There are Italian-coached Russians doing practice laps under the manta ray-like ceiling of the Olympic Aquatics Centre. Beside them are American-coached Japanese and Australian-coached Chinese.
This is what Olympic swimming has become; a veritable coaches without borders. It is a reason why so many athletes from so many more countries are winning medals in the pool and why the Americans and Australians are being pushed like never before to maintain their dominance. A look at the numbers shows that in 1976 only eight countries won all the Olympic medals in swimming. By 2008 in Beijing, the count had soared to 21 nations, and that number is expected to rise perhaps even double in London given the overall competitiveness of the sport.
“It’s really a world market,” said Swimming Canada consultant Deryk Snelling, a former head coach who also worked as national performance director for Great Britain Swimming. “The pro athlete is going to go where they feel it’s best for them to go ... and the coaches are taking them in.”
The results have churned the waters, especially in Australia, where two coaches were chastised for aiding and abetting Chinese swimmers. When 2008 Olympic relay gold medalist Jessicah Schipper found out her rival, Liu Zige, was being tutored by her coach, Ken Wood, she went looking for a new coach. When Denis Cotterell helped China’s Sun Yang to a world record in the 1,500-metre freestyle, Australia’s national head coach Leigh Nugent reacted strongly stating, “We don’t want them preparing people to beat our people at the Olympics.”
Michael Bohl apparently didn’t get that message. Although nine of his Australian swimmers qualified for London, including gold medalist Stephanie Rice, Bohl has been a hired teacher for Park Tae-Hwan, the first South Korean to win an Olympic swim medal. Park grew up idolizing Australian Grant Hackett and was later coached by Dave Salo from the University of Southern California before becoming a freestyle wizard at last year’s world championships.
Swimming Canada CEO Pierre Lafontaine, who was once head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, dubbed the sharing of coaching knowledge “exciting” but insisted it wasn’t something he was keen to see in Canada.
“For us, it was really important we invest in our people, and we’re trying to build our coaches. Otherwise what you have is a non-sustainable model,” Lafontaine explained. “When these [for-hire] coaches leave, when the kids go back to China, they don’t bring anything with them. They just bring themselves. There’s no knowledge passing through the system. That’s the key to keep growing our country – invest in people to sustain the system.”
The rationale for preparing rival swimmers for the Olympics is simple: coaches get to work with top-ranked athletes and for that they can be handsomely paid, especially if the swimmer wins an Olympic medal. Putting that podium stipulation into a contract ensures the athlete gets the best for his or her coaching dollars.
The Chinese have the money to lure expert help. They had 52 swimmers living and training in Australia for six to 10 weeks as part of their Olympic selection process. Sun Yang has even spent time in Miami working on his stroke and tactics. Little wonder the depth of competition has got so deep it’s attracted the attention of the sport’s greatest Olympian.
“There are people from all over the world who are contenders,” Michael Phelps said. “You can have eight people step up in every single final who could be within a second of each other.”
Canadian head coach Randy Bennett figured it’s the theme of this Olympic meet.
“Swimming has become a true world sport. It’s expanded; it’s really hard, like track and field,” he said. “There are so many good events. We could swim everything right and come away empty handed. We could do everything right and have the best Olympics ever. It’s that close – too close to call.”