Monday, November 12, 2012

Is Swedish Swimming a Mess?

Swedish Swimming needs to get it's act together
Over at my favorite Danish Swimming blog today they have an interview with Simon Sjodin. Luckily for readers of this blog, it is in English. Sjodin made news at home and abroad when a petition was started to get him on the Swedish Olympic team after he was left off the team despite achieving a FINA "A" standard (he was a 1:59.4 in the 200 IM that he had not tapered for thinking qualifying was assured). Sjodin's plight, however, is just one symptom of a disastrous era of mismanagement in Swedish swimming.

There was a time in the not so recent past when Swedish swimming was the juggernaut of Scandinavia. At the 2000 Olympics, the country of 9 million people hauled in an impressive four medals on the backs of stars Lars Frolander (gold in 100 fly) and Therese Alshammar (silver in both the 50 and 100). Their fourth medal came on a relay, which only points to their impressive depth beyond the efforts of Alshammar.

Since then, there has been no shortage of talent in Sweden, but results have been hard to come by. Their team has been shut out of the medal count in the subsequent three Olympics. Stefan Nystrand looked like he was going to vie for sprint glory in 2007 but fell off almost as soon as he improved. Emma Igelström burst onto the scene, dominating 2002 World's SC in breaststroke before winning European gold in a faster time than Leisel Jones, Amanda Beard or Megan Jendrick recorded that year. She ultimately retired due to a battle with bulimia nervosa. Even heading into the 2012 games, Sweden had a junior star on par with Missy Franklin in Sarah Sjostrom, but she finished the meet with a disappointing 4th in the 100 fly as her highest finish. 

Among the other signs that point to a bad situation in Sweden: the flight of swimmers to the US to train at colleges. I know because I coach two athletes from Sweden: when they reach the end of high school there is little hope for the future. The federation had one half of the equation that they needed for success: high standards. Yet they were missing the other crucial half- actually developing athletes to get over that high standard. I'll give two examples from my personal experience:

The first swimmer I recruited from Sweden was Anton Lagerqvist. Prior to arriving on campus, he had won the Swedish LCM 200 breaststroke handily. Yet, when he did so, he was coming off a summer where he had seemingly been tapered for once a month, month after month, in order to make an international qualifying standard that was three seconds faster than he had swam in a bodysuit the year before. There was no cohesive long term strategy- just see if he pans out and if he doesn't move on to the next. If there's anything to be learned from what is taking place in neighboring Denmark and the Faroe Islands its this: there is simply not enough junior talent in these tiny countries to try a strategy of attrition.

The second swimmer I coached from Sweden started this year, Mats Westergren. Again, despite good age/group junior performance, Mats was fairly despondent about his future in Swedish swimming. In 2011 he set the Swedish age group record (16-17 year old) in the 200 free. The next summer, he was present with the scenario for qualifying for Sweden's European Junior squad: beat your own record in your first LCM competition of the year. Two failed attempts later he was selected anyway, but his chances for excelling on a fast approaching third taper were far diminished.

Which brings us full circle to Sjodin. Swimming Sweden informed him just two weeks before the qualifying period ended that he would have to improve his time by over a second or be left off the team. A frequent misperception about small country Olympic qualifying is that it is easy because, of course, you just have to beat a smaller talent pool. While athletes that represent a country like Sweden are usually somewhat slower than say, the American squad, they are often give rigorous time standards far above being just the fastest domestically. Those in charge of selecting the squad likely looked at the Olympic slate and calculated almost no chance for Sjodin to medal at the meet, thus decided to leave him home. That might sound fair until you consider that they selected many others with similar chances to advance or medal onto the squad. When countries decide not to send one of their best swimmers, they also need to consider whether they are creating a hopeless psychology within their own country. How many young Swedish swimmers dream of making the Olympic team after seeing what happened to Sjodin? How many will give up instead?

To compound (or solve) the whole mess, Greg Salter was sacked as Swedish National Team Coach in the months before the Olympics. The results spoke for themselves: he had to go. However, Sweden has now been for months a nearly rudderless ship. Are the problems of Swedish Swimming something that new leadership can overcome or do they go even higher than that? Only time will tell.

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