As the eyes of the world turn to the track to admire the performances of Bolt, Elaine Thompson, the Mo-bot, or even Jason Kenny behind that ‘derny’ bike; it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the week of swimming at Rio2016; and it leaves the Olympic swimmers to continue the best few weeks of their lives to enjoy Rio De Janiero and all it has to offer…
Party. Meet famous faces. See the city. Cheer on their team mates. Party again.
An opportunity for everyone to celebrate their success. They are Olympians and the very few at the pinnacle of their sport. Many will be overjoyed and reflecting on their dream-come-true performances, but others using the second half of their time in the Olympic village as an opportunity to forget the pain they feel after the disappointment of underachieving after four years of gruelling effort.
So how do we feel it went..?
A mixed bag. As a whole it was an incredible spectacle with unbelievable swims and some even better races. A very fast competition, as you’d hope for, with special World Records, surprise break-through winners and some under-par favourites. But let’s not forget, and we won’t spend long on it; the empty seats in the arena; the farcical lead up to the event with Russian swimmers allowed back into the competition; and 10,000 strong crowd booing whenever Yulia Efimova stood on deck. The medal ceremony for the women’s 100 breaststroke, in which Efimova received a Silver, was apparently delayed by 35 minutes to allow for the venue to empty and therefore limit the booing from the crowd. Not your usual Olympic Games.
It has been well publicised that Rio2016 has struggled to fill its sporting arenas and swimming was no different. It is really no surprise considering the over-priced tickets to a country who as a whole struggled in the first place to see the value of spending billions on an Olympics when a huge portion of the country is stricken with poverty.
Although some initial teething issues, there is no argument that the setting is simply breath-taking, but you can forgive a Brazilian favela dweller if they are not overly enthused to watch and support a Marathon that runs round the sleek $55million ‘Museum of Tomorrow’ on the water front. I can imagine they feel money could be better spent elsewhere. No doubt somebody made money out of it though.
Anyway – the swimming itself. It was brilliant. Fast, competitive, and full of drama.
We saw a new and different Michael Phelps. A relaxed and content man enjoying every moment with 18 Gold medals already banked from previous Olympiads. No surprise then that he was phenomenal throughout his fifth Olympics. At 31 in Rio, he added another five Golds and one Silver to his collection to end his career with a staggering 23 Golds and 28 medals. What Phelps has achieved in multiple events in Rio at his age should not be dismissed lightly. It was noticeable the great Ryan Lochte, a rival and friend to Phelps now turned 32, struggled to recover between heat and final to compete for Gold as he once used to. Phelps however was able to deal with 13 races through the 8 days, increasing his speed when it mattered to bring home the glory.
The G.O.A.T. finished on his own terms and was quite obviously emotional after some publicised mental health issues in recent years. We will unlikely see another like him.
Other special performances that need to be mentioned are the likes of Katie Ledecky with 4 Golds, 1 Silver and two World Records. Ledecky is now swimming times that have moved Women’s freestyle on to another level and performances that most men would be delighted with. Phelps himself is quite open to the fact that he would not be able to beat Katie over 800 metres or above.
Katinka Hosszu with 3 Golds, 1 Silver and one World Record was in imperious form. The ‘Iron lady’, although looked a little vulnerable at the end of the week when she was beaten by Maya Dirado on the last stroke of 200 Backstroke in one of the best races of the meet, swam a time in the 400 Individual Medley that many thought wasn’t possible for some time in the future (4.26.36).
Dirado in her first and last Olympics, as she plans to start a career in business, won two Golds, a Silver and a Bronze medal and could arguably be picked as one of the swimmers of the meet. What a way for the popular U.S. team member to bow out of the sport!
Simone Manuel had a dreamy eight days in the pool. Not tipped for medals in individual events before racing began, Manuel became the first African-American women to win an Olympic Gold in the pool and finished with an unprecedented two Gold and two Silver medals. At only 20 years old the American could become a real superstar of the sport.
It was a week of big performances from youngsters. The tall Canadian 16-year-old, Penny Oleksiak, took advantage of vulnerable favourites to win the 100 freestyle and finish second in the 100 Butterfly. She also helped the Canadian women’s team to an inspiring medal in both the 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relay events. A National hero with a bright future, she is now rubbing shoulders with Canadian superstars such as Drake, but let’s hope she has the maturity to deal with the limelight and continue her improvement.
On the Men’s side Joe Schooling at only 21 really dominated the field in the 100 butterfly, handsomely beating the likes of Phelps and Le Clos on his way to Gold. He looks to be the future of butterfly swimming and excitingly could be dipping under the 50-second-barrier very soon. There was also an enormous performance from 18-year-old Kyle Chalmers who won the 100 freestyle in a staggering 47.58. Still qualifying as a junior, the Australian showed impressive speed endurance to finish faster than the rest in the closing metres. For a sprint event that is associated with the largest and strongest of men, to win at so young was a momentous achievement.
Disregarding Chalmers, a 400m freestyle victory from Mack Horton, and the ladies in the 4×100 freestyle relay, what happened to the Australians?
The Campbell sisters. Cameron McEvoy. Mitch Larkin. Emily Seebohm.
These Australian stars all came in as defending World Champions or huge World leaders in their respective events and all severely under-performed. Others like James Magnussen, James Roberts, Jessica Ashwood, Emma McKeon (although she medalled in the 200 freestyle), and Georgia Bohl were all swimming slower than they had earlier in the year. Why?
It is a question that the Australian Federation will need to answer, but why are the Australian not peaking at the major championships?
Cate Campbell has the ability to swim far faster than the rest of the field. She swam a world record in the 100 freestyle just four weeks before the Games started, putting her 0.75 secs ahead of the rest of the World (a huge distance in a sprint event like this), but wasn’t able to replicate this in Rio. Why?
Campbell still swam the fastest relay splits of everyone throughout the Olympic meet, and looked controlled in the qualifying rounds in her individual races. But what happens to her when individual medals are at stake and it really matters? Under the pressure her long relaxed and languid stroke disappears. She seems to freeze, tighten up and fade badly at the end of the race. A similar thing happened at the World Championships in Kazan last year, a worrying psychological block for a swimmer with so much ability. Can she overcome this? A question now unfortunately that we and indeed Cate will be asking for some time to come.
Cameron McEvoy was flying in April. World leading times and a level above the rest. It was a similar case last Easter, but in recent years this hasn’t been translated to the summer? Why is that? No one remembers if you swim fast earlier in the year if you are not fast at the major championships.
Glenn Parks is the freestyler’s coach and they do use a variation of the Olbrecht system. It is a training model that is spreading and becoming more and more popular within the swimming community. Centred on individual and highly specific training loads, it is very different from the historical approach of high volume aerobic endurance based training. However, it is does seem hit and miss when it comes to taper, with the hits being huge gains and the misses being a long way off, with no middle ground. The Stirling training centre in Scotland use a similar method, and you can see from their four Olympians there was inconsistency. Duncan Scott made huge improvements and had the meet of his life, but Ross Murdoch, Craig Benson and Robbie Renwick were way off their best. It seems more of a gamble using this method of training. Certainly McEvoy could have been a little off his best and still have enough to win.
Double World Champions in the backstroke events from Kazan, and girlfriend and boyfriend, Emily Seebohm and Mitch Larkin were favourites to be victorious once again in Rio. Nevertheless both looked heavy, scrappy and struggling for their form last week. Larkin seemed to be able to deal a little better with the lack of form winning a Silver medal in 200 backstroke, but both were way down on what was expected of them.
With the number of swimmers slower than their best times for Australia, it seems unlikely that all are melting under the pressure of the Olympics or all of them got their individual tapers wrong. The only thing that all these swimmers would have had in common is the holding camp in the lead up to Rio and the Olympic village itself. Was there an issue there? Is there any link to the fact that the Australian track cycling team also under-performed in Rio, having gone into the Games with high expectations after a hugely successful World Championships earlier in the year?
On the other end of the spectrum, the British team swam and competed very well. Predicted to win 3-5 medals, #TeamGB came home with six medals started by Adam Peaty’s wondrous Gold in the 100 metres breaststroke. The earth-shattering time of 57.13 has moved the sport on 15 years, and should be remembered as one of THE athletic performances of the Rio Games.
It was the depth of the team that has really improved. Two medals from relays and seven 4th places is a significant step in the right direction, particularly as the majority of the team is very young. It is testament to the coaches who work every day with these swimmers who have turned them into these World Class athletes.
Bill Furniss and Chris Spice, the Head Coach and National Performance Director respectively, made some tough calls in selecting the team, none so more than the selection of Dan Wallace. The Scotsman was selected for the Games after a 7th in the 200 freestyle at Olympic Trials, but still got the nod to join the team to Rio. Wallace justified his selection and the faith that was awarded to him by winning a silver as part of the 4×200 relay team and subsequently made the 200 IM final. A controversial decision that the management team got right.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the handling of Craig Benson’s selection. Benson who qualified correctly for the 200m breaststroke, had his selection questioned by the media after Ross Murdoch swam well (still slower than British No.1 Andrew Willis) at the European Championships a short time after the trials. The media called for Murdoch to take the place of Benson in this event even though Murdoch didn’t perform when it mattered at trials, showing a lack of respect for Benson. It was disappointing not to hear from Furniss and Spice early on this, to quash the talk, and show leadership and support of the swimmer who had quite rightly qualified the same as everyone else. Benson’s preparation would have undoubtedly be highly affected by this media speculation, and he performed off his best in Rio. The Scottish two-time Olympian just scraped into the semi-final and could now miss out on the same level of funding.
The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of our sport, where the best athletes swim at their peak, to perform faster than those before them, and to inspire the next generation of swimmers taking on the sport. Rio2016 delivered in that respect, and although it has had some issues along the way, it should always be remembered for that.
Whilst you have been reading this the athletes are still celebrating (some more than others if you are an American quartet) before they reflect on Rio2016 and plan what their future holds for the next Olympiad. Many will retire, some will take a long break, others will cash in on their success and new-found fame, and some will go straight back to the grind.
One thing is for sure, straight away focus turns now towards Tokyo2020 and who will be the next set of champions to make their dreams come true.