Russell Mark, a National Team High Performance Consultant for USA Swimming, has been heavily involved in sharing new technologies designed to help our elite athletes improve throughout his career.
But he still sees no better way to share the bigger-picture ideas than to gather coaches together for some old-fashioned face-to-face discussion, which was the key feature of this year’s National Team Coaches Seminar in the Renaissance Denver Downtown on May 7, 8 and 9.
Mark has been involved in these seminars for nearly two decades and has recently become the main organizing force in them. In recent years, he has seen them become more helpful. Not so much in the finer details, such as underwater technique or the intricate science of conditioning, but rather in terms of helping the coaches of Olympic hopefuls prepare their athletes more generally for what’s ahead.
“I think it’s very unique,” Mark said. “We’ve got a small population of coaches that is really focused on the Olympic journey, and the content of the National Team Coaches Seminar is really specific to that.
“It’s funny – I don’t think we had a single discussion session about training. This was more focused on Olympic preparation, and especially how to really be ready for that period of time between our Trials and the Olympic Games.”
More than 100 coaches attended, including key folks from the USA Swimming National Team staff and from the 18-and-under World 100 selections, along with a great cross-section of NCAA and club coaches.
Among the attendees was Jon Urbanchek, USA Swimming’s National Team Technical Advisor. The most senior of the coaches in attendance, he's been associated with the National Team in one way or another since 1992.
Urbanchek will be making visits to about 14 of what he calls hot spots – places likely to generate Olympians next summer. Included in that tour is a place he calls "the volcano" – California.
Of course, nobody knows exactly where that next Olympic Team will come from. That's partly because of the sheer quantity and quality of younger coaches with outstanding athletes on the landscape.
And in this case, "younger" means just about everyone to Urbanchek, a true elder statesman at 82.
"There are so many coaches out there who are so creative," Urbanchek said. "I love learning about their new ideas, and of course technology has helped changed things faster than ever."
The collaborative approach, Urbanchek says, is what differentiates USA Swimming.
"The reason we're the best country in the world in swimming is because we share with one another," he said. "There's a genuine interest in what everybody else is doing, and in the end, that benefits us all."
This year’s keynote speaker was Kikkan Randall, a 13-time cross country skiing world champion who persevered to win Olympic gold in the team sprint during the 2018 Pyeonchang Winter Games. Her inspirational journey in perseverance, which includes a battle with cancer, provided a riveting centerpiece to conclude the first day of presentations.
Day 2 featured an Olympic Trials update, followed by a grouping of talks intended to address the unique mental components of elite-level competition and the importance of mentoring in our sport.
And the final day was specifically geared to the 18-and-under hopefuls, as the experiences of Missy Franklin, Elizabeth Beisel and Simone Manuel provided both a blueprint for success along with a warning to the pitfalls that might face club swimmers as they attempt to join the U.S. Olympic effort.
Stephanie Juncker was among the younger coaches who attended, but has already spent several years developing elite swimmers. Currently an assistant college coach at Louisville, this was her third trip to this seminar.
“Obviously, when you get to be in the same room with the legends of our sport, it’s a great opportunity,” Juncker said. “I still find myself just trying to soak up as much as I can.”
She said her most practical takeaway from the gathering was what to avoid while preparing for the 2020 Trials.
“I think there’s a temptation to do something special for Trials, but the main message I took away is that it can be a mistake to suddenly change everything,” she said. “Stick with what has worked for you – maybe focus on doing what you do well a little bit better. But don’t try to re-invent the wheel.”
Mohamed Abdelaal of Scarlet Aquatics was making his first trip to the National Team Coaches seminar and found the experience to be helpful on several levels.
Abdelaal presented as part of a panel of the importance of mentoring in coaching. The group included a couple of NCAA Division I head coaches as well as a female assistant coach. And Abdelaal's contribution from the club world, where Scarlet has been making waves recently with terrific national and even international results, helped give the panel a well-rounded perspective.
"For a first-timer, it was awesome to be in the presence of these people," Abdelaal said. "I found myself just perking up my ears, trying to take in everything I'd heard."
Especially helpful to Abdelaal was a presentation called, "A kid with a chance." It was designed to illuminate the Olympic pursuit from the perspective of a high school-aged athlete, and his or her coach.
"It was a really neat format," Abdelaal said. "You've got the best of the best, and they're talking about the things that they're really good at. It's different at a big meet or something, because everyone has their own swimmers to focus on. But here, it felt like we were all on the same team. Everyone's guard was down."
Mark says the ease with which coaches can share complex information with one another is an intriguing development because it affords such great learning opportunities. But that same ease of data exchange also can provide challenges for the athletes, owing to the ever-expanding impact of social media.
More broadly, several discussions centered on the importance of the mental well-being of the athletes, and the importance of quality communication between swimmer and coach. That should include, Mark says, having a detailed approach to 2020 that everyone involved understands.
"I think it's important to remember that we're still 14 months out, so everyone still has time to develop their own plans," said Lindsay Mintenko, USA Swimming's National Team Managing Director. "The coaches were all very open and very real in what they contributed. That can mean nothing but good things for all of us."
For Juncker, the real value of this year’s event was a chance to exchange information openly - in real time, face to face.
“With USA swimming in general, and with the coaches as well, everyone is super willing to share what’s worked for them,” she said. “To me, that’s what makes USA Swimming the best team in the world.”