 2003. Danish swimming had never truly broken through in the modern era, having made a big splash at the 1948 London Olympics. Since that Olympics Denmark had always managed to have one or two elite international swimmers.
In 2003 the Danes managed one medal at the World Championship, from youngster Louise Ornstedt. Mette Jacobsen always seemed to be good for something at the Euro level, but had only two world medals from 1991 to her name and at 30 wasn't likely to improve in her primary event, the 200 Butterfly.
Regan's hiring didn't have any immediate discernible impact on international results. He did, however, completely change the landscape of how swimming was coached in Denmark. His insistence on lots of practices per week (10-12) sent club coaches in the country, who had lived in a mostly decentralized system for quite some time, into a flurry to keep up.
While Ornstedt had been a star from a young age, there was another young swimmer ascending. Jeanette Ottesen, who would go on to become one of Denmark's most accomplished international swimmers ever, was setting Danish junior records that stood until this past year.
Ottesen initially resisted joining Regan at the National Training Center, but found herself drawn up in 2004. In a recent interview with Danish Radio, she described her three years training under Regan as "hell".
Among other practices, Regan established that the top Danish swimmers would be weighed daily. If the swimmers weight was "good", they got no feedback. If it was bad, they would be interrogated what they had done to push the scale up.
This practice would continue long after Regan departed- and although Ottesen endured, many did not. Ottesen didn't mince words in the interview about other things she experienced training under Regan. She was afraid of her coach, plain and simple.
Julie Aglund Lauridsen, a recently retired Danish National team swimmer, came out in another interview with the revelation that an eating disorder ended her career. Ottesen believed that many of her teammates swimming careers ended the same way. Later this week I'll be speaking with a woman with a similar story for The Swim Brief podcast.
A Legacy of Devestation
I'm not going back to count the medals earned under Mark Regan's watch, or the supposed "progress" he made towards making Denmark an international swimming power. His legacy is devastation, and the work that has been done and will have to be done to overcome it.