Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tactics: The Inner Thoughts of an Open Water Swimmer

When open water swimmers find themselves in the midst of a long open water workout, swimming in a pack in a race or pushing ourselves in a solo swim, they often find ourselves deep in thought, having intense conversations with themselves in the open water…often repeating the same questions:

How long have I swam? How far to the finish? How much longer? What is the water temperature? Is my pace too slow? Is the leader going to speed up? Am I taking the best course?

They often discuss answers … over and over again … in their own minds, searching and hoping for the easy and less painful answers:

I should be almost there…it can’t be too far to the finish…this is taking too long…it’s too cold…I need to speed up…when is the pack going to slow down…I should aim for the pier…

Today, we asked Gerry Rodrigues, a former age-group and collegiate pool swimmer from Trinidad who has found his niche in the ocean, what he thought about during his short-distance ocean and lake swims in California.

Gerry: The most memorable races were the ones that hurt the most. I think I was surprised that I was able to hang on to the much faster swimmers when it really hurt badly, and then I'd say to myself during the race: "I can't believe these great swimmers let me stay with them again". At that point, if there was 2-300 yards to go, I felt I'd win because of the specific types of workouts I did for these exact situations.

During a 2-mile race in Lake Berryessa in Northern California, I swam against Canadian backstroke Olympian and Stanford standout swimmer Sean Murphy, Franz Mortensen, a 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic swimmer for Denmark, and US Olympian Dan Vetch who had just swam 6,115 yards in an hour pool swim [as a masters swimmer].

After a ferociously fast start, the lead group thinned pretty quickly to six of us with a slight lead gap. For the next 2,000 meters I hung on as best I could by drafting off the leaders. Sean, Dan and Franz were leading the race at the time. As positions changed between us toward the finish, we ended up in a line with four of us swimming abreast.

Franz was to the far left, then Sean was on his right, me sandwiched between Sean and Dan on the far right. I was in the worst possible position with 200 meters to go with the finish dead ahead. I was boxed-in, but I wanted to be on the far left where Franz was positioned, and I wanted Franz to be sandwiched – not me.

I wanted to be on the left because I had swam over the finish area during warm-up multiple times and I had noticed that the ground was uneven on the left side. It was slightly elevated and allowing for dolphining to be started earlier. Because Franz was much taller at 6' 4" and I am only 5' 11",I knew every inch mattered. Plus, Franz was a 50 second 100-meter pool swimmer with lots of speed, so I did not want him to have the freedom to move.

I thought for a few seconds, then went into tactical mode angling to the right. Dan allowed me to do this, which sent us both slightly off course. Then, I quickly darted back towards Sean and Franz while Dan continued swimming off-course. Dan was now effectively eliminated as a contender.

I slipped behind Sean and Franz for a recovery draft, then moved over from behind Sean's feet to behind Franz's feet. Then, I came up alongside Franz to the position I ultimately wanted – on the far left. Now, Franz was sandwiched between Sean and me. The all-out sprint begun between the three of us, all swimming side-by-side.

I hit the very spot I had seen in warm-up, did several quick dolphins and ran up to the finish for a victory that I was uncertain of two minutes prior.

It is quite interesting to learn what the top open water swimmers think about during the mad final stretch to the finish.

Photo by Associated Press of Olympian Mark Warkentin.

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