By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
With less than one week to go before the first swimmers hit the water at the Phillips 66 Nationals and World Championship Trials in Indianapolis, it is a fair assumption that all the athletes, from the sprinters to the milers, have finally reached their favorite time of the year: taper. Although taper can come with its own demons, like the “taper blues” or nightmares about goggle straps breaking behind the blocks, it is still a glorious and much anticipated time for swimmers. Taper to a swimmer is like Christmas to a child. Or, anyone like myself who still gets extremely excited about Christmas.
No one is probably more ready for a good taper than the American swimmers. Most countries have already selected their teams for World Championships in Barcelona, but the USA has stuck to their tried and true ways of choosing the team closer to the actual event, which makes sense when you consider how much depth of talent the USA has to offer. In a smaller country like Canada, the best swimmer in a race will probably be the same in March or June. But for the Americans, with so many swimmers who could stand on the podium in Barcelona in any given event, it is in the interest of the team to select the swimmers who are at their absolute best right now. This strategy, however, produces an extra factor that the swimmers selected in the spring do not have to face: the double taper.
Speaking to the depth of the U.S. National Swim Team, and the world-class times it takes to qualify, I would doubt that even the likes of Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin would risk “swimming through the meet” in order to prepare solely for World Championships. Even during one of her post-race interviews at Santa Clara, Missy responded to a question about Worlds by saying, quite sincerely, that she “is thinking about Trials and would be honored to represent the USA this summer.”
Even the girl who is one of the best swimmers in the world right now is not putting the cart before the horse. So how do you taper and then re-taper? What are the keys to doing this successfully?
In 2008, I swam Canadian Olympic Trials only a few weeks after NCAA Championships and managed to be quite successful at both, but this was not a lucky fluke, it was a carefully managed plan that my coach, Steve Bultman, had laid out in September.
Last summer, Bultman put two rookies on the U.S. Olympic Team: butterflyer Cammile Adams and breaststroker Breeja Larson. Adams added less than three tenths to her Trials-winning time, and finished in fifth at the Olympics; Larson swam her Olympic final in 1:06.58, a bit slower than the 1:05.92 that she posted at Olympic Trials. For rookies, not a bad turnaround. So what is his strategy for success?
Bultman said that, in this situation where the swimmers know they have to qualify for the team in order to even get to that second taper, you might have to put it all on the line and completely rest for Trials.
“Last year, Breeja Larson was going up against two superstars [Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy] in the 100-meter breaststroke. We knew that totally resting would probably affect her 200, but her chance of making the team was in the 100, so it made sense to focus on that.”
Bultman also says that when one of his swimmers has a legitimate chance of qualifying for the U.S. team, he talks to them about their options: “We might choose to keep doing weights and dryland for a little bit longer, or keep the yardage up a bit. You have to plan ahead.”
According to Bultman, the most integral piece when it comes to optimizing a swimmer's performance in a potential double-taper situation is this planning, especially with a rookie swimmer that might not have a lot of experience in this type of scenario. But even some national team rookies have a related experience that they can draw confidence from: the collegiate system. A lot of swimmers have swum a conference meet and then turned around to swim fast at NCAAs. Although his two Olympians are at the level where they rest very little for the Conference meet, having the two meets back-to-back is still a helpful learning experience and a stepping-stone.
The plan will be different for every swimmer, however. There are a lot of factors to consider when you prepare for World Championship Trials.
“The strategy depends on the individual swimmer. Some will not have to taper quite as much simply because of how good they are, others will have to completely rest for even a chance to make the team,” said Bultman.
He also mentions that the preparation will change from event to event.
“It is easier for a sprinter to simply ride on the success of Trials to the meet. A distance swimmer will have to get straight back to work and re-taper.”
Bultman believes a mistake that swimmers risk making is focusing too much on the outcome of the meet instead of the process. When it comes to planning your summer around a Trials and potential international meet, success will come from the physical work, but more importantly, mental preparedness.
“A swimmer needs to be mentally ready for not just what they need to do to make the team, but what they need to do after they make the team.”
Whether or not a swimmer agrees with the Trials being held so close to World Championships, the decision is out of their hands. The important thing to remember is that you must always be prepared to swim fast in any situation, whether it is your first taper in June or second taper a month later. After all, every swimmer vying for a spot on the U.S. National Team has found themselves in the same boat at the natatorium, but many have been very successful with this particular calendar. The key is simply being prepared, not just physically, but psychologically as well.
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