Sets of Champions: Broken 1500s with Erik Vendt

Distance swimmers put in the work.

There is a certain pride in being a member of the Animal Lane, where the workouts are longer and the yardage out-paces what most people drive in a week.

Few swimmers in recent years personified the relentless work ethic necessary to conquer the distance events than American Erik Vendt.

While Vendt’s accomplishments in competition were storied, it was the appetite for hard work that was particularly noteworthy. Michael Phelps, in his 2009 auto-biography “No Limits”, detailed just how driven and competitive Vendt was in the pool.

“If I was willing to work hard in practice, Erik had perhaps an even greater appetite for it,” Phelps said of his Club Wolverine teammate. “If, on a scale of one to 10, I was now turning in consistent eights at practice, very few sinking to a two, rising every now and then to a 10, Erik was maybe a nine each and every day. I had, and still have, never seen anyone work out so hard and be so competitive, both in workouts and in the racing itself.”

Vendt’s work ethic resulted in some epic performances in competition:

  • In 2000, at the US Olympic Trials, Vendt would break the 1500m freestyle American record, which had stood for 16 years.
  • He was the first ever American to dip below the 15 minute mark in the mile.
  • Later that year, he would win silver at the Sydney Olympics in the 400m individual medley behind world record holder Tom Dolan.
  • He would win silver again in the 400m individual medley four years later at the Athens Olympics, this time behind Michael Phelps.
  • At the 2002 US Nationals, Phelps and Vendt would duel in the 400m individual medley in a hard-fought battle that saw both swimmers dip under Dolan’s world record.
  • He posted the world’s fastest time in the 1500m freestyle (14:46.78) in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics (but would place fourth at trials).
  • He would pick up a gold medal in Beijing as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay.

Training with Erik Vendt

The following distance swimming workout was done in June of 2007, while Vendt was training at the University of Michigan under Bob Bowman and Jon Urbanchek. At the time, Vendt had considerable endurance, with Bowman noting he “has enough endurance right now to swim the English Channel twice.”

The focus for Vendt was developing the speed to be able to get out fast and maintain that speed in order to challenge Hackett.

The below advanced swim workout was typical on his training during the summer of 2007. It was done in long course meters. Some neat-o things that stick out include Vendt’s incredible kicking speed. The main set is a round of broken 1500s on descending intervals.

Warm up

  • 1200 as 3x [200 free breathe alternating sides by 50 + 200 IM drill]


  • 400 cruise @8:00
  • 6×100 best average @1:45 (Vendt averaged 1:14.8)


  • 2x [200 IM drill @3:30 + 4×50 free Fast/Easy @1:00]

Main set

  • 5×300 @3:50 (avg: 3:22)
  • 5×300 @3:40 (avg: 3:19)
  • 5×300 @3:30 (avg: 3:11, last one 3:05)


  • 600 with snorkel as 4x [50 free, 50 kick with arms at side, 50 breaststroke]


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

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Stephen Ostapower
1 year ago

I started coaching Erik shortly after his 9th birthday. Like most young boys at that time, his swimming idols were the great sprinters, Matt Biondi and Tom Jager.  Erik was younger than all of his lane mates at practice and would get frustrated when the older kids could outperform him in sprints. He worked exceptionally hard at practice and usually led the lane, except for sprints. Knowing that Tom Jager previously held the 11-12 age group record for the 1500 free, I saw a “motivational opportunity” and used it to convince Erik to focus on distance events, at least until he got older when he could change to sprint training. Sneaky coach? Yeah, but it paid big dividends. Erik’s first memorable set with me happened only… Read more »

Sam B
2 years ago

Willimowsky is 5’8″ and went 14:40.86 in Rio. I think he pretty much won the century if we extrapolated it to Paltrinieri’s size

Reply to  Sam B
2 years ago

Jordan was 14:45 in Rio

2 years ago

I know that set is crazy and all but do those times seem…not that insane? Like they’re great but I’ve definitely heard way more impressive distance set feats

Stephen Ostapower
Reply to  Klorn8d
1 year ago

“Erik. It’s not how much you swim, but how you swim that matters.” –Georg Reider (German boy who was a teammate/lane mate of Erik’s while age groupers.)

I know that the article is partially addressing how tough Erik was when practicing, but rest/recovery intervals coupled with “how you swim” will address a set’s physiological objectives as much as distance(s). This is even more important as swimmers get older and their capacity for recovery decreases. Recovery intervals are critical. During Erik’s age group years we had a manga-like handout to help kids understand the physiology of their training–and Erik was a bright little boy who quickly learned all of this. The missing elements when viewing sample practice sessions like this one are,… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen Ostapower
2 years ago

It blows me away that Brian Goodell went 15:02 in 1976, and then it took 24 years for an American to break 15

Stephen Ostapower
Reply to  DMacNCheez
1 year ago

That would not have been the case if we hadn’t boycotted the 1980 Olympics and we were robbed of the century, Salnikov vs. Goodell in Moscow.

3 years ago

30 x 1,000 averaging under 10 minutes, folks. Ate a granola bar 2/3rds of the way through.

3 years ago

Katie could probably hang with those 300 times

Reply to  Yolo
2 years ago

Didn’t she go 3:03 on a 300 on Practice and Pancakes? One of the most amazing things I’ve seen

Reply to  Peter
2 years ago

3 @ 3:30, and she went 3:09, 3:06, 3:03. Probably the craziest feat of training I’ve ever watched.

3 years ago

Absolute swimming legend, was gutted when he went 15.07 in 2008 trials after his 14.50 heat swim. Was rooting for him to win 1500 in Beijing.
Gave hope to average athletes who made the decision that ‘I can out work anyone, that is in my control’ when other athletes succumbed to the fact they are smaller or not as technically gifted or genetically gifted.
Right there with Tom Dolan / Kieran Perkins in terms of insane work ethic.

Honest Observer
Reply to  Skoorbnagol
3 years ago

Agree with everything you say, and it’s true, Vendt was only 5′ 9″ or so; it’s also true that his work ethic was legendary, and he was a tough as nails competitor. But “genetically gifted” comes in different forms. Vendt obviously had a much stronger constitution than most: his heart, spleen, liver, kidneys, etc, were simply better at producing energy and at helping him recover. Plus, he was jacked. If most swimmers attempted some of the workouts he did (he reportedly had 30k yard days) it would, at best, wear them down to a crisp; and at worst, it would result in injury or even hospitalization.

Reply to  Honest Observer
3 years ago

Vendt’s stroke technique was also impeccable and amazingly efficient. The dude was naturally gifted, just not tall.

Reply to  Honest Observer
3 years ago

Vendt was actually 5’11”. He just looked shorter when competing against swimmers at that level. To put things in perspective, I remember watching a meet where Vendt got 1st and Vanderkaay 2nd. At the ceremony, even though Vendt was on the highest podium, Vanderkaay stood taller than him from 2nd place.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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