The National Training Center of Danish Swimming isn’t quite as real as it sounds. There is no building in the country emblazoned with the words “National Training Center”. Instead, there are some lanes set aside in the Bellahøj Swimming Stadium, one of the newest and best (a very relative term) facilities in all of Denmark, tucked into the working class neighborhood of Brønshøj-Husum. The National Training Center previously operated out in the suburbs, another one of the best (seriously, a relative term) facilities, but they moved into Copenhagen several years ago.
Besides the pool, there is a gym, if you can call a 20 sqm2 room with a few bars and machines a gym. This is not the image one conjures when one thinks of a “National Training Center”. You do not picture the coaches politely asking recreational swimmers if they could shift over a few lanes so that the most accomplished athletes the country has to offer can begin their practice. I had the opportunity to visit the NTC, as they call it, a couple weeks ago. I had been there several times before- an opportunity for improving my own coaching skills. So I found myself pondering how such fantastic swimming results are produced in such modest environs.
Before anyone guesses that I am being overdramatic, let me assure you that swimmers have certainly trained in worse. The pool itself tells the story of swimming’s place in Denmark. Denmark’s greatest strength and weakness are its facilities. There are public facilities everywhere, including more than a few new ones, and more 50m pools than a country of 5 million should rightfully have. However, the “public” part is crucial to understanding that every swimming pool in the country must be shared in some shape or fashion with the “wet-suit even though I’m training in a heated pool” and “middle-aged woman swimming breaststroke who will freak out if her hair gets wet” crowd. As it is, the “home of the NTC” is also used by two Danish swimming clubs, a masters team unaffiliated with either, and the greater public. The construction of the pool also tells a frustrating story. of a “new” facility that most certainly would have been state-of-the-art, were it the 1980s. 50 meters long but not 25m across, and with just five 25 meter lanes available for swim down when a long course meet is held there, this is the best competition facility available in the country.
The pool is a reminder that facilities are great, yes, and everyone save a few would like a better one, but they are far from what makes for champion swimming. People are the most important infrastructure in life. It’s quite interesting that, for example, universities in the US spend upwards of 30 million dollars to build gleaming swimming pools and then fill them with coaches who will never come close to making that sum over their career. People, in this case the swimmers and coaches inhabiting this NTC, are the reason Denmark punches infinitely above their weight on the world stage in swimming. They may have a cheap facility, but they’ve stocked it with the right people.
Having the right people has meant amazing success for a country that had seemingly already “peaked” over the last few years. In the eighteen months of the current regime, Denmark has won four medals at the World Championships, eighteen at European Championships, and broken a world record. The momentum created by all that success is obvious and palpable, with many observers eyeing Rio as the true “breakout” for Danish Swimming.
Still, the replacement of Shannon Rollason at this awkward time in the Olympic cycle is more paradoxical than it seems. Although on the outside the thought of coaching Jeanette Ottesen, Rikke Møller Pedersen et al looks like a plum job, many prospective candidates have to ask themselves if they can do any better than Rollason has over the last eighteen months. No one wants to buy stock at its peak and it’s hard to imagine this group’s stock any higher.