By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
In 48 days, Jeff Commings will become one of the oldest Olympic Trials participants at age 38. Six months ago, we followed Comming’s Trials journey in a four-part interview that kick-started our “Trials and Tribulations” series. Here I update our readers on Commings’ progress over the past six months.
First, let’s talk about the tragedy that unfolded last week in Flagstaff. I understand you were the last reporter to do a video interview with Alex Dale Oen a few days before his fatal cardiac arrest. (Commings is an associate producer for Swimming World.) How was Alex doing when you interviewed him?
As far as I know - it’s been a week - I was the last one to do a video interview with Alex. It makes it very eerie. I haven’t been able to watch a minute of the interview without getting a feeling in the pit of my stomach, without knowing this wonderful person in and out of the pool is no longer with us. It’s still kind of numbing to me. But I know he’s looking down on us and wanting us to be the best we can be.
How did he seem then?
The day that I went, the coach had a recovery day. He seemed happy. Everything seemed well. I stood there and watched him swim for an hour. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Everyone seemed excited about his aspirations for the Olympics. No one seemed to indicate that anything was abnormal. He was very jovial and wonderful to talk to. With that in mind, that makes the tragedy even more shocking. He was in the prime of his life, and was struck down eight days after I met him.
What has the past week been like?
The morning I found out, I had just finished workout. I got out of the shower. I was told Alex had died, and where he had died – in the shower. I thought, “Gosh, to think I was just standing in the shower, and this athlete collapses in the shower.” For two days, every time I took a shower, I thought about that - to think you can stand in the shower and be normal, and then your life ends. But I did my best to try and move on.
This past weekend, I had a swim meet in Tucson, and I did very well. Before the 100 breast, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but a minute before the race, I started thinking of Alex. It made me feel more motivated. One thing Alex had told me before we taped the interview was that he heard about me qualifying for the Olympic Trials. He said that he was going to check out my results. That made me feel really good, that this guy who could win the Olympic medal in the 100m breast said he was going to check to see how I did. So before my race this past weekend, I thought Alex would want me to swim the best that I could. I got on the blocks, and it was a case of me not feeling 100 percent, yet was a great race where I can’t explain what I did that well. Whether its true or not, I’d like to believe that Alex was watching me swim on Saturday.
My time was 1:05.69, which is very good for me. I was not expecting to go that fast. It was only four tenths slower than March when I put in a lot of rest. Here, I barely rested a day. To know I was that fast made me feel good, and surprised. It goes back to 6 months ago to when I was really excited about the way 2012 was going to take me, and unsure how it would go. Now it’s May, and I’m sure the direction I’m going is 100 percent perfect for me.
It’s been about 6 months since we last talked. Update us on your training.
Absolutely everything has been working out. I don’t want to say it’s been working out to plan, because I don’t have a plan. (Laughs.) My past two Olympic Trials in ‘92 and ‘96 was to swim my best and try to make the Olympic team. My goal here is to have a great Olympic Trials experience.
January, February and March were about getting in the aerobic training. Now with 50 days left, I’m getting into the race-specific training, which I really like. I’m not doing endless repeats. It’s focusing on certain aspects of my race. I’ve been doing a lot dryland with JR Rosania. He’s been giving me exercises for specific aspects of my race. He’s been doing things to help my start. Things to help me make me stronger on my out-sweep, which I’ve never worked on before. Lots of little things that when you’re doing the exercise, you understand why you’re doing the exercise. It’s not like bench press or sit-ups. Everything in dryland for the past 7 months has had a purpose.
That takes us to this weekend, where my goal was not to hit a specific time, but to work on race strategy. I wanted to take my first 50 out strong, but not too overpowering. I wanted to push off the wall at the 50 and not go 100 percent. Sometimes I freak out and start sprinting right away off the wall. Now I build to the 75, then go 100 percent. It felt like that worked out very, very well. It needs a little more tinkering, but it was the first time I used that race strategy. That’s why the time was surprising. It really enabled me to look back at the race and say, “This is how I want to swim it at Omaha.” I don’t have time goals. I want to go there in 49 days and say, “I just want to get to the other end and back, and swim the smartest and best race I can.” As long as I swim a smart race, then I’m happy.
Last time we talked, you weren’t concerned about your relatively older age compared to your competitors. Do you feel the same now?
Nothing’s changed. I haven’t put much thought into the fact that I’m going to be 38 years old racing people who weren’t alive when I swam my lifetime best time. [Laughs.] But it’s still a thrill to think about every now and then, because I know a lot of Masters swimmers have offered a lot of words of encouragement to me. That’s been important to me. First and foremost, I’m a Masters swimmer. To hear these people are supporting me, people who are twice my age, doing things I never thought I could do at my age – that support has been great for me. But If I get too caught up in the age thing, I might think these kids could think faster than me. And I don’t want to do that. I swim once a week at Phoenix Swim Club, and I see these kids not looking tired at all, and I just want to take a 5 minute break. That’s when I think it’s going to be tough swimming against these kids. But it’ll be fun to sit in that race ready area at Trials and see the future of USA Swimming.
What are you looking to change as we approach Trials?
At the December Nationals working for Swimming World, I was working out between sessions. Legendary coach Joseph Nagy was there, and I asked him to look at my stroke. One thing he said was I wasn’t kicking back – I was kicking down. So he instilled that in me. I rarely think about my kick when I’m swimming breaststroke. I think of myself as an upper body breaststroker. The reason for that is I have inflexible ankles. They are my Achilles heal, for lack of a better word. I’ve been going through my life knowing my kick wasn’t as good as everyone else’s. Once Joseph told me all I need to do is kick back, I’ve been thinking, “How do you do that?” I’ve been doing so much vertical kicking, it’s insane. Three or four times a month, I’ll grab a 10 pound weight and do vertical kicking. It’s the worst thing in the world for breaststrokers. You just kick and kick and kick and not go anywhere. But the major thing that’s changed, I’ve focused on my kick, which I’ve never did before.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve noticed over the past 6 months?
Confidence. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go six months ago. I was in the thick of this big dryland training phase, where every day I felt like I couldn’t lift my arms. I knew it was working, and I would have positive results in the end, but I hadn’t had a meet to see where things were going. After sectionals, I looked back and said, “OK, full speed ahead!” After this past weekend, it’s even more full steam again. Everything is going right. If I didn’t have a strong support system around me, coaches and family and friends, then this would be very difficult. Six months ago I wasn’t sure this would work, but now that I’ve tested it out in race situations, I’m extremely confident this is going in the right direction. In 49 days when I step on the blocks in Omaha, I don’t have to worry about, “Should I be here?” I’ll hopefully have one of the best races of my life.
Have you had a moment when you felt like this wasn’t a great idea?
I’ve never gone back and said, “I don’t want to do this. Let’s just skip this whole Trials thing.” I’ve been very happy with this. This has been incredible for me. People from around the world have written and called me and encouraged me. I couldn’t be happier this is happening. I was thinking about this last week. If I hadn’t made Trials cut, what would I be doing now? I think I’d be training for Masters Nationals, which is fun and exciting, but to be able to go back to Olympic Trials and experience it on my terms, it’s a dream come true.
For more about Jeff’s journey, you can follow his blog at HYPERLINK "http://commings.blogspot.com/"