Tis The Season…For Tough Stuff

  30 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | December 25th, 2012 | National, News, Training

Chuck Warner, author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Lessons from Legends

Winter break training can be used as a time to build confidence and courage, for those willing to tackle difficult challenges. If you’re looking for ideas for long workouts, just do a goggle search of “toughest swim practice” and some amazing examples will pop up. But the results that every swimmer, coach and parent are looking for are at the end of the season, or even more appropriately, at the end of a swimmer’s career.

Here are a few a few examples of some tough stuff, and the performances they led to.

At the DeAnza (now DACA) Swim-A-Thon in the fall of 1975, Mike Bruner swam 10,000-yards instead of the normal 5,000 yard format. He held a time of under one minute on his average for each one hundred yards and swam the time of 9:40.3 on his last 1000. The next summer at the Montreal Olympic Games, Mike was the first gold medal winner in swimming when he won the 200-meter butterfly.

Bruner’s feat is what inspired Bobby Hackett to tackle 100 x 100-yards on 1:00. After Bobby first succeeded at it in December of 1975, he completed it several more times. At the Montreal Olympics Hackett improved his 1500 nearly 30 seconds from the previous year. He won a silver medal and set a 15-16 year old NAG that still stands today.

Hackett’s 100 x 100s encouraged Coach Sharon Power to assign Ian Crocker that task over the winter break in 1997. Ian is known for speed and holding the world record in the 100-meter butterfly. But he completed 100 x 100s short course meters on various intervals.  Eight months later he swam a 1:49 200-meter freestyle, one of the fastest times in the world. Two and one half years later he won a gold medal on the United States 400 Medley Relay at the Sydney Olympics.

Over the winter break in 1979, Dennis Pursley was the head coach for the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins. They worked very, very hard and for a long time. One evening he gave a portion of the team a 10,000-meter swim for time, and legend has it, told those swimmers that if they performed under a certain time they could miss the next morning practice. Mary T. Meagher and the butterfly group piped up and asked, “What about us?” Coach Pursley offered the same challenge, along with the fact that everyone that swam butterfly had to swim full stroke/legal butterfly the entire 10,000 meters for their effort to count. Mary T and a few of her teammates earned the right to sleep in the next morning.

That summer Mary T broke the world records in both butterfly events and the next year dropped them down again to the sport’s long-standing milestones of 57.9 and 2:05.9.

In the 1970s Coach Mark Schubert’s Mission Viejo teams were noted for performing very long difficult training, especially in the “Animal Lane” or distance group. A sparkling example was Casey Converse’s punishment for missing practice too frequently: a 20,000-yard swim for time in the spring of 1976.

His time? 4 hours, 8 minutes and 33 seconds.

That summer Casey improved his 400-meter freestyle seven seconds from the previous year and was a surprise in making the USA Olympic team.

On Christmas Eve, 1974 Coach Schubert walked out on the pool deck and told his team they were going to swim 10 x 1500s.  Here is the scene from the book Four Champions, One Gold Medal.

The moment Coach Schubert announced the set, several swimmers began to weigh their options. Some thought of leaving and making up the practice another day, or quitting the team altogether.

            Anticipating some backlash from some of the athletes, Mark Schubert’s temper began to boil. “When you stand up on the blocks at the end of the season I want you to know that you have done things that none of your competitors have done!” he said tersely, “and this is one of those things.”

            ….By responding in kind, they [The Animal Lane]were not only leading the work ethic of the Mission Viejo Nadadores. They were one of the leading ambassadors of hard work in U.S. swimming, not to mention the rest of the world. Brian Goodell stood by lane one, the animal lane. He smiled and thought, “I’m going home tired tonight no matter what. So who cares if the set is 10 x 1500s. Am I going to die from this?” Brian laughed and quietly said to his animal lane teammates, Taylor Howe and Bill Babashoff, “Let’s go.”

Nineteen months later Brian Goodell set world records in the 400 and 1500-meter freestyles and won both gold medals at the Montreal Olympics.

Twenty-one months later Brian Goodell began his senior year of high school.

What about you?

Legendary Mullings:

…Michael Phelps trained at altitude camps several times per year. The primary reason wasn’t to return to sea level to swim fast in a race, but to allow him to come back to sea level and train faster.

…anything can be “fun.” It’s just a matter of perspective and the environment you are in…and you are a contributor to your environment.

andthentheywon9 - CopyChuck 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 swim 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.”

In This Story


  1. cynthia curran says:

    These are 400, 500, 800 and 1500 swimmers where the high mileage helps. It took about the early 2000’s before US swimmers were able to do Brian Goodell 1500 mark.

  2. cynthia curran says:

    Mary T also swam the butterfly across lake Mission Viejo when she swam for Mission Viejo..

  3. Distanceswimming says:

    Every year our club team has an “insanity” workout, just before the new year. It is normally 20,000 meters during a 5 hour workout, however the past two years we have done 30,000 meters.

    It is one day, split into 3 workouts:

    15×400 IM





  4. swimmergirl10 says:

    I wish my coach had us do a 20,000! It would really help my self esteem in time for racing a 500!

  5. AnotherSwimmingFan says:

    I’ve seen a few swimmers get burned out by winter break training and quitting before their taper meet. It’s not worth it if you’re not having fun. With the exception of Ian Crocker, all of the swimmers mentioned in this article are distance swimmers. The article also cherry picks the swimmers that went on to be successful on the world stage and leaves out the swimmers that had to do ridiculous yardage garbage workouts and at the end of the day were left disappointed with their taper times. Also try making a 100-200 guy do these kinds of sets and see how much they really help.

    Matt Grevers said after his 100 back at Olympic trials that the hardest he worked was in 2010, where he lifted more than ever, pounded out more yards, and ran outside of the pool. He also said that he learned that in swimming, it’s not about who trains the hardest, it’s about who trains the smartest. There’s only so much you can really gain from high yardage workouts. Recovery, weightlifting, and flexibility also play a role.

    • Rafael says:

      There are numerous cases of young swimmers (10-14 years old mostly) who were put up under ridiculous sets and quit swimming.. and some of these people were age group holders.. who quit because of this abusive behavior..

      and this kind of mileage does not fit everyone.. for a pure 50 sprinter even a set of 200´s sometimes seems pointless.. a 20000 would add nothing for people like that

      • PsychoDad says:

        Yes, but how many pure 50 sprinters there are?

        To paraphrase Eddie Reese: “This is how I am doing it but I have no idea if that is the right way to do it.” Nobody really knows what works the best. People on both sides had great successes. I think it is more about swimmers then coaches though. If a swimmer is tough and comitted to be a champion, s/he will succeed in any system.

        By the way, the team our 10 year old swims finished the year with 31 100’s free starting with 1:45 and going down by a second each.

  6. CrimsonHawk says:

    What your goals for winter training? How do you approach it and hope to get out of it?

  7. Pvk says:

    A 20,000 is pretty ridiculous, But the swimmers down in Mission Viejo are known for some pretty horrid yardage. I have trouble understanding if extreme yardage like that actually benefits the swimmer or if it just exhausts them too much. Also, I think some of those examples are pretty outdated. I’ll eat my hat if a coach now would make a swimmer do 20,000 straight nowadays.

    • nova says:

      Villanova swim team does the 20000 yards set once a year as a culmination to the aerobic training phase of the year. one girl did it in 3:47. paddles and snorks were allowed though

      • Pvk says:

        Thanks, It’a very interesting that they’re allowed to use snorks and paddles.

      • Chest Rockwell says:

        She should do very well in the 20,000 with a snorkle/paddles at Conferences.

        • nova says:

          haha well she miscounted last year and got DQ-ed for only doing 19950

          • swim coach says:

            my athletes do an annual 20,000+ yard set. it is done as a fundraiser.

            but… it is not for time, there are breaks and each swimmer looks forward to doing it.

            what it does do… takes the swimmer through all phases of training in one day. there is the obvious physical challenge of s 22,000+ yards practice in 6 hours, the mental challenge of such a long practice and the emotional challenge to push through the 6 hours duration.

            the practice is done on an interval they can easily do. there is pulling, kicking and some fast swimming.

            the kids come out feeling awestruck at what they accomplished and realize nothing is impossible.

            so, a practice like this done in a responsible manner can be a huge positive for the swimmer going into the rest of short-course.

          • swim coach says:

            the workout from the response below…
            1 x 500 warm-up

            3 rounds –
            20 x 100 free pull, paddles optional
            10 x 100 kick, free
            20 x 100 IM (5 w/fly, 5 substitute free for fly)
            10 x 100 kick, back
            1 x 1000 free, done as 10×100 @ :10Rest. descend 1-3 by round to goal time
            1 x 5 minute break

            3 x 100 for time. last one is free and goal is best time.

            1 x 500 easy

            i left out intervals on purpose, but they are liberal.

  8. Chest Rockwell says:

    Can anyone explain the point of swimming 20,000 in 4 hours? Unless you are an open-water swmmer, what is the purpose of this?

    • MidD Swimmer says:

      The purpose of a 20,000 would be to both A) Learn to be a man. B) Be a man. And also the next few days/weeks of practice would be child’s play compared to that should surgery inducing set. Also, it was punishment, and ridiculous punishment is understandable for an accumulated skipping of practice.

      • ChestRockwell says:

        Ok. Well, in response A) being a man doesn’t win races, being fast does. B) Swimming slowly for 4 hours doesn’t prepare one to do this. C) Swimming should never be used as a punishment.

        • PBRFridays says:

          Being fast does not always win races. Don’t underestimate toughness (probably a better term than “being a man”). Both physical and mental toughness can be the edge in a 400IM, 1500 etc and can definitly be the determining factor on that last day of a championship meet.

          • The usual suspects says:

            PBR- You are never going to believe this, but I just looked up every result from every major international race of every major international swim meet in the HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Guess what happened, the person with the fastest time won the race.

            Doing ridiculous amounts of yardage does not necessarily make one tough enough to succeed on day three (or 8) of a meet, there are smarter and much more fun ways to go about this.

            Don’t get me wrong, I believe in putting in hard work and winter training allows you to do more, but you must be a responsible adult and human being.

          • Chest Rockwell says:

            I lol’d at that. I think the key phrase in there is “responsible adult.” Plus, coming up with something productive requires more thought than saying “20,000 ready go.”

      • coacherik says:

        The punishment for skipping practice should be removal from the group/longer suspension from practice. If the kid actually wants to be there, it will be punishment enough. 20,000 for time makes it all the easier for the kid to not show up, which I guess could be the reasoning behind a 20,000. So could just removing the kid from the group without wasting time and pool space for this.

        A better story would have been reading Schubert actually “coach”, by finding out why a swimmer doesn’t want to be at his workouts or wants to skip that many. This is least responsible way to reach a kid. He made the US Team, fantastic, but how many other swimmers suffered the same fate and burned out/left the team as a result?

        • MarkB says:

          Most of these examples would fall into the category of child abuse – except for the fact that the swimmers ended up winning medals or making the Olympic Team. Many coaches look back at some successful swimmer and ask, “What did you do?” Maybe more should ask swimmers who quit, “What were you forced to do?” Possibly the same sets will be mentioned. My fear is that some young coach reads this and feels he/she has to top these sets with a team or training group that is not ready physically or mentally.

          • Josh says:

            Child abuse? Really? Let’s not forget that not only do swimmers have a choice of what program they swim for, but also that they swim at all. Equating tough distance practices to child abuse negates any salient points you might have had with that post.

          • The usual suspects says:

            Josh- Either you are messing around or you have no idea how some one with a position of authority can impose their will on young swimmers through fear. There are multiple forms of abuse, don’t forget that. And yes, a 20,000 timed swim can be seen as excessive and subsequently abusive. As MarkB said, winning medals makes this “inspirational”, if the same kid quit, it’d be a different story.

          • Swimosaur says:

            “None dare call it child abuse” — but in many cases, it is. I know many swimmers who, 30+ years after the fact, are still traumatized by the abuse. Kudos to MarkB for calling it by its proper name.

  9. Joe says:

    A lot of these examples are outdated and potentially rare examples.

  10. Ben says:

    20000 in 4 hours 8 minutes is pretty slow compared to 100 100s on 1:00

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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