|FOUR MORE YEARS!|
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.