Coach Sid Cassidy’s Yangtze River Diaries

Sid Cassidy, USA Swimming Open Water Team Coach and head coach of the APEX Seacats is in China, accompanying US national open water champions Erica Rose and John Flanagan. The swimmers and coach are in China for the Yangtze River Crossing. This iss the first time the popular open water event has been open to foreign competitors.

Coach Cassidy shares his experiences with SwimInfo's readers with his daily account of his experiences.

The Yangtze River Diaries
Wuhan, China
By S. A. "Sid" Cassidy
APEX Seacats & USA Swimming Open Water Team Coach

Monday, April 29, 2002
They call the city of Wuhan one of the "four ovens" of China, because of the incredible heat the nine million residents endure here. Try telling that to Erica Rose and John Flanagan as they prepare to become the first American swimmers to cross the Yangtze River on Wednesday May 1st.

The two USA Swimming Open Water National champions are here to compete in one of the most famous open water swims in the world, the annual "2000-Meter Speed Crossing of the Yangtze River". Yet the 60-degree water and overcast skies hardly conjure up the steamy visions of the Asia we expected.

This swim first made world-wide news in 1966 when Chairman Mao Tse-tung finished his historic first crossing in an effort to promote the great sport of swimming as a fitness skill people should practice for life. Now, 36 years later, in an effort to globalize our efforts to bring open water swimming to the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese Swimming Association has opened up this great swim to all.

USA Swimming stepped up to the plate and has sent the three of us on this incredible adventure, and it is up to me to chronicle it for all of you. Despite the disappointment in the weather so far, the incredible warmth of our hosts makes up for what the natural environment lacks.

Last night, as the only three westerners disembarking China South flight 3133 from Beijing, we got a clue that this industrial city does not attract hordes of outside visitors. Yet once we stepped into the terminal, the organizers of this affair literally welcomed us with open arms. (Not necessarily what you want after flying for 24 hours, but there they were.)

We were assigned not one, but two guides to serve as our interpreters. After spending one day with these college students, they have already evolved into much more than translators. Li Zhi-ling (Jelie) and Zhang Kai (Open…..Yes Open is his preferred pronunciation), have both been delights and have smiled through all the craziness that Day One in a strange new world has provided.

After finding a store that sold earplugs and getting some photos taken for event ID's, we were off to the river. The taxi ride through the market district is one that typed words could never capture. Then the trip in the ma mus (basically a motorcycle attached to a rickshaw), topped that.

After surviving a close call or two in the wet streets, we ventured out to the finish area on Nan-an Island, where hundreds of workers were prepping for the big river festival. It was there that we had a view of the world's third longest river up close and personal for the very first time. There is no question that the recent rains have increased the water speed, in turn making navigation a critical factor to consider.

Tomorrow brings our final day of prep as the race is scheduled for a 9:40am start on Wednesday. That first day of May also marks the beginning of China's weeklong celebration to recognize the working class. I'm sure our crew of two in the Red, White and Blue will be working Wednesday morning to establish some recognition of their own. More to follow…….

Tuesday, April 30, 2002
Today I awakened to the sound of honking horns (pretty common in these parts), and the sight of a weak, but distinct circle of light attempting to break through the clouds. I allowed my optimistic nature to plan for a day of sunshine and heat so that the great Yangtze may warm just a bit.

Alas, it was not to be, as by the time we crossed the street to attend the 8:30am rules meeting, we were dodging the raindrops again. After the standard hour and a half session of instructions in a language we could not understand, it was on to the buses and down to the river. We arrived at Central China's most famous bridge just as the drizzle turned to a monsoon. We trekked down the slippery stone steps to the start point anyway and we managed to get our first feel for the water …… cold! They said 15.9 degrees Celsius at the meeting (which converts to 60 degrees F!). We made our way onto the ferryboat the organizers had chartered for a tour of the course.

The currents at the start will be especially tricky. It will also be a challenge for both of our athletes to determine the best course to cross. It will be interesting to say the least.

The afternoon brought a camera crew from WHTV-6 to our hotel as they interviewed us for the English-speaking Chinese television station. Reporter Hester Wan Xinghua did the honors as our hotel room was converted into a TV studio. Tomorrow the entire event will telecast live by China's largest television network, CCTV, to every home in China and the Philippines. The local government has spared no expense to see that this swim is well promoted. The prospect of putting an open water event into the Beijing Olympic Games has been a major topic of discussion.

In the evening we returned to the local 50-meter pool for a stretch out swim. Just a bit different from the "test event" they held for all the foreign athletes last night.

Yesterday all foreign athletes were subjected to a 400-meter time trial "test" for seeding purposes. We were under the impression that we were going to do a warm-up swim and did our best to explain that to the organizers. (Perhaps they did not believe the 400-meter times I had previously submitted?) The officials were kind enough to grant us a three-minute warm-up, which did wonders to erase the 20+ hours of flying. To the credit of our two "sportsmen", they went along with the program and fared well enough to earn the third place seeds in each of their respective races.

So on our second trip to this regional Olympic-training center, we really weren't surprised when the promised pool time came with a catch. Our athletes were to share the lane with a dozen or so 8 & under swimmers as they mostly kicked through their evening workout. Again, the flexibility of open water swimmers allowed us to laugh at our predicament and we decided to make lemonade out of the lemons.

Our swimmers were quite the hit amongst the age groupers gathered not just to swim, but for synchronized swimming and diving as well. It was most interesting to observe the Red Sports Machine in motion at the grass roots level, and to understand how the smiles of the young translate so well into any language.

Following another interesting meal at this hotel's twenty-sixth floor revolving restaurant, it is off to bed for the early call to race …….. and dreams of seeing the sun finally shine in this new land.

Wednesday May 1, 2002
Mayday! Mayday! At least that what the majority of athletes who attempted to traverse the extremely swift currents on this national holiday were calling as they got hauled into the safety boats, but not our American heroes!

The name Erica Rose will now be inscribed on a permanent plaque on the Yangtze River Bridge. She is now the first female international champion of the most famous river crossing in the world.

John Flanagan turned in a Herculean effort to finish 9th, after leading most of the way in the men's race. He misjudged the angle to the finish and ended up swimming 10 minutes against the river current for the greatest comeback of the day and a $500 prize for a top ten finish.

Erica would have claimed the $2000 cash, but the antiquated NCAA rules prohibited her from accepting cash and tainting her "amateur" status. (When are those people going to get a clue?!)

Erica did receive the adulation of hundreds of thousands of Chinese swimming fans, who witnessed the event in person. Millions of other Chinese and Philippine citizens watched the drama unfold live on CCTV, this nation's premier television network. The current was so fierce after a week of rain, that only the strongest swimmers survived. Despite the significant challenges, the organizers did a great job with the safety and supervision of this major event.

Our athletes proved to be tremendous ambassadors at the site and throughout the day. Autographs and photographs were the order of the day and I am especially proud of the way our two athletes shared of themselves graciously and without complaint.

The afternoon was reserved for some sightseeing and the evening had us celebrate the occasion with sponsors, officials and dignitaries. The VIP list included IOC member Ching-Kuo Wu and the President of the Chinese Swimming Association, Mr. Liu Ji. The gathering took place aboard a large yacht and as we sailed up and down the mighty Yangtze River, we shared many smiles as we recounted the challenge of the day.

In closing these notes, I would like to extend some thanks to everyone who made this positive encounter become a reality. First, the folks at USA Swimming, staffers Dean Ekeren and Candi MacConaugha, both went above and beyond the call of duty at the eleventh hour to get us on our way. The members of the International Open Water Committee, especially Ron Van Pool, should be thanked for promoting this trip and for having the foresight to budget travel money for our previous year's national champions. All of the sponsors and organizers, especially our friends from the Chinese Swimming Association, embodied by Mr. Jin Zhi, who took care of our every need. Last on my list, and first in my heart, is my family, Kara, Quinn and Kate who, along with the rest of my coaching staff and boosters at the APEX Seacats in Atlantic City, unselfishly picked up the slack in my absence. Thanks to all ………. and way to go USA!

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