Siga Rose is a renowned age-group swimming coach from the Mission Viejo Nadadores in Southern California. While her USA Swimming coaching peers, parents and swimmers know her for her age-group swimmers who have set 25 national records and her work at numerous USA Swimming Zone camps, All-Star camps and All-Star meets, Siga has used her considerable talents and dynamic personality to coach several marathon swimmers of note, including former English Channel record holder Penny Dean, Catalina Channel record holder John York and the only person to have completed a circumnavigation around Catalina Island, Cindy Cleveland.
We caught up with Siga at the pool deck at the home pool of the Mission Viejo Nadadores whose swimmers have won 20 Olympic medals and set 22 world records in the pool and talked about her athletes and coaching in the dynamic environment of the open water.
Open Water Source: You have coached some of the world’s toughest and most accomplished ocean swimmers. Can you tell us when you got into coaching and where you have coached?
Siga: I started coached age-group swimming in Manhattan Beach [in Southern California] at the age of 18. Instead of a pool practice, I occasionally took the kids to the beach and got them comfortable with swimming in the water and through the surf. I would like take all the kids to the beach. They trusted me and I know it sounds mushy, but they looked me in the eyes and completely trusted me as they came through the waves. They bought into [the joy and challenge of open water swimming] totally. The trust they placed in me was great. I would hold them if they were nervous in the surf.
Open Water Source: When did you first realize that coaching open water swimmers was something that you wanted to do?
Siga: I started to take the kids down to the beach at a time when women were not allowed to be Los Angeles County lifeguards. We could compete in ocean races – and I did pretty well – but we still couldn’t be employed as lifeguards. In fact, the first woman who became a lifeguard was a woman I coached.
The ocean workouts were a good change of scenery for the kids. When you take the black line away and are alone in the open water, you can learn more about yourself.
Anyway, I took the kids to various ocean swims including the Seal Beach Roughwater Swim [that had races of various distances]. Then, one year, John [York] and Cindy [Cleveland] wanted to do the 3-mile swim. They loved it. Then, when John was 13, he and Cindy told me that they wanted to swim "there" - which was Catalina Channel.
So they were the ones who really got me into coaching marathon swimmers. I asked around and started to experiment. I knew if they were going to be successful that they had to train well. So, I overtrained them. If the Catalina Channel was 22 nautical miles, then I was going to train them to be able to do 27 miles. I knew they were going to be out there [in the Channel] for a long time and we had to be prepared for everything.
10Kswimmer: What were some things you did as their coach?
Siga: And, they trusted me 100% thinking I knew something. I just needed to be sure they were very well prepared. At that time, I had a group of 6-7 swimmers at Lakewood Aquatics who were really committed. The group included Dan Slosberg, Penny Dean (who held the English Channel record from 1978 to 1994), John and Cindy. While Penny trained with [legendary pool coach [Jim Montrella], Dan, John and Cindy would train with me.
I knew there would be times in the Channel when they would hit currents and they would have to use their speed to be successful. So I felt they could not lose their speed.
We did a lot of kicking and with lots of interval work [in the pool]. We tried to keep their heart rate up and we alternated slow and fast swims because sometimes you can hit currents out there and they needed to swim through a current or tough conditions. So, we also incorporated a lot of sprint work and a lot of kicking.
Sometimes, they would get cold especially if they didn’t kick. We did a lot of kicking sets with a kickboard, but we didn’t use fins in those days.
We really trained hard. In the summers, we would train in the pool in the mornings, and then drive over to Seal Beach and we would swim all day long in the beach – and then we would drive back to the pool for another pool workout. We would do two pool workouts and then swim from 10 am to 2 pm in the ocean four days a week.
When they were in the channel and getting tired or cold, I would use these workouts as a way to help them. I would tell them, "Think back to the days that we swam all day long." Because they did swim all day long. Those swimmers were really committed to it.
Our sport is dangerous. There are risks and we knew we had to be prepared. For example, one time, a thick fog came rolling in and the kids were stuck out there [in the ocean] with no idea where the shore was. But, they knew to stay where they were and they waited for the fog to lift.
I used to walk along the shore back-and-forth with them every step [stroke] of the way.
I couldn’t figure out how fast they would swim in the open water, so I started counting strokes per minute. Penny could constantly go at 80 strokes per minute and John sometimes got up to 84. But, we also counted strokes in the pool too.
Open Water Source: Can you describe their ocean workouts?
Siga: They knew they were well prepared because they trained so much. They would swim back and forth from the Seal Beach pier to the jetty. We would pick up the pace and race for time. We swam in December when the water was really cold. Maybe they would be in the water for only 10 or 20 minutes, but I told them to get in and the cold water would toughen them up. I think I did a good job with each of them mentally and they knew they were prepared.
Of course, the lifeguards all knew and saw us training, so they knew us and occasionally helped us.
We did in-and-outs, too where they would run in and out of the surf and up to the beach. It got their heart rates up and helped break up the monotony. I wanted to shake things up. Even at the end of their channel crossings, they had to get out from the water and stand up. So we wanted to recreate the swim as much as possible in workouts.
We experimented constantly with lots of things and we finally learned what worked [well]. We talked to nutritionists and came up with all kinds of [specialty] foods and drinks. But, the kids got sick [in the water]. We tried everything [during training]. We used whatever worked for their stomachs. Cindy liked bananas and cookies. John ate cheese sandwiches, cookies and apple sauce. Apple sauce seemed to agree with everyone. But Cindy drank coffee on her [unprecedented and still unreplicated 34-hour] circumnavigation of Catalina Island. So we used what worked.
Open Water Source: Did you have any rules on an actual channel crossing?
Siga: Yes. There were never parents on the escort boats because you never know what may go wrong or where. I would never sleep – as their coach – during a crossing and was always watching them, counting their strokes and encouraging them. When they stopped for feeding, I was the only one who would talk to them. After I was done, then the other crew members could talk. If the support crew wanted to eat, they had to go to the other side of the boat. And, if we saw sharks, we never said "sharks." We would say, "fish on left" or "fish on right" and would bring the paddlers in close to the swimmer. We would also bring the escort boat close to the swimmer and gun the engine, trying to scare it away. It is dangerous out there and you have to be alert.
Of course, sometimes, the swimmers had to pull themselves through kelp. And I could tell when Penny was a little nervous about fish she saw in the water.
Open Water Source: Can you tell us a few swims that stood out?
Siga: I had some interesting swims. Once I had four crossings in a row. And, I did not sleep during a crossing. Coaches cannot sleep because too many things can go wrong. I remember when John [York] did a double-crossing and we finished in the morning and then I coached Cindy [Cleveland] on her double-crossing. That was very difficult
I remember on an earlier swim when I was asked to be on a swimmer's escort boat, but not as the coach. The swimmers started in the dark and swam for two hours and then quit. Suddenly everything and everyone stopped. This experience taught me a lot.
If this situation occurred when I was the coach, I would have pulled the paddlers away from the swimmer and let the swimmer think about quitting before suddenly giving up.
But, there is a huge risk and it can get dangerous if people become complacent. Of course, crossing the channel has been done a lot, but you have to be respectful of the environment where we are. The ocean can be smooth and easy, but there are always risks.
We saw lots of sharks in our crossing. We saw them and we always protected the swimmer. On one occasion, one of the best skippers, Micky [Pittman], gunned the escort boat motors to scare the shark away and gaffed the shark as it got closer. He literally chased the shark away. But, we were worried about the blood and we always had people watching the front, back and sides of the boat. We used paddlers in those days with paddlers on either side of the swimmer [for safety].
Another time, I was coaching John on his double-crossing of Catalina. The next year, he got across, but that particular year, he did not. During his training, he was losing weight which should have told me something. During his crossing on the first leg, he threw up during the rough conditions. Then, the ocean calmed down. As he was coming into shore [on the first leg], I got in a skiff and escorted him into shore. After his first leg was finishe, I talked to him on shore and asked if he was OK. He said he was alright and got back in. On the way back, we always check the water temperature and stroke count a lot throughout the swim. When we were coming into the mainland, less than a mile offshore, the team wanted me at the finish. In hindsight, I should have stayed with my swimmer [in the main escort boat]. But, they put me in the skiff and someone rowed me in with John into shore.
I noticed that John was not breathing very much. So I asked the paddler who was right next to him to reach out and grab him. But, he kept on swimming. So, I told the paddler to jump in [the water] and grab him. But, he still kept on swimming. So the paddler grabbed him [tighter] and put him on the paddle board [face up]. John was just gone [hypothermic]. He was very cold and the water temperature had suddenly dropped as the water depth significantly decreases as you head into shore near the coast.
The paddler was giving him mouth-to-mouth – on the paddle board. Of course, we had immediately called Baywatch [the Los Angeles County lifeguards] who came right away and wrapped him up immediately. I was totally a mess. They took John to the hospital where he recovered. It was a very difficult time and really difficult to me. John was like a son to me. But, that same day, I was scheduled to coach Cindy on her double-crossing.
During her swim, Cindy was actually taking care of me during the swim – asking me questions during the swim. When Cindy’s swim was over, John [who was then recovered] says that he wants to do it. And, guess what, he does his double-crossing the next year when he set the record [that still stands].
Even when there were 'fish' on Cindy’s swims, she would ask not to be pulled out, but we made sure that she was swimming very close to the boats and the paddlers were right there with her. The sharks were more curious than anything.
Open Water Source: Can you tell us what you did while on the escort boat?
Siga: Because I knew these kids so well, I would draw on the different things in their lives during the swims. We used hand signals. On the escort boats, none of the support crew was allowed to yawn or eat in front of the swimmers. If they needed to yawn or wanted to eat, they had to go to the other side of the boat where the swimmer could not see them. During the feedings on the swims, none of the support crew was to talk to the swimmer until I was done talking to them [giving them instructions or encouragement]. I was strict, but these rules were for the best. I always stayed right with the swimmers, always watching them and giving them instructions. Sometimes, when they got tired, I would put more people in the water with them. We rotated paddlers which they liked and asked people to swim with them. But, the [support] swimmers were never to swim ahead of the [solo] swimmer, just to the side, but never in front.
Open Water Source: What did you do about feedings?
Siga: For the first two hours, we [stopped and] fed every hour and then we fed every 30 minutes. Then, we would go every 15 minutes. Even if they were not hungry, I would tell them to take a bite or a drink. I always started off firm. I was serious because [coaching] was hard work.
I told the skipper that he was the one who would call the swim [in case of an emergency or tough conditions]. I asked the skipper to tell me if the swimmer was staying in one place. I needed to know this information. If the swimmers were swimming in place, then we could change our direction or swim a little further or at a different angle. Mickey Pittman of San Pedro was the best, he is a wonderful man. He really wanted it for the swimmers.
We greatly appreciate Siga’s sharing of her experiences. The multi-part interview will be continued.
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