Tis The Season…For Tough Stuff

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.”

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


It’s a 20,000 though. Geez.


A lot of these examples are outdated and potentially rare examples.

Chest Rockwell

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

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.


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.


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

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

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.”


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… Read more »


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.


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

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.


“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.

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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