Column by guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
Although the 2013 Arena Grand Prix held in Santa Clara may not have boasted the same impressive speed in every single final that we have seen the last few years, it still featured some great races, meet records, and very impressive swims for this time in the season. Walking away from the meet, there are so many factors that should come into play when an athlete is assessing their performance, but for most it is hard not to simply reduce their swims to either “good” or “bad”.
We saw some swimmers very pleased with their performances over the weekend: Elizabeth Pelton broke the one-minute barrier in the 100-meter backstroke, a time that has been eluding her for the past three years. Ryan Lochte, even though he looked like he was going to throw up after the race, broke Michael Phelps' meet record in the 400-meter IM.
A fast swim at a meet in-season is always exciting; if a time that ranks top 10 in the world is your starting point before your coach has even mentioned the word “taper”, your imagination can't help but start rolling footage of podium performances and record-breaking swims.
Occasionally, this doesn't work out quite so perfectly: all swimmers have experienced the frustration of swimming slower at his or her taper meet than during an in-season competition. A swimmer may have this nagging thought somewhere in the deepest and most doubt-filled corner of their brain, but usually the positive high that comes with swimming fast wins out.
It is harder to unearth the positives when you finish an in-season competition and assess your swims as “bad”. In that moment of struggling through the final strokes, touching the wall, and seeing a time that is well off what you are aiming for at the end of the season, rational thoughts are blocked by the emotional frustration and physical exhaustion.
However, a successful swimmer will need to spend the days following the meet understanding why their performances were sub-par. Maybe they just came from a tough altitude camp? Perhaps they didn't warm up or warm down sufficiently for an in-season competition. There could be any number of factors associated with an “off” swim in-season that will not result in a total crash and burn during taper, even if that was the first thought the athlete had when they finally made it to the wall.
After a while, swimmers begin to know themselves and can tell you if they are an “in-season swimmer” or a “taper” swimmer. Elizabeth Beisel morphs into a different athlete when she tapers, and goes from fairly impressive to gold-medal contender once she finally rests and puts on her racing suit. Others aren't quite able to achieve this Clark Kent-to-Superman transition come taper time.
Those who identify themselves as a “taper” swimmer know that, at a meet like the Santa Clara Grand Prix, they are like a compressed spring. They can rest easy on the Sunday night after, even if their swims weren't resulting in gasps and applause from the stands, because they know that they have a big bounce ahead of them.
Of course, these types of self-assessments become easier the longer you have been with your coach and following a specific program. No matter how many times Canadian Olympic medalist Ryan Cochrane–who has been swimming under coach Randy Bennett for over a decade–told me that he felt horrible in-season, he never fell flat at the international competition. Everything always came together as a succinct plan.
A veteran like Natalie Coughlin probably has a better idea of where she is in the season after this weekend than most, even though she's had a training shift over to the post-grad group that includes Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin. You're first year with a coach can be full of surprises, but so far for a swimmer like Pelton with Teri McKeever for the first time this year, they have been good surprises.
In the end, the results of an in-season meet like the Santa Clara Grand Prix, be they “good” or “bad”, mean only what the swimmer decides them to mean. If you swam fast, you will swim faster come taper time. If your swims were sub-par, you chalk it up to the fact that you have been training insanely hard and taper will do wonders for you. You can't change your swims once the meet is over, so you might as well move forward with a positive outlook.
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