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The FINA Development Program - A Success Story in the Cayman Islands! -- April 24, 2004

By Gregory Eggert

LAUSANNE, Switzerland, April 22. IN December 2003 Don Talbot spoke about the importance of a carefully constructed training program that would be a prerequisite to success at the Athens Olympic Games. Discipline and sacrifice would be required of coaches and athletes and both should be prepared to heavily invest in themselves if they hoped to have performances match or exceed their expectations advised Talbot. The former Australia Olympic coach was speaking at a FINA Swimming Coaches Clinic before an audience of Caribbean and South American coaches. Those coaches were hoping to pick up some valuable strategies that they could use to help their athletes as they prepare them for the Olympic Games.

The FINA sponsored clinic was organized and held in the Cayman Islands, one of the smallest of FINA's member federations. Coach David Kelsheimer was listening closely to the veteran coach's presentations, taking copious notes, and thinking how to best incorporate the advice from Talbot into his Olympic plan. The Cayman Island plan for the Olympic Games was years in the making and now in place. Kelsheimer first met Talbot in 1993 when he was a Queensland Tip Top Squad coach in Australia. Talbot had been promising to come to Cayman for several years and the FINA Development Program made the visit possible.

Kelsheimer was hired to coach the Cayman Islands National Team and the Stingray Swim Club in 1995 and offered this message to his athletes, "If you dedicate yourself to personal excellence and constantly strive for new personal best times, your greatest dreams will come true." The Cayman Islands Government Sports office viewed swimming not as a sport but a survival skill. Nine years later, as many as 1000 kids per week swim in the 25 meter pool in an oversubscribed learn-to-swim-schools and a successful swim team. The island nation did not have a 50 meter Olympic swimming pool when he arrived in 1995 and still is without one today. Ironically, this island nation has stamped the passports of more than 35 Olympic swimmers who have visited the Cayman Islands to train with and to conduct instructional and motivational clinics for the Cayman swimmers.

At the 1996 CARIFTA Swimming Championships the nation won its first medal ever, an impressive achievement for a nation with a population base of less than 40,000 residents. This initial success led to speculation about Cayman's participation in the Olympic Games. Kelsheimer was both confident and enthusiastic that "if we hold ourselves to the rigors of this program Cayman would one day send swimmers to represent us at the Olympic Games". Kelsheimer announced his Olympic program to his young team, "Any Cayman athlete who achieved the FINA "B" cut will have the honor of being the first athlete to represent the Cayman Islands in the Olympics". Talbot added credibility with his praise for the requirements set by Kelsheimer and during his December 2003 spent time educating coaches, board members and the public about the value of tough standards.

FINA rules allow each nation the opportunity to send one male and one female athlete to participate in the swimming competition, but Kelsheimer insisted on a higher standard for his athletes. That meant that his team members would be training through the Atlanta Olympic Games. When no members of his squad qualified for the Sydney Olympic Games, he chose to take his hardest workers to the 1st FINA Open Water World Championships in Honolulu in November 2000. Open water swimming events on Cayman were an integral part of their training plan, and the Open Water World Championships were a perfect event for the Olympic year, and also served as the first milestone for the lead-up to the Athens Olympic Games.

At the 2003 CARIFTA Swimming Championships the Cayman Islands team placed 4th in the 12 team competition; its highest finish ever. Most significantly Andrew Mackay achieved the first ever Olympic qualifying time standard by a Cayman swimmer. Mackay's best event was the 100 back, and he barely missed that cut on his way to achieving his cut in the 200 IM just 20 minutes later. Mackay later qualified to swim the 400 IM at the Pan Am Games and also represented his country in the 2003 FINA World Championships in Barcelona in July of 2003.

At the March meeting of the FINA Bureau, the Cayman Islands Aquatic Sports Association (CIASA) was awarded the right to host the 2006 Open Water World Championships. The organizing committee is already mapping plans for a November 2005 test event to be held one year out on beautiful Seven Mile Beach. In June, a Cayman Islands squad will attend the inaugural Pan American Open Water Championships in Panama. In November they plan to send a team to the 2004 Open Water World Championships in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

In April an anonymous donor contacted CIASA officials announcing their $3 million pledge towards the construction of a 10 lane 50 meter Olympic swimming pool. The new pool is expected to be ready sometime in 2006 and has been tentatively offered as a future site of the CARIFTA Swimming Championships.

On April 15th the 30 strong Cayman Island team traveled to Nassau, Bahamas for the 19th CARIFTA Swimming Championships. Coach Kelsheimer had high expectations for his team including a top three team finish, personal best times for every athlete and the achievement of additional Olympic qualifying times. The four day competition showcased the team's depth and strength in the distance freestyle events and allowed the small nation to take an early lead which it maintained until the relays of the final evening. The team from Trinidad & Tobago scored 591 points to win the team trophy, achieving a 41 point margin over the second place Cayman Island performance. The Cayman team earned 24 gold medals and a total of 46 medals. Host nation Bahamas was second in the medal count with 33 medals and earned a third place finish in the CARIFTA competition.

For the second year in a row a swimmer from Cayman Islands achieved their first Olympic qualifying time at the CARIFTA Swimming Championships. Sixteen year old Shaune Fraser, son of CIASA President Laurice Fraser, posted a time of 1:53.93 in the 200 freestyle to achieve his first Olympic qualifying. "Shaune's 200 free swim was the best performance of the meet and he also made a cut in the 400 IM but was .03 off Andrew's time, so I expect these guys to be facing off again before our entry must be submitted" said Kelsheimer.

Mackay and now Fraser will be the first and second swimmers ever to compete in the swimming competition at the Olympic Games. Both athletes plan to improve upon their qualifying times and hope to qualify in additional events. If Mackay and Fraser beat 4:20.17 which is the "A" cut they will both be allowed to swim the 400 IM, if not only the faster swimmer will be entered. Elated with his team’s performance, but not completely satisfied, Coach Kelsheimer declares "there is at least one more athlete who is capable of achieving an Olympic qualifying standard and we won't give up until we have that cut as well."

Immediately following the Short Course World Swimming Championships in October 2004, many Olympians will board flights from Indianapolis for the Cayman Islands to participate in World Swimmer's Week. World Swimmers Week is party a vacation, partly a salute to the Olympians, and always a way to inspire Cayman's future Olympians by their interaction with Olympic heroes. The first World Swimmer's Week was conducted following the 1996 Games and was successfully expanded following the Sydney Olympic Games. This year at least two of the Olympic swimmers participating in the World Swimmer's Week program already have Cayman passports and will have not only an intimate knowledge of the island, but also the respect and admiration of their teammates.