Introducing Milt Nelms : the Olympian's secret weapon
Pictured: coach Milt Nelms and former Australian Olympian Shane Gould.
This is a missive from the edge of the earth - at the point where you fall off the end: I am in Bicheno, Tasmania. I’m here to shadow the work of swimming coach Milt Nelms in order to help me develop CONTENDER, a brand new play about the inherent drama of elite sport. Alongside ex British swimmer Caitlin McClatchey and Professor Greg Whyte OBE, whose work I detailed in my previous post, Milt is a Lead Collaborator on the project.
Because it’s pretty far away, I’ve had a considerable journey to get here. Flying from London to Sydney, I then had catch another plane to Hobart in Tasmania. From here I undertook a three hour journey along the state’s so-called Great Eastern Drive in a hired Hyundai through a landscape that is part Jurassic Park, part Scottish Highlands. I caught Sydney Theatre Company’s Golden Age during my brief stopover, all about an estranged convict tribe found in the Tassie wilderness at the turn of the last century. This incident no longer seems as implausible as it did in the auditorium a few days ago.
So, who is Milt Nelms? Why have I made this journey? An American living in Australia, Milt has been described to me as the ‘horse whisperer’ of aquatic sport, unlocking the hidden potential in elite swimmers. He has worked with Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe, as well as American Olympic medallists Dana Vollmer (not one but 4 gold medals) and Natalie Coughlin (a mere 12 medals)* and more big names besides. Widely acknowledged for his innovations in swimming technique and stroke design, Milt is also the co-founder of the Swedish Centre for Aquatic Research. His wife is Shane Gould MBE, a former Australian Olympian who is much honoured in Australia and around the world after winning five Olympic medals in the 1972 Munich games.
After a great deal of correspondence, I finally met Milt and Shane in January at the World Aquatic Development Conference in Sweden. Now I’m observing Milt’s process as he trains Olympic hopefuls for Rio 2016 in his adopted home of Bicheno, the unlikeliest of places. It’s not a town, as I originally thought, but an obscure hamlet on the Tasmanian coast. There is no WIFI. There are, however, white sand beaches, dolphins in the sea and nightly penguin tours (Bicheno is ‘famous’ for miniature Fairy Penguins). There appear to be more animals than people, actually. So far a deer, a wombat and a wallaby have jumped in front of my car and a horrifyingly large Huntsman spider has graced my bedroom wall.
But I’m lucky to be working with Milt on his home turf in Australia - such is the demand for his expertise, he constantly travels the world to work with both individual swimmers and national teams. Later today elite swimmers hoping to represent America, Hong Kong and Japan will arrive in Bicheno to train with him. They include medallist Dana Vollmer, who I mention above, now returning to competition following the birth of her first child (hopefully Jessica Ennis style). The stakes for these athletes is high. This is an Olympic year and the trials for their respective countries are only a few short months away. Tomorrow, they will begin an unconventional four week training camp, working largely in the ocean and on the beach, that they hope will push their performances forward at this crucial time.
* Milt's role is to provide supplementary coaching through focused camps at the request of Dana’s current coach, and Natalie’s former coach, USA Women’s Olympic head coach for London 2012, Teri McKeever.