Article courtesy of Jan Homolak.
If you had the privilege of watching 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan the last few days you were able to see some outstanding performances.
Adam Peaty’s world record in semis of the men’s 50-meter breast with sizzling time of 26.42 and Championship record on 100. Katie Ledecky’s crazy world record time on 1500 and Sarah Sjostrom’s breathtaking 55.74 in woman’s 100 fly. Katinka Hosszu’s outstanding 200 IM. Kazan2015 performances have certainly created a great pressure on writers to come up with new superlatives.
One thing that stands out in all this amazing performances in the pool is that there seems to be more and more little British flags on swimming caps during finals and semi-finals. Britain’s anthem also seems to be more and more popular with every big swimming competition.
Joking aside, Brits look great in the pool ever since London, and James Guy’s 1:45.14 victory over the swimming heroes like Sun Yang, Ryan Lochte and Paul Biedermann proves that the trend of British charge on the swimming podium doesn’t show the signs of stopping.
So what is happening with British swimming?
If you believe that slight increase in Britain’s fund for sports in preparation for London Olympics 3 years ago still allows swimmers to enjoy the royal treatment in athletic preparation today you must have mistaken swimming for football.
I don’t believe the money is the answer. I believe the answer actually lies in mysterious realms of human performance, still quite foggy field of sports psychology.
The fascinating similarity between the uprising of British swimming and something that happened almost forty years ago in British athletics came to me while watching interview with Lauren Boyle on swimming performance of American long distance queen, Katie Ledecky.
Boyle said something that immediately reminded me of citation from the “Run, swim, throw, cheat”, a great book by biochemist Chris Cooper.
Boyle said that Katie Ledecky is doing something extraordinary and that her world record marks show what human body can achieve, what other swimmers can achieve if they train hard enough.
This right there is a beautiful example of how psychological barriers are broken down.
In life and sport, the effect a role model such as Katie has on performance is surely significant.
Cooper talks about similar thing happening in athletics when famous runner Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier in Oxford in 1954. Not so long before the 4-minute-mile barrier was smashed, Bannister’s great rival, Australian John Landy said: “Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound so much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall.”Yet forty seven days after Bannister’s run Landy broke Lannister’s new world record with a time of 3:57.9
In a way, swimming heroes of modern age such as Ledecky, Hosszu, Peaty and Sjostrom break psychological barriers just like Bannister did in Oxford almost every time when they step up on the starting block. Racing on your peak several times every day on the level of World Championship finals and semi-finals was thought to be impossible according to not so old exercise physiology textbooks, yet Hosszu climbs on the block time after time and proves that it maybe is possible after all.
This role model effect can also be analyzed on the level of the individual countries. To some extent I would say British swimming is reincarnation of British running phenomena from 1970s and 1980s.
In that time the world of athletics in Britain was dominated by the rivalry of two men, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett who traded world records in 800m, 1500m and the mile on almost weekly basis. Soon after they began exchanging world records with other local athletes such as Peter Elliott, Steve Cram and Tom McKean. Practically, the great proportion of what was going on in athletics was taking place in the United Kingdom. If you were to get autographs from a few world record holders you didn’t have to travel the world, they were there, in your back yard and that accumulation of success makes everyone around feel good. In other words, watching your local heroes become heroes on the big scene makes you feel like the chosen one. It seems that if you see your teammate take down world record holder in 100 breaststroke something magically clicks in your brain saying it could be you changing the swimming history as well. Success attracts success as my best friend likes to conclude.
I believe something similar is happening right now for British swimming. Little British swimmers are looking at Peaty’s 191cm figure climbing the top step of the podium to receive shiniest metal and shake hands with Olympic winner while listening to anthem that is on the top of the playlist in far away cold Russia just because of him and his teammates. A bit older ones are thinking about following his steps and the ones that he races in pools of England are eagerly planning how to replace their’s role model’s name with their own on the team roster in times to come.
I also feel the world media push this effect even further. In the time of British medal harvest during the 32nd LEN European Swimming Championship in Berlin last year, the part of the internet interested in guys and girls splashing up and down the pool in the battle for the European crown in the capital of Germany, was flooded with articles claiming Great Britain was the next new chosen country for producing swimming giants. Right now, one year after, it seems that article titles were not so far from the truth. After all, even with both, men’s and women’s 400 medley relay teams missing out on medals on Sunday, Great Britain still ended up with solid medal count. Record number 9 to be exact – “better than planned” in the words of head coach Bill Furniss, less than expected in the future as one can assume from the amount of the medal thirst kind of energy coming from every single one of the guys on the team.
With only one medal seized at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, and 900% increased effectiveness in Kazan, team of perspective juiced up racers and head coach who still wants to “raise the bar” I believe the only way for Brits is up. On the other hand, I’m eager to know how will the Americans respond, will the sleepy swimming giant awake on the wings of Ledecky and Michael Phelps screaming for his place on the podium from the Northside Swim Center. Steady rise of Asian swimming also announces that there’s more than a few ascending stars to look for in the future.
It’s an exciting time to enjoy swimming and I don’t have doubts there is more to come. More records to be smashed, more role models to be made, more stories to be told.
About Jan Homolak:
Jan is a longtime fan and swimmer from Croatia. He swims for ZPK under coach Pero Kuterovac. He is also a student at University of Zagreb Medical School and young researcher focused on the field of neuroscience and exercise sciences. He has been published in several peer reviewed journals and has given several lectures to different groups as well. He is the associate editor at Gyrus, academic journal published by the University of Zagreb and Croatian Institute for Brain Research currently indexed by the Google Scholar, DOI, CrossRef and HAW.