Versatility in the Post-Phelps Era

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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

BARCELONA, Spain, July 30. VERSATILITY is both a blessing and a curse in swimming. On one hand, a swimmer has multiple opportunities to win: this is less pressure than having a single event, one shot to make your mark on the international stage. When a swimmer is versatile, particularly across different strokes as opposed to distances, a loss of feel in one event only means switching to a different race for a while, as opposed to struggling through the tribulations of a plateau.

Versatility can be burden too, however, especially in light of Phelps’ 8-gold medal performance at the Beijing Games. Because Phelps is a household name, winning 8 gold medals seems like it might actually be plausible for a swimmer, when in reality, what he did was completely implausible, probably by many considered impossible until that final gold was hanging around his neck. Phelps’ success across so many different events changed the game and set a new standard for a “busy” race schedule.

Now, versatile swimmers begin dreaming of their own multiple podiums, entering a plethora of events because they want to not only optimize their chance to win a medal, but win many medals. No one wants to sit in the stands during an event when they could have been in the ready room, because they are left with those dreaded “what ifs”. But where is the line between optimizing your chances and stretching yourself too thin?

Young Japanese teenager, Kosuke Hagino, swam in both the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke this evening. He could have threatened for a medal in both of these events, but ended up in 5th in the 200 freestyle and a disappointing 7th in the 100 backstroke. Perhaps, had he focused on only one of these two events, he would have won a medal this evening in Barcelona, but perhaps not. After all, how is he going to learn to handle this type of difficult schedule if he shies away from it? Phelps did not win 8 golds at his first Oympic Games, he did it at his third Olympic games. Clearly, that type of success takes some practice. Hopefully, this “practice” does not wear him out for the 400 IM–for which he is the favorite to win–which falls on the final day of competition.

Katinka Hosszu missed the final of the 200 freestyle by one place and four hundredths of a second: could this have been different had she not swum the 100 backstroke yesterday morning? Maybe, but it’s fair to assume that her stellar prelim swim yesterday must have given her even more confidence heading into the 200 IM last night: that alone probably made it worthwhile. And without the final of the 200 freestyle to think about, she can refocus her efforts to the 200 butterfly, in which is a huge threat for the gold medal.

Other swimmers are attempting Phelpsian programs at international competitions, and none have played out as successfully as it did for Michael Phelps in 2008. That only further proves how incredible Michael Phelps really was, and although we often hear the words “[insert youngster’s name here] is the next Michael Phelps,” it is going to be a long, long time before we see another swimmer who can do what Michael did, and do it as well as he did it.

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

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