LESSONS FROM LEGENDS: Great Individual Transformations
There are many swimmers that struggle to repeat their performance from the Olympic Trials at the Olympic Games and even fewer that exceed it. Occasionally someone makes an amazing improvement that shocks the swimming world.
A good example of a great improvement during the last forty years is Mike Burton’s transformation from the 1972 Trials to the Munich Games. Burton had won the 400 and 1500 freestyles in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. After graduating from UCLA in 1970 he went against the norm and continued to train and compete. At the 1972 Olympic Trials he failed to make the Olympic Team in two of his specialties, the 200-meter butterfly and the 400 freestyle. On the next to last day he slipped into the last spot in the finals of the 1500 when he placed eighth in the preliminaries. In the finals he managed a third place finish and earned a spot of the 1972 Olympic Team.
Rick DeMont was failed by the USA medical staff so badly at the Munich Games. On the night of the 1500 finals, DeMont, the world record holder in the mile, was pulled from the ready room when officials discovered that the medical staff had failed to help him correctly acknowledge his asthma medication on his drug disclosure documents. The mistake cost the sixteen year old his gold medal in the 400 freestyle. With DeMont disqualified Burton stepped to center stage for the USA. He raced to an early lead in the 1500 over Australian Graham Windeatt, relinquished the lead at about 800 meters then surged back in front to win the gold medal. Burton improved his Trials time by eight seconds and broke DeMont’s world record with a time of 15:52.58.
12-year-old Bobby Hackett watched Burton on television in his home in Yonkers, NY. Four years later Hackett used nearly the identical race strategy to upset Australian Stephen Holland and post the fastest time for a 16 and younger swimmer in US history for the 1500 of 15;03.9, an improvement of 9 seconds over his Trials time. Bob’s national age-group record still stands 36 years later.
Performances like Burton’s in 1972 and winning the mile at the 1970 NCAAs with a torn knee joint earned him the appropriate nickname, “Iron Mike.”
Misty Hyman’s transformation from Trials was even more incredible in 2000 at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Misty grew up in Arizona under the tutelage of Coach Bob Gillett and developed a great underwater dolphin kick. She used it to travel further than 15 meters underwater, even in the 200-meter butterfly. In 1998, ten years after they changed the backstroke rule, the same wisdom that put an end to the “Berkoff Blast” created the same rule that a swimmer in butterfly that limited underwater dolphin kicking to 15 meters. But at the 1996 Olympic Trials Misty travelled further than 15 meters and nearly made the USA Olympic Team at just 15 years old. She finished third in both butterfly events.
Four years later Misty made the US Olympic Team with a time of 2:09.3 at the Olympic Trials. Her coach at Stanford and at the Trials was the late Richard Quick. Richard recognized Misty’s love of the underwater dolphin kicking but thought it was hurting her endurance for 200 meters. After the Trials he told her that she had to subtract 2-3 kicks off the approximately 9 kicks off of her turns from that she had made a habit of using. Richard told her that either she would make the change or he wouldn’t coach her during the training camp. Misty agreed to the adjustment and they went to work preparing for Sydney.
During the camp they swam a set of (something like) 2 x 10 x 50s on 1:10 long course in which Misty had to drop 5 seconds off the interval on every two swims. (So number 1-2 might have been on 1:10, 3-4 on 1:05, etc.) Richard loved sets like that. Misty swam 31-30 seconds on each 50. Coaches in the camp remember the amazing set and National Team Director is quoted to have told her afterward, “When I coached Mary T Meagher she could never do that.” Mary T had held the 200 fly world record of 2:05.96 since 1981…until Australian Suzie O’Neil recently broke it at the 2000 Australian Trials swimming a time of 2:05.81.
The reduction of dolphin kicks and training worked well and at the Games. Misty swam a 2:07.8 in preliminaries and qualified for the semi-finals. In the semi-finals she swam a bit slower at 2:07.9 and Coach Quick felt she tried a little too hard. He was concerned that her history of struggling to swim as relaxed and fast in the finals as she did in preliminaries might repeat itself in the finals the next night.
Richard addressed the fact that Misty seemed to let her circumstances affect her emotions rather than maintaining what he called the ability to maintain “an original emotional state.” It came to the coach’s attention that teammate Dara Torres’ will had dominated Misty’s by making herself a priority on the massage table on Misty’s race day. After Richard had spoken with Misty about taking control of her circumstances in her post race massage, Dara reported back to Richard, “I think Misty’s going to swim well tomorrow. She just told me to get off the massage table with the therapist she wanted. She told me it was her race day, not mine.”
The next night Misty Hyman not only faced her own emotions, but world record holder Susie O’Neil with the Australian home crowd behind her. Susie had won the event at the 1996 Games and dominated it for four years. Misty Hyman limited her dolphin kicks to 6-8 off of the start and turns. She swam a relaxed but fast first 100 of 59.9 and held the lead.
Misty’s breakouts with her face down captured and sustained momentum from her underwater dolphin kicks. Susie was closing in furiously on the third length, the crowd was urging her on, but Misty continued to lead at the final turn. Coach Quick stated that, “Coming off the final turn Susie O’Neil’s priority was air. Misty Hyman’s was speed.” With 37 meters remaining in the race, Misty put her face down on her first stroke, took the momentum from her kicks and held on to win in the time of 2:05.88. Susie O’Neil was second in 2:06.58.
Anyone that saw Misty Hyman’s face afterward will likely never forget it. She was thrilled and stunned all in the same moment at her amazing 3.5 second improvement from the Olympic Trials. Misty Hyman’s example of training fast in the Olympic Training Camp, making appropriate mental adjustments and performing in her “original [calm] state” are great ones for anyone to learn from.
…The other night in the Yankees-Angels Baseball Game there was a critical eighth inning strategy decision to be made by the Angels. With the go ahead run in scoring position and two outs Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay and former all-star Paul O’Neil argued back and forth about the merits of the Angels walking Raul Ibanez to pitch to the slumping Russell Martin instead (batting about .173). O’Neil insisted that you don’t want to pitch to Martin because 1) he’s overdue for a big hit 2) O’Neil explained, “because of the importance of this moment Martin will be focused ONLY on what he wants to do (get a hit to win the game) not on all those details he’s been working on to correct his hitting.” O’Neil went on to say, “that is how slumps end.” The Angels walked Ibanez. Martin made O’Neil look prophetic when he lined a single into right field to drive in what proved to be the winning run. In the top of the ninth inning the Angels tried a daring steal of second base with two outs. Martin, the Yankee catcher, fired a perfect throw to Derek Jeter…game over…Yankees win.
…Winners see what they want, losers see what they want to avoid…in sports, in the Olympics and in life.
Next week: Do you believe in miracles!?! The greatest collective Olympic swimming performance in the last fifty years…and why.
Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go towww.areteswim.com and access “Books/Media.”