Well, it may finally happen. After decades under the leadership/moral pit of despair that is John Leonard, the American Swim Coaches Association is looking for new leadership. Leonard, we’re told, will step down in 2020.
Sarah Ehekircher comes back to update on her own saga for justice against her former coach, before we pivot to a discussion of what happened last month in Fishers, Indiana and the fallout from a group of administrators abdicating their responsibility.
We finish by getting a little fired up as we usually do about broader topics concerning creating a safe environment for kids in sport.
Attending these meets is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Because of NCAA rules about countable coaches, in both cases I am not allowed to do any “swim coaching” in the traditional sense. I am contracted to help the teams coaches and athletes to improve skills of the mind, and that’s what I look for.
It is not easy to move up even one spot in a competitive league. Moving up a few spots takes a huge effort. Consider that in the first year (2012) of Braden Holloway’s tenure at NC State, the men had an awesome year that was the first step to their now ACC dominance. Their finish in that year was 5th. They were 8th the previous year.
My entree into the world of “elite” swimming was the 2008 Olympic Trials. It was the first national level swim meet of any kind that I had been to. I was accredited media along with Garrett McCaffrey, my friend and then the man behind floswimming.
The meet was eight days of blowing my mind, interspersed by Garrett and I talk swimming, life and the future. One argument we had early on was about the process for the best athletes at the meet. Garrett frequently noticed how much the top swimmers, like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, would comment that they were dutifully following the instructions of their coaches.
He wasn’t wrong, it is what they were saying. But in my ears it felt deeply wrong. There had to be a better way than “coach says, swimmer does”. And yet I have seen this manifest itself across many more conversations with coaches and swimmers. The swimmer that does exactly what you ask of them is bound to be pleasing to a coach. I have definitely fallen prey more than once to the ego boost that such a swimmer gave me.
Given some time for deeper reflection, I think that most coaches actually don’t want to have this kind of relationship. Because a swimmer who follows instructions to the T is missing the autonomy and motivation that really leads to them assuming their true potential.
This past weekend, I had almost too much fun working with Washington State University just a few days away from their conference championship. One thing we talked about was self-evaluation, and very specifically having expectations for yourself that are firmly divorced from results or the expectations others place on you.
Being able to look at a list at the end of the day and say “I did these things” is very powerful. Some of them may even (gasp) involve not following the precise instructions of your coach. Where I see athletes often feel trapped is that they disagree with the expectations set for them, but don’t form a clear idea of what they think would be better, go after it and actually prove their case.
Instead they often complain about the coaches, chafe against the expectations stay in their corner. This only makes coaches want to tighten their grip a little more.
You also need your own expectations because when you’re trying something really hard, you need to force some perspective. On your way to achieving something ambitious you will fail a lot and quite naturally lose sight of progress, or the base of good things that you’ve already accomplished.
Naturally self-critical people can get pretty far by being extremely tough on themselves, but at some point they need to acknowledge their own strengths and small accomplishments, or their self-criticism will make everything they attempt into a soulless grind.
I’m looking forward to seeing the team compete this weekend at PAC-12s, and may be filing another blog from the meet any insights I get from my new “don’t watch the swimming” perspective.
Over the weekend, I got an exciting invitation. I’ve long been operating around the people who make up the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, and I’m broadly supportive of the reforms they are pushing for.
What is emotional regulation? To me, it’s the ability to manage the thoughts that follow from an emotionally charged situation. Crucially, it is not the ability to change your actual emotions, and this is where I’ve gone very wrong with it in my own life and career. Your emotions are your emotions, stuff happens and you will have an emotional reaction
But can an 11 year old actually decide that they want to train that hard? Where is the line?
I can hear the arguments already against setting any kind of boundary or hard and fast rule. Every kid is different, you’ll be holding some back. Suggesting any kind of stricture on how much coaches train their swimmers will be met with overwhelming opposition.
Later today I will record a podcast with Monica Strzempko and Sarah Ehekircher. If that first name sounds unfamiliar to you, then you’ll want to read this before you listen. We’ll go over some points of the story of both Monica and her daughter Anna in the pod, but the piece I linked to gives a lot more detail than we can cover in an hour.
A couple weeks ago, Missy Franklin announced her retirement in a heartfelt letter she posted to Instagram. At just 23 years of age, Franklin is ending her competitive career, probably for good.
Franklin, as she has throughout her career, offered the rest of us comfort. It’s very sad to see such a wonderful athlete stop at such a young age, but reading her letters brings the focus back to someone who was wonderfully, authentically kind while completing some amazing athletic feats.
I remain troubled, not because I think that Missy made the wrong decision, I can’t judge that and have to trust that she made the absolute best choice. I’m troubled because of the number of generational female swimming stars that have had to end their careers far too early.
Lets just look at what’s happened just since the 2004 Olympics:
Katie Hoff: Hoff was an incredibly versatile and dominant athlete when she burst onto the scene. At 16 years old she was a triple gold medalist at World Championships in 2005 and 2007 and Pan-Pacs in 2006. She set a world record in the 400 IM. She won a “disappointing” three medals at the 2008 Olympics.
Katie Hoff is still 29 (!!!!!) but she hasn’t competed internationally for the US since 2011, despite showing some promise in several comebacks. Her career was derailed by health issues, among them serious lung issues.
Dagny Knutson: In one year, Dagny Knutson went from an above average Junior National swimmer to the American record in the 400 IM. I’ve written a lot about Knutson in this space, particularly about the despicable way she was manipulated by Mark Schubert and his lawyer friend Richard Foster.
But lets focus on swimming. Knutson was a versatile talent. Some people have chalked up her career to “suits”, ignoring the fact that even in 2011, as her swimming life was falling apart at the hands of Schubert and Sean Hutchison, she swam a 1:57 split on the gold medal winning 4x200 relay. That would be the last major international competition for Knutson, who retired in 2013 at age 21.
Kate Ziegler: Katie Ledecky before there was Katie Ledecky. Just go look it up. She broke Janet Evans incredibly longstanding world record in the 1500 free with a 15:42 in 2007.
Although she did manage to qualify for the 2012 Olympics after also having her career thrown into chaos by Schubert, she never recaptured the level of swimming that she had from age 16-19, and went into semi-retirement in 2013.
Ariana Kukors: She is better known for her courage out of the pool now, but Ariana Kukors was a spectacular swimmer! She achieved phenomenal results all while living a waking nightmare through her teens and early 20s.
She retired around age 24, and it is likely we never saw her at her peak, despite the fact that she swam a 2:06 200 IM world record in 2009.
These are just four top swimmers who, just based on age alone, could still be competing at a high level today. It’s not as if we haven’t seen women be internationally top level well in to their 30s, in fact it has been a thing for a couple decades now.
Likewise, many of us would have been shocked had MIchael Phelps had to stop his career at age 23. We will be equally shocked if Michael Andrew calls it quits anytime soon. Ryan Lochte has had a crazy long career.
I don’t have many answers, but it is extremely disturbing to me as a swim coach to see such attrition of top female athletes. Any coach that’s been around the late club senior level or college level knows too that there is far too little improvement for female swimmers in the sport writ large from around age 15-16 on.
What kind of knowledge can we share to make this not just an inevitable outcome but a thing of the past, another circumstance that we look back on and imagine “why did we do it that way?”.
We need some serious self-evaluation from top to bottom of how we coach women. We have to be able to do better than this!
The stakes for doing so seem to high. There are more people to tell you that you messed up than there ever were. That is a bit daunting. In the same vein, there is more room for personal growth than there ever has been. So here, in no certain order, are the posts I look back at over the last year with a little cringe on my face.
Last week, I wrote about how we all make mistakes, and told a story of a shameful chapter from my own career. Concurrently to publishing that post, I sent it to the former swimmer in question, and I apologized and sought forgiveness.
I thought to myself: John Trembley must have gotten to where he was by being an amazing man. I grafted so many wonderful qualities onto him based on just a short conversation. It was a few minutes of his life that didn’t cost him anything, but I thought for a while he had earned me as a lifelong fan.
Trembley doesn’t coach swimming anymore, of course. His career ended when in a hailstorm of drug addiction and illicit messaging.