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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
BARCELONA, Spain, August 1. ONE of the more fascinating features of a World Championships is observing the contrast of swimmers’ strategies, and seeing whose tried-and-true pacing will actually pan out and put them on top of the podium.
Of course, we think of swimmers like Missy Franklin and Sun Yang as champions, but every swimmer in the pool is a champion; by that I am not implying a “you’re all winners even if you lose” type of attitude. All the swimmers are winners because that is what it took to earn a lane at these World Championships. For some, it is not until they have reached this level that they actually experience a real race.
No race is immune to strategy: it is more obvious is some events and when executed by certain swimmers. A great example would be the women’s 200 freestyle last night: Missy Franklin led the field at the halfway mark, extended it into the final turn, and managed to hold off world record holder Federica Pellegrini as she came storming home down the final 50 meters. Pellegrini’s strategy was to hang back until the end, intending to pass swimmers as they struggled through the lactic acid pooling in their muscles and transforming their blood into lead. This paid off: she was 6th at the 50, 5th and the 100, and 4th with only one length to go. But she could not catch Missy, and although she earned herself a silver medal, she was not able to achieve the 200 freestyle “threepeat” that she was after.
So the big question is: did she wait too long? Did she hang back a little bit too far? Or, had she gone out faster, would she have missed the medals completely? In the men’s 100 backstroke and 100 breaststroke, the 50-meter leader fell and was not able to capture the gold medal in the end. Some people asked if Cameron Van Der Burgh was out too fast in the 100 breaststroke, hitting the turn in a time that was an all-time textile best for the 50. Maybe he was, but this is his strategy: had he backed off in an effort to save some energy for the second half, he may have ended up in fourth. Front-half speed was the risk he had to take to even have a shot at gold.
Sticking to your strategy is very hard at this level, especially if you are a back-half swimmer. At Nationals, you may have to come back on one or two swimmers in the second half of the race, but at Worlds, you may be looking at an entire field. That is another reason why Shewin Ye’s 200 IM at both the Olympic Games and 2011 World Championships seemed so unbelievable: she didn’t even seem like she was in the race at the 150-meter mark. To see five, six, or even seven swimmers ahead of you, especially when you have never experienced that before, can be daunting. Even though going out too fast can be disastrous physically, saving up too much can be equally devastating psychologically.
The 200 butterfly will likely play out as a battle of strategies this evening: China’s Zige Liu, the reigning world record holder, was the only swimmer under 1:01 at the 100 meter mark in the semi-final. Was that a comfortable split for her, and was she simply shutting it down, or will she run out of a gas this evening? Cammile Adams holds back until the second half, and Katinka Hosszu seems to have strength using either strategy. Maria Belmonte Garcia may simply throw strategy to the waves, since she will walk out to a mighty loud roar as Spain’s hometown girl swimming in lane 4.
One would think that World Championships is not an ideal time to change strategy, but then again, sometimes if you want to win, you need to take a big risk.
Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M’s first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.
Follow her on twitter @juliah2o