Lessons from Legends: Race Strategy


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

This is a series of articles that teach us important lessons about swimming today from people who stood out through the history of the sport. It is written by Chuck Warner, author of two books written for swimmers, coaches and parents chronicling the development of some great swimmers throughout the sport’s history.

The 1976 men’s Olympic Team met immediately after the Trials in Long Beach, Calif. Head Coach Jim “Doc” Counsilman told the team that he believed that had the chance to win every gold medal at the Olympic Games in Montreal. The team had a four-and-a-half-week training camp to prepare for the Games.

One of the major obstacles to a gold medal sweep for the USA would be Australia’s Stephen Holland. Holland was both the reigning world champion and longtime world record holder in the 1500. One of America’s hopefuls to beat the Australian was 16-year old Bobby Hackett. Hackett had improved tremendously to make the Olympic team at the Trials, dropping his best time from 15:32.0 to 15:12.75. His 800 split on the way to his new best time in the 1500 was a blistering 8:01.54, breaking Holland’s world record.

Bobby was known for taking his races out fast-very fast. He was used to having huge leads and sometimes getting run down by a competitor or two.

But as he began training camp, he thought about how to give himself the best chance to beat Holland and possibly beat teammate Brian Goodell. Four years prior, he had watched the Munich Olympics on television and seen how the great Mike Burton started fast, got passed in the middle of the race by an Australian and then come back and win. He decided to employ a similar strategy.

Who did he tell of his strategy? Almost no one. It was kept between him and his club coach Joe Bernal and gradually, and confidentially, shared with his Olympic coach Don Gambril.

During the training camp, he practiced negative splitting and carefully controlling his efforts at the beginning of training sets. When he was interviewed by the press in Montreal about his strategy for one of the most eagerly anticipated swimming races of the Olympics, he was coy. He told the press (and in doing so, his competitors), “I like to start fast. You know me.”

Bobby did start fast, but only for the first 300 meters. Then he cruised. He fooled everyone. Gradually Stephen Holland caught Bobby and by 1000 meters had passed him. But Bobby came back. Holland tired and Bobby and teammate Brian Goodell caught up to the Aussie and on the final 100 meters passed him for a shocking 1-2 sweep.

The complete story of the preparation and performance of this race is chronicled in detail in the book Four Champions, One Gold Medal, but there are lessons in Bobby’s strategy in this historic feat that every swimmer can use today: 

  • Learn to swim races different ways.
  • Rehearse the speed variations in practice-or in minor races-before trying them in a major race.
  • Only share your strategy (and your goals) with people who can help you.
  • Execute your strategy by always thinking about “what you want, not what you want to avoid.” Thoughts of what you want to avoid tend to lead to nervousness about the possibility of a negative outcome. 

Bobby Hackett’s time of 15:03.91 in that race still stands as the USA National Age-Group record for the 15-16 boys. It is one of the two oldest records in USA Swimming. And Then They Won Gold (Small)
For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association.

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