Friday, June 1, 2012

Paulus Wildeboer: Four More Years (and why America should be scared)

A week ago, it was announced that the Danish swimming federation would be keeping their National Team Coach, Paulus Wildeboer, for another Olympic cycle. He will transition into just coaching the National Training Center. The news had little traction in the US, and that's a shame. In a relatively short period of time, Denmark has surpassed the United States in swimming, and they aren't alone.

Reading that last statement may have provoked you to spit whatever you were drinking out of your mouth. When I say that Denmark has passed the US, I mean in a relative sense. It's true by any relative measure: Denmark has roughly 1/50th the population of the United States. and yet they compare favorably to the most swimming rich part of the US (Southern California). The fact that a cool, rainy socialist country may outperform sunny Southern California in swimming should be an affront to all those who bleed red white and blue.

To say it's all happened in a relatively short period is an understatement. Wildeboer took the reigns of Danish swimming after the 2008 Games. Denmark earned one bronze medal there, with Lotte Friis finishing nine seconds from winner Rebecca Adlington in the 800 freestyle. Jeanette Ottesen finished a respectable 5th in the 100 free. Other than that, no Dane advanced to a championship final. I remember thinking that was about as good as it gets for Danish swimming. They simply didn't have the resources or talent base to be more competitive. The closest model the Danes could look to for outperforming those factors was the Netherlands, and yet Denmark is not even 1/3 of the Netherlands by population.

Fast forward to 2011, and Friis improved five seconds from her suited performance while Adlington has added four. Ottesen tied for the world championship in the 100 free. Moving into 2012 A 15 year old, Mie Nielsen, broke 1:00 in the 100 backstroke, while another previously unheard of Dane (Pernille Blume) posted what is currently the world's 13th fastest 100 freestyle (54.06, a time that would have ranked just .01 behind the 2nd and 3rd best US times last year).

Meanwhile, the Danish men, who haven't won an individual medal at the Olympics since Mie's father Benny captured 200 butterfly silver in 1988, are just starting their curve. Pal Joensen, of the Faroe Islands but representing Denmark for Olympic purposes, was six seconds faster than any American in the 1500 last year. Both him and Mads Glaesner threw down 3:46 in an Olympic tune up earlier this year, a time bested by just one American in 2011.

If I haven't convinced you that Denmark and Wildeboer aren't outperforming the US, I probably never will. Better that I explain how. As swimming has moved into the professional age, the US has been slow and inefficient to react. We established post graduate centers and furnished them with resources. And yet, they were so poorly designed and implemented that they have had little if any impact on our swimming success. In contrast, Denmark formed a National Training Center and immediately saw huge improvement in its international results. Denmark found a way to do better than the last decade's strategy of exporting their athletes to US colleges for development. Just one member of this years Olympic team, Mathias Gydesen, trained full time in the US this past year.

The same solutions have worked in Denmark and not the US because of culture. Reading any interview or media report quoting Wildeboer is a shock to the American system. His language is not draped in political maneuvering. He says what he means and doesn't keep secrets. His criticisms of swimmers and coaches within the country have been blunt and direct. He's so exceedingly honest I guarantee he could never cut it on this side of the Atlantic. He also applies a level of scientific rigor that simply wouldn't fly over here, where the coaching community at large has a fairly sizable mistrust of proper science and much lower levels of education. In the US, our biggest weakness is our success and lack of honest discussion- it leads us to believe that because we are the best we must be doing things the best. In an ever evolving world of swimming, it could mean we get left behind if more small countries get it together.

Even in Denmark, in the best period for swimming in modern history, change is rapid and unyielding. This past spring has seen record numbers of entrenched coaches retire and move on, unwilling or unable to face the new expectations set from above. America could do well to do the same, but they won't because there isn't a single person with the power to do so in America who actually wants to. When all is said and done in London, America will likely remain the world's top swimming nation, but for how long? If the Wildeboers of the world have their way, not much longer.


  1. Good for Denmark. As a small nation they have a ton of disadvantages compared to USA, but are able to more easily be nimble, and have a unified national program/philosophy implemented.

    There is a swim club near where I came up that for years was pretty solid but unspectacular. In the early 2000s they had a group of 6 or so very talented girls come through, setting tons of district records, senior national cuts, and owning all three HS state relay records. At the time everyone wanted to know how they did it. Those girls have now gone on to succeed at the NCAA level, and the club is back to solid and unspectacular. Is this just a surge of talent or a success of strategy for Denmark? Time will tell.

    Also another call for the older generation of coaches in the USA to hang it up. This is becoming a trend in your posts :)

  2. I do not think its a sudden bump of talent for Denmark. One factor is the knowledge that prior to Ottesen and Friis, Denmark had many swimmers of comparable talent in the junior ranks. The difference this time is the coaching and willingness to think long term and develop both. For comparison, look at Sweden. Their two best are Alshammar and Sjostrom, 20 or so years apart in age. I don't believe that there was just a 20 year gap, more that Swedish swimming failed to think long term enough to develop talent in between and instead counts on luck.

    Again, if you're an old coach and you actually read blogs and know how to use the internet you're probably not who I am referring to.

  3. Great article. This part is incorrect though:

    "In contrast, Denmark formed a National Training Center and immediately saw huge improvement in its international results."

    It changed its name to National Training Center after Wildeboer was hired in 2008, but Denmark has had an Elite Training Center since 1994, back then mainly designed for swimmers from small clubs without training partners (such as Mette Jacobsen) and others seeking to raise their level.

    The quality has always been a bit up and down, sometimes providing more than 50% of the team in international competitions, sometimes hardly having any top swimmers. It is currently enjoying its golden era with almost all swimmers on the Olympic team training or having trained there. As you mentioned, this has prompted some top coaches to retire in the last few years, as any hope of coaching international top level swimmers is greatly diminished when most are encouraged to move to the NTC.

  4. Good correction. I misspoke in that the National Training Center has not existed in it's present form for very long. Even for part of Wildeboer's tenure the facility in Farum was sorely lacking. I guess until now it's never seemed that the National Training Center had such a unified purpose- its hard to think of the NTC pre Wildeboer and the current one as the same thing.

    It is true that the opportunities are diminished for the departing set of coaches. However, long term Wildeboer is just one coach and I think the opportunity is there for coaches who can fill the niches not currently being filled by the NTC. Why does all of Denmark's male breaststroke/butterfly talent level off or leave the country? What about male sprinters?