European Swimming Championships 2016: Performance review of British athletes and media

The dust has settled and we reflect on the LEN European Swimming Championships, and in particular, some of the major talking points emerging from the British performance.

James Guy’s 400 free on the first day has been talked about throughout the week. He laboured to a 3.52.91 and the Millfield swimmer touched the wall in 27th position; a far cry from his Silver medal performance at the World Championships in Kazan last summer. This performance, however, was not as ‘shocking’ as the media have illustrated to the general public. Perhaps, in large part, a lack of knowledge was displayed in their characterisation of the young World Champion. Allow us to digress…

Guy opted not to compete in a racing jammer in the 400 free, he wore trunks. Wearing trunks to emulate a training sensation is not an unusual occurrence for ‘mid-season’ competitions. Ryan Lochte has been wearing his briefs in heats for a decade. His credentials have never been questioned. Had Guys swim been in a non-European Championship context, at any other meet on the continent, it would have gone largely unnoticed. No, his time wouldn’t set the world alight, but it wouldn’t be unexpected.

So; why are British swimmers not approaching this competition as a target meet? Why are they considering it a training exercise, and racing tired?

Indeed, it’s a continental competition, but in 10 weeks’ time the Olympic Games commence and this must take precedence for the British athletes. Furthermore, the British Championships and Olympic selection meet was just 4 weeks previous to the European Championships. It’s very difficult to target peak performance twice in 4 weeks.

In order for the swimmers to be at their optimum in Rio, they undergo an arduous training block leading into the Games. Unfortunately, given the 4 week period since Olympic selection and the short time frame to Rio, the European Championship fall in the middle of this training cycle. The majority of the British swimming contingent have continued the training cycle throughout this competitive week, including pre and post race conditioning,  and are subsequently carrying high levels of fatigue through their racing schedule.

In 2012, before the London Games, the European Championships were held in Budapest.  Great Britain took a small team to the Euros and in fact it was optional for the qualified British Olympic team to compete. Six swimmers travelled to Budapest and competed under ‘heavy’ training; a term often coined in the past 7 days of competition.

What is ‘heavy’ training?

Swimming is a sport notorious for its rigours. There are a number of training stimuli included in a typical training cycle. The aerobic endurance block (general conditioning or ‘base’ training) is generally low – medium intensity with medium – high intensity. Through accruing high swim volume, general fitness levels are raised thus providing a strong foundation to build upon. During this long, time consuming aerobic endurance training block, swimmers are normally too fatigued to race at their best. However, depending on body type, swimming event(s), age and fitness, bodies ‘hurt’ more than others and therefore react and perform differently in races. This results in very varied performances across athletes (just like we have seen in London last week).

When the body is deemed fit enough, training intensity is heightened and volume decreased as the swimmers focus on the more intense speed, power, Vo2 Max and race pace segmental training as they near the end of the cycle and lead into competition.

James Guy is in this ‘heavy’ training and general conditioning aerobic phase. His body is hurting. Psychologically, approaching a race knowing your body is already at a deficit is one of the toughest parts of the sport; not quite knowing how your body might react to the training stimulus but fully committing to what lies ahead. This may have happened with Guy in the 400 free, like it does with many tough mid-season swims, and the combination of a brief-wearing morning heat, resulted in a 27th place positioning.

Guy could have reacted negatively to this result, but in a hugely impressive manner, he found a way to forget the race and subsequent mild media panic (after a brief twitter reaction) and get back to his racing process. The result two days later was a Bronze medal in the 200 Freestyle, against opponents who were obviously more prepared (shaved and rested) for the meet. A world class response from a world champion.

The media reacted negatively to that 400 free and other performances, even implying that our athletes had ‘let it slip’ since qualifying for the Rio Olympic Games. This was due to, in large, slower performances than the British Championships last month.

Should we not endeavour to trust our already world class athletes? Trust their process of performance improvement through training periodisation? We must also remember that the large team selection for London European Championships last week was in part due to the ‘home’ element the London Aquatic Centre provided. Had this event taken place elsewhere in Europe, we would have witnessed a much smaller British attendance.

A selection of British swimmers have nevertheless competed very well in London and have reacted positively to their current training regimens. In the case of these performers though, they may have included short rest periods and even some that have ‘shaved’. Their final positioning or medal winning efforts, although great and worthy of much praise, have given an exaggerated impression to the less frequent swimming onlooker.

To explain this, sections of the media and general public have suggested that some athletes should now be granted their respective events in Brazil at the Olympic Games. It is very disappointing to hear this. The selection criteria is set over a year in advance and athletes plan their schedule to peak with aims to achieve said criteria.

The Europeans simply isn’t a qualification meet hence the reason so many swimmers have raced through fatigue. Furthermore, such comments are incredibly disrespectful to athletes who have already qualified in their respective events, by peaking at the correct time predetermined by federations.

An example. Ross Murdoch came 3rd at the British Championships in the 200 Breaststroke and did not qualify for the event at the Olympics Games. He was beaten by Andrew Willis and Stirling team mate Craig Benson and they were selected ahead of Ross to represent their country. That was the British selection process and that is the sport. Willis and Benson have subsequently resumed training to prepare for the Olympic Games and therefore were not in peak condition for Europeans last week. Ross Murdoch, who qualified in the shorter 100 metre Breaststroke event in Rio, has obviously been much fresher this week and with an excellent performance, has taken the European title in the 200 metre event only a few days ago. However, it is important to avoid rash statements and suggest that Murdoch should be representing GBR in Rio. Murdoch’s time was still slower than Willis achieved at the Olympic selection meet four weeks ago.

For the media to ask Craig Benson, whether he thinks Ross should be representing Great Britain instead of him, at a competition he is training through, is incredibly unfair. The British media should be supporting their swimmers, not planting doubts in their heads as to whether they deserve their place to compete. Benson produced a lifetime best swim, when required, to gain his Olympic berth.

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Kathleen Dawson has had a break through competition this week and quite brilliantly picked up a Bronze medal in the 100 Backstroke, dropping a huge amount of time in the process. It has been suggested that Kathleen should be a late addition to the Olympic team in the summer, particularly as only 26 of the possible 30 places were filled by the British team. Whilst it seems strange not to take up the full allocation permitted, the thought process from the selectors is that they want everyone on the team to be competing with a realistic medal chance, quelling the recurrence of athletes incapable of progressing past the heat stages.

However, the upside of taking wild card selections to major competitions is that there are always performances like that of Kathleen Dawson; rookie team members reacting positively and transitioning into an exciting senior career. It happened in 2014 at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Berlin European Championships, with Stephen Milne and many other home nation swimmers producing medal winning performances and progressing into regular national team selections.

Having said this, should Kathleen Dawson now be selected for Rio? No she shouldn’t. Kathleen swam over a full second slower at the Rio qualification meet last month to finish 5th, and even if there was a decision to use all 30 spaces, there are many athletes who should have been chosen ahead of her. Kathleen is also still British No.2 behind Georgia Davies, who like many others, qualified for the Olympic team and therefore didn’t make last week in London her priority.

When a selection criterion is released a year before the competition, it shouldn’t be changed for any athlete or indeed the performance director after this point. Bill Furniss, Britain’s head coach, has subsequently said that selection is closed and those 26 athletes are fixed, so it proves unhealthy to the athletes for the media to speculate otherwise.

In conclusion, there were varied performances from the British team in a competition that was expected to provide just that. It is a difficult situation for an elite athlete, to race at a major event without a full preparation, in front of an enthusiastic home crowd against the finest in Europe. The British media must help and support the British athletes by explaining to the general public what is happening and why, through thorough research gathered from coaches and athletes. Instead, they have questioned the selection of individuals, their events, commitment of the athletes and the selection process itself.

Is this constructive? Would you see this from the USA or Australian media?

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