Column by John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, October 1. ULTIMATELY, the loud chatter surrounding Denis Cotterell and his coaching of foreign athletes, particularly Sun Yang of China, turned out to be white noise. For those who missed the controversy, reports out of China indicated that Swimming Australia told Cotterell he was not allowed to continue the coaching of Chinese athletes. In the end, unless both sides entered into a cover up, the situation was chalked up to a miscommunication.
Yet, it brings up an interesting topic, one which certainly takes place not just in Australia and the United States, but all over the world: How should coaches — at least those at the pinnacle of the sport — handle their duties? Should American coaches focus on American athletes? Should Australian coaches apply their knowledge only to their countrymen? Should coaches look out for themselves, lending their expertise to athletes of their choice? You get the idea.
There's never going to be a consensus opinion on this topic, and the debate will go round and round without settlement. Some will argue the importance of loyalty to a homeland. Others will argue for the extension of advice from one country to another. Really, there isn't a need for agreement, and healthy debate is never a bad thing.
In the case of Cotterell, the man who molded Grant Hackett into one of the greatest distance swimmers the sport has seen, he clearly has a magical touch when it comes to the distance ranks. His latest protege, Olympic champion Sun Yang, is on an arc to become the best we've ever seen in the long-distance disciplines. As Cotterell mentors Sun, he is receiving considerably more financial support from Chinese channels than he is from his native Australia. Can you really blame Cotterell for embracing a role which makes his life and lifestyle that much better? No.
Like it or not, individuals have to look out for themselves and their well-being, and by guiding the career of Sun, Cotterell is benefiting in a manner he has never before known. He can live more comfortably, and go day-to-day without being concerned about financial constraints. If Australia would ante up and pay Cotterell at a level commensurate to what China is putting on the table, there would be more of an argument over what he is doing. At that point, it could be argued — to a degree — that Cotterell is not putting his country's athletes first.
Finance, though, is just a portion of the debate. Here in the United States, anyone familiar with the sport knows about the international stable of talent which Dave Salo has built in Southern California. The names which have passed through his Trojan Swim Club are a Who's-Who of talent, including the likes of Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, Russia's Yuliya Efimova, Tunisia's Ous Mellouli and Hungary's Katinka Hozzsu, among others. Of course, Salo is also guiding the careers of top Americans, such as Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy.
By bringing together such amazing talent, Salo is creating an atmosphere which elevates the performances of his athletes. When world-class performers have the chance to practice and race other world-class standouts, competitive juices flow. In turn, abilities can rise. For the sport on the whole, this is a positive development. We'll see faster times and greater races, especially at the Olympics and World Championships. Don't view this scenario as not being good for the United States. View it as a way to go to the next level.
If there is one area, however, where an argument can be made against the coaching of foreign athletes, it is at the collegiate level. No, there is nothing wrong with having international swimmers on the roster, thus adding a punch to the lineup. The problem is when these international athletes take away scholarship money from American swimmers. Especially in this age of soaring college costs, scholarship money is critical, and seeing it go out the door to someone from another country can be tough to swallow.
Again, there is no way this debate will be settled. There are passionate defenders of both sides and the issue will continue to be discussed. So, what's your take on the matter? Let's hear our readers weigh in.