The Training and Development of Alicia Coutts

Alicia Coutts was the Australian darling of the Olympics in London winning five medals; gold in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, silver in the 200 IM, 4 x 100 medley relay and 4 x 200 freestyle relay and bronze in the 100 butterfly. This accomplishment equaled the accomplishments of two other Australian greats, Ian Thorpe and Shane Gould, of winning five medals at one Olympic Games.

Coutts has trained at the Australian Institute of Sport for the past six years with coach John Fowlie. SwimSwam recently had a conversation with Fowlie (the first part of the conversation can be found here) and discussed the development and training of Coutts over the past six years.

When asked about how Coutts has changed since he started coaching Fowlie did not just touch on her maturation, but also referenced the challenge of keeping young adults in the sport, “I think that the biggest thing for her is just her maturity,” said Fowlie.

“I think in swimming, specifically swimming in Australia, is getting swimmers through to their mid twenties. I think that is really one of the standout things with the US team at this Olympics, which was how many medalists they had over the age of 25. When you go through and break it up, especially if you take out the outliers, I think the average male medalist was 24 and I think with women it was 22 or something like that.”

“Her development, it has been allowing her over time to mature. She is stable, she is happy, she is engaged, she owns a house, she has just goes from strength to strength over the years, but the foundation has just been the honesty.”

“I have watched this girl do some incredible things in training, you always know that she is going to give you her best effort. She is an incredibly hard worker.”

“Honesty with me as a coach and realizing that we are in it for the same reason. I have watched this girl do some incredible things in training, you always know that she is going to give you her best effort. She is an incredibly hard worker.”

One of the biggest advantages that he feels that he has coaching Coutts is the strength of their long standing relationship, that it is not about immediate success, but about looking out for her best interests long term, “The big thing is always looking long term with somebody. Looking towards the Olympics and a number years, never cutting off your nose despite your face.

“I guess it (their relationship) has really changed and molded over the years. It is kind of hard to describe. It goes back to the honesty and that you have two people on the same wavelength. I think when we look around the world and you look at great swimmers it is a swimmer coach relationship, there is plenty of examples of athletes that move to another coach and that coach can be a great coach and have had many great swimmers before, but sometimes if that connection isn’t there it just won’t work.”

After mentioning some of the things that have impressed him in her training Fowlie shared some of the things they are focusing on at the moment, “One of the ones we are going after now in secret, is in training trying to break the world record in the 100 IM short course. We are kind of doing that as our weekly Friday night challenge. She will throw on her suit and get up and do that. We have been able to manage to knock off the Australian and Commonwealth record, but we are about .4 off the world record, but we are working at it. Than it is just a matter of trying to find a short course meet.”

“You can just see the people that really push themselves and get absolutely everything out of themselves and I think one of the interesting things about this preparation has been swimming into the other strokes more.”

One aspect of their preparation since the Olympics has been finding competitions where she can swim more events to not only develop toughness and physical attributes that come with that challenge, but to also put her in a position to have success in the individual stroke events, “I think at New South Wales she did something like 12 races in three days. I am starting to get a good picture in my head of what she is capable of in those other strokes and what it takes exactly to go 2:08 in the 200 IM. I think right now her best times are 56.8 in the fly, 1:01 in the backstroke, 1:09 in the breaststroke and 53 in the 100 freestyle.”I think that one of the things is you just can’t have a weakness anymore. I think the women’s medley is getting so fast, it is exactly that, the top girls that are in the top eight just can’t have a weak leg anymore.”

“One of the things about swimming the other strokes starting in this preparation is that we got some easy wins, she won the 50 backstroke in the Victorian state and got a huge pb in it and for her it wasn’t an easy win in a competition sense, but in a motivational sense.”

“She got a huge thrill out of that and challenging herself in other events. I think at trials she had medaled in every single 50 except for the 50 freestyle and going into the last night one of the sub goals we had was trying to see if she could pick off a medal in every single 50.”

“I mean the hardest thing with medley swimmers is they just can’t do any junk miles,” explained Fowlie. “If they are swimming poor technique in something you are ruining one of the strokes, so I think it is really quite difficult.”

When having the challenge of putting together a program that develops strengths in all four strokes Fowlie talks about the need to have a focus on quality training in the water and being effective in the way they add dryland training into their schedule, “I mean the hardest thing with medley swimmers is they just can’t do any junk miles,” explained Fowlie. “If they are swimming poor technique in something you are ruining one of the strokes, so I think it is really quite difficult.”

Her training schedule in the water is 10 pool sessions a week, doubles everyday except for Wednesdays and Saturdays, that is then supplemented with dryland training.

“We probably make up the mileage through running and skipping so she doesn’t necessarily train big volume. We probably sit at 40-55 km a week, depending on if it’s a recovery week or a heavy week, very rarely will we get up over 55. I don’t think we did (get over 55 km) the whole year leading into the Olympics, but she will supplement that with running three times a week and skipping every afternoon.”

“She will do weights three times a week and than we do a standard 200 abs before every session as well as two pilates sessions. So it ends up being pretty full days.”

An example of her Tuesday training would be as follows; a half hour on land before getting started then swim for two hours, she will then go for a 6 km run right after and lift weights. The morning sessions goes from 7 am-11 am in the morning. They then come back in the afternoon where she has a session of pilates and another session in the water.

When looking at the development and the progression of Coutts’ training program this another factor where Fowlie feels the strength and consistency of their athlete coach relationship is once again extremely important, “Going back to swimmer coach relationship and spending time together, I remember seeing one of the programs of Cameron Van de Burgh, it was an enormous amount of work that had been built into his week, I think the key with that is that it is time with the coach.”

“She hasn’t always ran, but we added that in 2010. I think if anybody would come in and try to do what she does without having that background and it would probably kill them. The next year we added pilates, the next year we added skipping, as you just add layer and layer upon layer the more work they can cope with it.”

“I think when you look around and see some of the work that these top, top athletes do it is probably more a byproduct of the time they have spent in a program with a coach.”

“Doing a half hour run three times a week isn’t very hard if you do it every week for two years, now the running is not hard for her it is just something that is there. It is like doing 200 abs before training, sure the first couple of weeks it is hard, but if you do it all the time you get used to it.”

For any elite athlete recovery is of the utmost importance, not only physical, but mental. Fowlie feels one of the things that allows Coutts to recover mentally is through her work with the RSPCA, “That is where also working at the RSPCA has worked out well for her, because they are very flexible. They will let her come in and do a three hour shift or a two hour shift depending on how training goes. They are really accomdating and a great support for her as well.”

“She will come into training and she is not even talking about training, she will be talking about what happened at work today with this cat or she will have cat scratches all up her arms. She is such a caring person, I think she has already herself adopted three animals from the shelter she’s got like two rabbits, a cat, a dog, you know any animal that is there that can’t find a home she takes in.”

“I think we will have to find a bigger backyard at some point,” Fowlie said with a laugh

“For myself if I have an idea or I am thinking about something, being able to talk to other Olympic level coaches on a daily basis is probably the biggest advantage that we have.”

When reflecting on the benefits of working out of the Australian Institute of Sport Fowlie points out many, with the biggest being the environment that is there to support and assist him as a coach, “I think without a doubt the biggest thing that we have, the biggest resource has been the coaches we have around. It is really amazing environment to work in, there is nothing like being on deck with Shannon Rollason and Tracy Menzie, both have Olympic gold medals.”

“For myself if I have an idea or I am thinking about something, being able to talk to other Olympic level coaches on a daily basis is probably the biggest advantage that we have.”

“It is stimulus from watching other coaches and their ideas.”

Another advantage for a coach is the access to an incredible staff of sports scientists, “One of the other things without a doubt the support staff,” explained Fowlie.

“I think one of the thing with coaches is that it is not that you have to be an expert in every area, but just being able to talk and work with the sport scientists, the biomechanists and nutritionists. It is about trying to create an environment where support staff are helping to drive things as well.”

From an athletes point of view the AIS provides them with an environment that is about one things, high performance, “With the environment there is an expectation of the athletes, you are walking into a truly professional environment it is not an age group program it is a high performance program in every sense of it.”

When it comes down to how Fowlie looks at the development of his star pupil it is all about longevity, “Longevity; in my head that is the one word that has been ringing on how to deal with Alicia and how to coach.”

“I listen to North American sports radio quite a bit, when you listen to North Americans talk about their sports it is from a longevity point of view. Talking about 11 time allstars, nine time scoring champions and six championships versus five championships, they are always talking about a body of work, so in my head I have just been longevity and body of work.”

“At the end of it you can judge her on her body of work, not that last competition. If you draw a parallel to musicians every band puts out a bad album, but eventually at the end of it you look at their body of work.”


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8 years ago


8 years ago

Another Australian that also won 5 medals in one olympics: Shane Gould.

In fact, she is still the only female swimmer ever to win 5 individual medals in one olympics.

Katie Hoff attempted the same feat it in 2008, we all know how it turned out.

Lane Four
Reply to  aswimfan
8 years ago

Sorry, I posted down below and didn’t see ASWIMFAN’S already mentioning the great Shane Gould. I apologize.

Philip Johnson
8 years ago

She won a silver in the 400 free and bronze in the 400 IM and 4×200 relay. She placed 4th in the 200 free and the 200 IM, and didn’t advance past the 800 free prelims.

Alright so she didn’t win any individual gold medals, but was her performance bad? You make it sound like it was a full blown failure. And remember Coutts was aided with three relay medals and Hoff one. On an individual basis, they’re equal.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
8 years ago

You speak as though the relays were free medals, Coutts just had to write her name down and then collect them. She swam absolutely exceptionally in them, and was an integral part of them.

That said, people are way too hard on Katie Hoff. I also think she bit off more than she could chew, but she should be commended for having the guts to try.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
8 years ago

I didn’t say Hoff’s 2008 was bad or intend to portray that it was.

I guess only extremely few swimmers are able to swim 5 individual events successfully. Or I should say only 2 swimmers have done it: Gould and Phelps.

In hindsight, we don’t know what would have happened if Hoff only swam 200/400 Im and 400 free.Maybe a better result or maybe not.

8 years ago

Swim for 2 hours, 6km run, then lift, then a few hours later come back and do Pilates, then swim again?! In the same day? Nuts.

Lane Four
8 years ago

The author forgot to mention Shane Gould as the other Australian to win five medals at one Olympic Games – three gold, one silver and one bronze. The huge difference is that Shane’s medals were all individual which is a record unto itself.

Reply to  Lane Four
8 years ago

Also, he mentioned Dawn Fraser as winning 5 medals at a single Olympic games. This information is false. The most Dawn ever won at a single games was 3, Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960.

8 years ago

Just to clarify, skipping is how Commonwealth countries refer to jumping rope. They’re not talking about the tralalalala half-trot skipping we did as kids in place of walking or running.

8 years ago

Can’t wait to see Coutts perform in Barcelona. She is a true asset to the Australian swim team. If I’m right, she will be entered in 5 individual events at Worlds. She will swim 3 50m events – fly, breast and back, plus the 100m fly and 200m IM. She will no doubt earn a spot on the 4x100M free relay, anchor leg I believe, the fly leg on the Medley relay and I hold out on hope that she will be used as a middle swimmer or anchor for the 4x200m free relay.

8 years ago

2-3 other same day events will wear ANYONE’s improvements down, especially given Alicia’s “Normal…VERY attractive Normal” physical stature. To see the “improved swimmer” in quality…you’ve got to make a choice, quality or quantity. Doing both isn’t possible, given the competition…I don’t care what regimen you’re in..or what “title” or so-called “credentials” you have as a coach.

About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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