Gary van der Meulen Interview

Gary VanderMeulen is a former Olympic swimmer, and is now coach (and husband!) to Commonwealth Record Holder Alison Sheppard. He was a coach to the British Olympic Swimming Team and is currently coaching Alison towards the World Championships in Fukuoka later this year. Pullbuoy caught up with him to find out his views on British swimming

looking back…

It’s been widely said that the British team under performed in Sydney, – do you have any thoughts on why this may be?

I thought that the British team going into the Olympics, having no swimmers ranked in the top 3, were going to be in for a tough ride. The best chances at medals, both the 4x100free for women and the 4×200 free for men, battled, fought, clawed their way to an excellent performance, worthy of a medal, but came up short. Each of the swimmers who made a final, prepared well, swam well, and did their country honour. However it took more than swimming well to win a medal.

Why? Because swimming ‘well’ basically means they were within a percent of their best times, and it would have taken a huge drop in time, I guess around 3% or more, to win a medal. The enormity of an Olympics is so overwhelming that a 3% drop is unrealistic, that’s why the odds are on those going into the Olympics that are already in the top 3. So if a swimmer intends on winning a medal at the next Olympics they have to get themselves into the top 3 the year prior.

If a swimmer does get into top 3, then they can take all of the extraneous events that surrounds an Olympics and deal with it. Maybe even have a margin of error, because at an Olympics there is a lot around. You don’t have your parents at the competition unless you make special arrangements to meet them in a special house miles away, or your own favourite pillow, or your own meal plan at your favourite restaurant. On a big team in an Olympic Village you don’t have your coach driving you when ever and where ever you wish, (or even your coach at all) and there’s a battle for food in an all-you-can-eat giant cafeteria with every imaginable athlete of any note around you. At the pool 17,500 people in stands for ‘heats’ is intimidating and normally you wouldn’t have officials telling you where you can’t stand or what brand of drink you can have on deck. You have to arrange your time around a bus schedule, team meetings and you have to wear a team uniform with accreditation that you-have-to-have-or-you’re-dead. Everywhere you go you go through a metal detector. On top of that, the weird psychological stresses like “I have to do well or every friend, aunt, uncle, friends-friend, classmate, teammate, dentist, doctor, girlfriend, boyfriend, teacher, Mom, Dad, brother, sister, Grandma, Grandpa, dog, etc, I know will hate me” in your head because this is the OLYMPICS!.

So I think that the British team was measured unfairly by medals, they should have been measured by number of finalists, because they weren’t even in the same game as those countries with swimmers already in the top 3. The team went in with zero medallists and came out with zero, we were hoping for a miracle and didn’t get one, despite every effort to do so. If Britain really intends on getting medals at the next Olympics then the strategy has to be get into the top 3 NOW. At the Olympics, its too late.

At the Olympics, Sue Rolph was very vocal in her criticism of the facilities in this country – what’s your view?

I never saw the interview, but from hearsay, I think Sue underestimated the power of the media, and has learned a very tough lesson. I believe her opinion was that the answer is more pools. However there are lots of cases of swimmers and other athletes with very poor facilities and winning at an Olympics. So, facilities are very advantageous to have, but it is not the only reason for a poor performance. You need technique, you need good nutrition, you need to be injury free, you need a coach who understands all factors of competitive-swim-training, you need a support group of friends and parents, you need to have money to afford to swim, you need to be intelligent, you need many things and ONE is a good pool. It is hard to train race pace for long course races in a short course pool but it can be done. It is also hard to swim as a kid and not have any money. The best facility in the world might be next door but if you can’t afford it…even the most talented swimmer in the world is out of luck. I also think its important to have pool time. It is better to have a lot of time in a poor pool than no time in a great pool. So there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed to improve swimming in Great Britain. The idea of assigning blame is not going to help solve anything, but to systematically set up the best swimming program in the world will get you much quicker results. Does every pool in Britain have a learn to swim program in it?

Many coaches have been critical of the new Commonwealth games pool in
Manchester – what do you think of it?

It will do fine. It will be a squeeze, but only for that one competition. After that it is perfect for National and semi-international meets. The Trials were great, the stands were full and the excitement was there. Too many meets are run in a enormous facility and it is like a tomb. That’s not ideal for fast swimming. The Commonwealth pool in Edmonton is a tomb. If we need it, put a temporary pool in Manchester’s big stadium.

and looking forward…

Bill Sweetenham recently took over as NPD; how has this affected you? Has there been a definite change from Deryk Snelling’s time?

I think that the National Performance Director’s position is extremely difficult. Coaches, in my opinion are stubborn and almost un-coachable. I find I am that way too often . I don’t like getting told what to do. So when someone comes in and says you should do it this way or that way there is a lot of resistance. How can a coach say to their swimmers “my way is the way to the top” and then change everything a month later? But now, although it was a trying experience for everyone, including Deryk, the country is ready to listen. Putting the entire country’s performance on the head of one person is immense and if an entire country is going to do well, then a general philosophy has to be believed. The degree to which every coach follows that philosophy will be the measure of its success. I think Deryk’s philosophy was to get the ball rolling for Great Britain in all areas and then to focus on the younger talented swimmers. That didn’t affect me because I already knew that I was following a non-conformist ideal by coaching Alison who was ‘older’. If the NPD focused on older swimmers I’d be very shocked. So I kept on doing what I was doing because I believed in the talent of my swimmer. I believe in talent, not necessarily only young talent, and Deryk supported that. I also think that Deryk tried to get coaching more professional with regards to becoming full time jobs, and I think he did that. Deryk challenged coaches and I think that was the right thing to do, but being the first NPD, was met with resistance and maybe found that difficult. He had world class swimmers in Calgary in the 80’s and early 90’s, and Toronto in the ’70’s and Vancouver in the 60’s, and before that in Southampton; the swimmers were doing everything he asked without question, so to articulate or explain his feelings, that he intuitively knew were right, was new to him. Bill also believes in talent, and coaching, and has a strong philosophy regarding age group development. There’s not a big change there. He challenges coaches and I am challenged by him and his ideas, so the progression from Deryk to Bill is good. But I think Bill is more experienced at coaching coaches, having held that kind of position in Australia and I think by disseminating a lot of coaching information, for those who read it all, shows us why. And that will help reduce naysayers and get everyone more quickly on the bandwagon towards hard training, more often, with more information, analysed by more people, more intelligently, because coaches need to be more professional.

Apart from Alison’s event, which races are you most looking forward to at the world championships?

I really enjoy swimming and am eager to watch them all. I am interested in how the Olympic Champions from last year are doing, like the Italians to see if they were a one-off or if they are still fast. I am also interested in the new generation of swimmers. I am interested in this young Phelps kid in 200fly, to see if he can step up at the Worlds and break the World record again. I remember the Worlds in 1991 when Michael Gross got beat by the upstart American Melvin Stewart, but I am wondering if Tom Malchow is going to let that happen.

What are your, and Alison’s, goals for this year? Do you think she can win the world title in Fukuoka? What about the possibility of a world record?

We are training to win. The world record will be a little way away from the winning time in Fukuoka. I think the winning time will be around 24.75s

Who is your favourite swimmer and why?

My favourite swimmer is Duke Kahanamoku. He was a pioneer native Hawaiian surfer first and then became a competitive swimmer. He had a feel for the water that I would have loved to have seen. From descriptions it was amazing. He also had a brother who swam at the Olympics and so did I. The Duke was an all-round athlete in the water, he was a sailor, fisherman, surfer, paddler, and won Olympic Gold in 1912 and 1920 in the 100free, he would have won in 1916 if there had been an Olympics. He was very popular at all his competitions because he was very personable and friendly, and later became the police chief of Waikiki area in Honolulu. So in my books he’s cool, even cooler than Spitz, who was a spoiled brat. My second choice is Johnny Weissmuller.

What would be your number one piece of advice for any up-and-coming swimmers?

Remember that you will be competing against the same swimmers that you are now when you reach an international level. So don’t be intimidated by those other amazing swimmers, they will be gone when you get there. Just be a smarter swimmer now and listen well to your coach.

What sort of cycle programme do you stick to?

I tend to go with 4 cycles per year.

Do you tell your swimmers the whole session at the start or do you like to keep the sets up your sleeve?

Both. Sometimes I give them something extra, I like to trust my intuition.

How many visualisation sessions do you have per week and what does that consist of?

I teach the visualisation and then leave it up to the swimmers to use it as much as they like.

Do you have lots of fun and laughs with your swimmers? Despite this, do they ‘hate’ you sometimes?

Both. They don’t hate me, they are challenged by me. The worst I ever say to anyone is they have been ‘average’.

What percentage of your sessions are ‘legs only’?

I mix it up and have some sets which we do regularly like 5×200 kick descending @ 4:15, but as a percent I’d say 25%

What are your favourite drills?

I think fins for any drill is very beneficial, and I like catch-up-free the most.

What are your least favourite drills?

I don’t like the backstroke drill where the swimmer holds one arm up and does a catch-up like drill.