One hundredth of a second
Milt Nelms and US gold medalist Dana Vollmer
In swimming, the difference between ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ is maddeningly small. Australian James Magnussen knows this only too well. One of his country's main gold medal hopes for London 2012, he was beaten into second place by a single hundredth of a second in the final of the 100m Men’s Freestyle. Subsequently thrashed and humiliated by the press, his silver medal was largely dismissed as a badge of failure. (Click here to read one of many brutal articles.)
If I have learned anything from this research project, it is that the principle battle for elite swimmers is not the early mornings but unlocking that elusive split second. This tiny segment of time is the enemy within, hiding somewhere within the athlete’s body or soul. This potential for ‘weakness’ doesn’t have a face, shape or clear root cause. But it is an obsession for athletes and sports scientists alike – and perhaps explains why some sacrifice their integrity for performance enhancing drugs.
Perfectionism is certainly a recurring theme both in the sports autobiographies that I have read and in my conversations with athletes. Shadowing Milt Nelm’s camp in Tasmania, it was clear to me that swimmers are drawn to his unconventional practice because he totally unpacks the idea of control in the water – be that physical, mental or emotional - in a way that feels refreshing and life affirming.
It's a far cry from pool sessions with their regular coaches. It is also thousands of miles away from their peers and the mounting stress of Olympic trials . Training with Milt takes place in the Tasman Sea in all weathers with towering waves and driving rain. Even on a clear day this is a mercurial body of water, brimming with powerful rips and swells that can change at any moment. It forces the athletes – some of the most competent swimmers in the world - out of their comfort zone because sea swimming (in choppy Aussie waters at least) demands a unique mental skill set.
Milt is incredibly sensitive to each swimmer’s individual command of the water on any given day. He calls them out of the sea frequently to give them notes. Each time they emerge, the athletes must analyse and re-appropriate their learning from the session’s swim in race terms. They claim it is the closest simulation to the intensity of a big competition. Ultimately, they must confront the unexpected in the sea, they must roll with the punches (and the seaweed and the fish) and they must get themselves out of tricky situations. It is emotionally demanding but it can also be fun. Some days, the priority is simply to catch a wave and experience the sensation of swimming faster than their bodies are capable of. Interestingly, whilst we frequently talked about performance and speed during the camp, I noted we rarely talked about the concept of ‘winning’ or ‘beating’ another person.
Milt Nelms and Hong Kong's Camille Cheng
However, the split-second horror story – as experienced by James Magnussen – is a great driving force. There is an absolute belief amongst these swimmers that every muscle fibre counts, that if they can awaken these ‘forgotten’ fragments in their bodies it will improve performance. They interrogate the differences in moving a shoulder, for instance, a fraction one way or the other. They experiment with this same movement in the open ocean, in a tiny hotel swimming pool and on land. They also spend a great deal of time refining their balance and poise, both in and out of the water. They film each another performing cartwheels and handstands on the beach. They then review every single step critically as a group to help one another improve their flow, efficiency and, interestingly enough, aesthetic.
US gold medalist Dana Vollmer, US bronze medalist Caitlin Leverenz and ex Stanford swimmer Andy Grant
These physical exercises remind me of the ‘kinematics’ theory pioneered by toga-clad movement guru Raymond Duncan in the early 20th century. His sister, Isadora Duncan, a dancer who also moved away from ballet to a craftsmanship of what she deemed ‘natural’ movement, was a passionate advocate of the beauty of athleticism and the various qualities that can be applied to skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing objects. She also did a lot of work on the beach and in the sea (click here for images).
Certainly the grace of Olympic gold medallist Dana Vollmer’s butterfly stroke is as visually absorbing as dance. Dana has worked with Milt for several years now but, such is her belief in the physical and psychological benefits of this holistic approach, she now includes sessions with a physical therapist within her regular training regime back in the US. To me - an individual as stiff as a board - she is as lithe and supple as a gymnast. It's certainly hard to believe that she had a baby only 12 months ago.
US gold medalist Dana Vollmer
I am struck by the complex intricacy of it all. For the sports audience, the minimalism of swimming is profound in its simplicity. With each event over in a thrilling flash, there’s no time for the tactics that sustains legions of tennis, cycling and football fans around the world: you dive in, you swim fast and, if you touch the wall first, you win. But it’s all there, the tactics, the game plan, the frustration and ambition, hidden deep inside the heads and hearts of the swimmers as they take on their chief rival - themselves.