By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Ben Bartell is the head coach of Minnetonka Swim Club. This summer, one of Bartell’s swimmers, David Plummer, finished third place at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. As part of our continuing series looking ahead towards the Minneapolis Grand Prix, we catch up with Coach Bartell, ask him about this summer’s performance, his reactions to the races at Trials, and what he hopes to accomplish moving forward.
So let’s talk this summer. At the Olympic Trials, the 100 backstroke was not the result you and David Plummer wanted. What did you say to him after the race? How did you handle that?
I didn’t say very much to him. There wasn’t a lot to be said. We both knew he had preparation that had been done. I thought he got in there and performed and executed his race almost exactly how he wanted to. For that race in particular, if they raced 10 times, I’m not sure it would be the same result every time. It’s tough to deal with. I read the article [from two weeks ago on USASwimming.org] where he said he didn’t watch the Olympics… I didn’t do that, either. I checked results. But I’m proud of how he did, what he put into it. That’s life sometimes. You prepare your best, increase your odds for success, but there are no guarantees. As far as what I told him, we hung out that night, and I wanted to make sure he had a lot of downtime on his own to process everything. We didn’t talk about it until mid-September. At the moment, it’s such an emotional event, that to completely pretend it didn’t happen would be unwise, to which David agreed. But I didn’t feel [discussion of the race] had to happen right then and there.
As a coach, did you have a pre-planned way of how you would react in case David did not make the team? How does a coach prepare for a race like that?
Obviously, every scenario is going to run through your mind as a coach. There’s no way to avoid that. I felt comfortable knowing David and where he was in his life, that this wasn’t going to shatter him. It would be tough, and it would be a situation where he would walk away from it and bring some positives. I didn’t have a detailed plan one way or another. I kept my mind on what needs to be done at that moment, what are the actions that need to be taken right then and there to execute at the highest level. I didn’t want him running scenarios through his mind of what would happen if he didn’t make the team. I wanted him to be focused on action items of what he needed to do right then.
After the Trials, David took time off and went on a road trip. But coaches can’t do that – they have other swimmers. Was it difficult to get back immediately on the pool deck?
I stayed in Omaha the next two days, then I went back and started coaching my team going to sectionals and juniors and state meets. I put it in perspective: What do I need to do right now to prepare these athletes? Honestly, I didn’t have time to reflect or think about it until a little later in August. I knew my team. There were a lot of people cheering for David, and they wanted to see him on the [Olympic] team. They were feeling the same way a lot of people were. They were looking to me for support. But I’m still proud of how he did. I’m happy with how he prepared. I think he did an amazing job in one of the deepest events in the world. I felt like I wanted everyone else to keep perspective. It doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I came back and said that to my kids, “This isn’t the end of David’s story. We don’t know the end of your story, so let’s stay focused and be prepared to do our best.”
So let’s talk where David is now. What is your approach to his training and getting back in shape?
Well, what I found with David – I’m guessing he would agree – is when he takes periods of his year where he participates in active rest, his ability to reflect on what he wants to do in the future is very good. He’s very good at that internal reflection and assessment. When he takes an active break, he comes back more enthusiastic, better attention to detail, and right now, I would like him to be position where, over the next few months, he gets a great sense of exactly what he is bringing back to practices, where he wants to go with it, and what his core values are that he can align himself with. Making sure he’s making decisions that are aligned with those core values. Those values change when you’re an 18-year-old to a college kid, to when you’re married and in your late 20s. Very, very different things you value in your life. It’s important to assess that and make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing. It’s so much work. If you aren’t loving what you’re doing, it can become difficult. To me, David can physically get back into it so quickly. I’m less concerned with that, and more concerned he’s where he wants to be.
Did you discuss the mental and emotional aspects of this summer?
Yeah, I think so. Everyone has a different process with how they deal with that. David is very internally reflective. That has to happen on his pace. When he comes to me and wants to start a dialogue about something like that, I want to make myself available for that dialogue. But if I’m trying to force himself, that’s not beneficial for him. But we’ve talked about that, what he wants to do, where he wants to go. Those are his ideas and goals. He doesn’t share everything with me, and he doesn’t have to.
Going forward, at the Minneapolis Grand Prix, what is the goal for David? Is there a specific goal, or more a day-by-day approach?
I think it’s a day-by-day approach. He’ll put in his mind what kind of time he wants to go, I’m sure. He’ll have an idea what kind of results he wants to get, then from an execution standpoint as well. What I’d like to see is him get in and race, then assess where he is. Continue to make decisions about what adjustments we need to make. If I had a goal for him, it’s just to go out and have a good time. And to enjoy racing. That’s what I’d really like to see. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow he goes, or how well he executes – those are things we can fix.
What are some of the sets you’re doing with David right now?
Right now, David is doing some loosening with relative frequency to keep his lower aerobic levels up. He’s doing some lifting and power swimming. That’s where his focus is right now. Racks and towers and bands. We wanted to slowly get back into it, get back to the weight room, get back into the power swimming, then get into the specifics of race execution. We’re going to look how we’re doing in a few months.
I know you and David have a close athlete-coach relationship, and discuss many different training philosophies. Are you guys tweaking anything going forward?
I’m not sure yet. I need some more time. We made a pretty big tweak last year after the World Championships. We’d get to meets and have a strategy. The meets were some of the only places we could incorporate those strategies. So we tried to make sets to incorporate those strategies within the sets, and try to bring our mental conditioning up and utilize it in the set. We wanted to condition your mind and body so when it hits the water, it knows what to do physically, and you know how to think. We did sets where we tried to incorporate visual imagery into the set. So when you hit the last 50, you want to be killing the swim. If you’re thinking, “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” your body is going to have a reaction to that. So we were running sets where we are mentally attacking and winning and going fast, and physically going fast.
He would do a set like a broken 100 set. We would do a set of a broken swims, not too many repeats. After each broken swim, there was plenty of loosening, but we’d do more and more of swimming with no breathing. And while he’s doing no breathing, he’s putting himself mentally in the venue of his choice – the venue he wants to compete at, going through the visualization of his race. His muscles and nervous system are firing well, but mentally it’s painful and exhausting. So when he flips and he goes all-out, we want him to imagine himself winning, or being behind and charging, sometimes being ahead and someone is charging at him. He’s imagining people he’s raced, but always finishing really, really well. His mind is screaming pain from the no-breath, but he’s visualizing himself going really fast. Since he hasn’t done too many sets, his muscles can fire really well. So he goes incredibly fast, in an incredible amount of pain, and finishing the races that way. He was already very good at that.
We’ll keep doing that, and as we’ll keep going, we’ll continually assess, and say, “How we can adjust that?” It puts him in a good position for how he wants to strategically execute that race, so it’s not a big question mark for him. He’ll say, “This is what we’re going to do.” We’ll keep trying new stuff. He comes up with ideas that are variations of that.
You’ve already experienced so much at the elite level, both victory and defeat. What have you learned about yourself this summer, and with this journey?
I have learned there’s always more to learn. I have learned that you can’t control everything. But what you can do is follow specific actions that will lead you to increase your chances for success. Success is not a guarantee, but you can do things to increase those odds.