Coach Vergnoux On Surviving The Rain In Spain During Dryland Coronavirus Lockdown Season

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Fred Vergnoux, head coach to Spain, top right, sporting his Mohican cut, in conference with his team of swimmers and expert staff during pool-less lockdown in Spain - Photo Courtesy: Fred Vergnoux twitter

In our look at coaches and athletes around the globe who have had goals and plans ripped up by the coronavirus pandemic, Swimming World talked to Walter Bolognani, head coach to the Italian Junior team, about what is and what is to come as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, we catch up with Fred Vergnoux, head coach to Spain, and consider the state of play in another European country hard hit by a crisis and a resulting lockdown that transcends locked pools.

How times change: several weeks ago, Spain head coach Fred Vergnoux and his charges were heading down from on high at altitude camp in the Sierra Nevada to their first race test of Olympic year as part of a long-term plan put in place long ago, the deep, hidden work of the 2019 season in the tank, the finishing touches ahead on the way to Tokyo 2020.

In common with swim plans and programs around the world, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has shredded the script and forked it into the compost of sporting history. Water, water everywhere – but not a pool to swim in.

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Mireia Belmonte and coach Fred Vergnoux long before a time of social-distancing – Photo Courtesy: Natacio.cat

Mentor to Spain’s first female Olympic swimming champion, Mireia Belmonte, the Rio 2016 200m butterfly gold medallist, Vergnoux is a face-to-face coach, a man who lives the moment, reacts and responds and adjusts to what he sees in front of him, eyes, face, stroke, the flow and shimmer of the water, the runes of performance.

What he sees before him these days is a screen full of swimmers locked in at home and having to take a different approach to excellence in sport at a time when the only battle and challenge in town is the excellence of doctors, nurses and scientists, the call of politicians and the discipline of society. If the bug isn’t beaten, there’ll be no sport because the foundations that underpin it will have been bulldozed. Says Vergnoux:

“Right now, I am coaching from video calls and emails, I never accepted [it reasonable] to send training sessions via the internet. Today we have no other choice, and all I care about is to keep my athletes safe and happy. Nobody is swimming: this is day 13 of no-one going outside: we can’t, and here in Spain we are only just entering the ’tough’ phase this week. It will last for a while.

“We get frustrated when we see videos of swimmers training in others countries, or swimmers going to the beach, but we can only control what we can control. As Bill Sweetenham told me a few days ago, this will be a great test for everyone and for each country.”

Beyond the uncertainty of the hour, there is a thrill awaiting athletes if they want to embrace it in that spirit, Vergnoux notes:

“We are experiencing something historic. This will be the first Olympiad in five years. To win it will not be enough to do things well, but to do new things. We don’t know what awaits us. We are all before a blank page. It’s fantastic. Creativity will be decisive. We can’t think of this as a break.

“We must take advantage of each day to do cardio, strengthen the trunk, gain flexibility, do weights, prepare ourselves mentally … We cannot think that this, like every Olympic year, will begin on September 1. We do not even know the calendar that we have ahead: we do not know when the Games will be held, if in May, July or August, or if the Swimming World Cup will be held sooner or later.”

Reality On The Ground

Positivity also demands that we may attention to reality, Vergnoux suggests.

As of this morning, Spain had registered 57,786 confirmed coronavirus cases, the death rate at 4,365, with 7,015 people recovered and 46,406 people working through the illness, of which 43,240 were reported as “mild” and 3,166 (7%) the number of people in serious or critical condition. The country is in lockdown, the spike of infections and deaths yet ahead, according to the predictions of experts, although there are signs that containment measures are working and that a levelling off and then a decline in illness is on the cards as long as the nation sees through an enormous challenge to people, to the discipline of people and the economy that sustains them.

The strain on health services and healthcare workers is enormous – and is set to last some weeks just for dealing with the coronavirus, let alone the recovery and rehabilitation of people and systems beyond that, mourning and mental healing in the mix of things many accused the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of giving scant, if any, thought to when maintaining a mantra of “Games must go on” until athletes and federations and others decided for the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organisers that they could not.

Vergnoux is less concerned about the state of sports governance this hour than the state of self-governance in each and every one of us with responsibility to others when it comes to following social-distancing instructions. He notes what has been noted by many from realms diverse in Europe:  “We [humans] have failed miserably already –  to simply listen and anticipate what the outcome could be if we don’t heed the advice of experts. We want to show that we can keep a strong economy while ‘partially’ staying at home. Korea and China have a different discipline; here it’s going to last longer [if people don’t listen and act accordingly].”

Mireia BELMONTE GARCIA of Spain on her way out of the pool after competing in the women's 400m Individual Medley (IM) Heats during the 17th European Short Course Swimming Championships held at the Jyske Bank BOXEN in Herning, Denmark, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

Mireia Belmonte – feet out of water – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Spain, in common with other countries, has bought millions of protective masks from China because it does not manufacture them at home, where hotels have become hospitals and, as it is in Italy, military camps have been converted its hospitals, too, as the curve of infections rises. On the sidelines of the only show that matters, swimming is a forgotten world for all not directly involved. Says Vergnoux:

“All clubs have gone under restriction, financially all coaches and staff have been reduced since day 1 of the quarantine, and gone under a ‘dole’ system. We might be ok for now [federation jobs in the realm of subsidised sport are safer than most] but we will also have to accept the same situation next week.”

And the week after and the one after that … until the bug is beaten.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have been postponed but hard to plan for what comes next, Vergnoux notes:

“All we know now is that the Olympics will be in 2021 but we have to wait to know when that will be.”

Looking at the positives, Vergnoux noted:

“We hear from Japan this morning that it might be in May, so the marathon would remain in Tokyo, and the open water, triathlon, etc would race under ’safer’ conditions. And also Japanese citizens will have some peace in the summer!”

Nothing is certain, of course, Australian International Olympic Committee member John Coates having indicated that the top table will come to a decision fin dates “within the next four weeks”.

Until then, “things change every minute just now,” notes Vergnoux, adding: “Until we have the dates, we cannot plan. Planning is easy, not having a focus is difficult, especially for the athletes. We have no idea when the European Championships will happen (late August has been cited by the European swimming league as a provisional date that may come too soon, depending on the course of the Coronavirus pandemic).”

Says Vergnoux: “There’s a plan for the last week of August 2020, but if there are no Olympics I don’t see how LEN could organise a competition (so soon after the big event now cancelled). Probably, a shift from May 2020 to May 2021 could work but again it depends on the Olympics final dates. And saying that and looking at what’s happening here in Spain, things might last a lot longer. “

Come what may, the 2021 swim season will present difficult choices for athletes and coaches even without a European Championships. Vergnoux noted with a nod to Fukuoka 2021 World titles scheduled for July-August next year and an International Swimming League season set to fill a northern winter season from September to April:

“When do you put a World Championships between ’now’ (end of the pandemic) and before the Olympics? Can you have the World champs and the Olympics in the same year … etc., etc.: there are a lot of things to reflect on. As stated by other coaches, I agree that the ISL and FINA should use their time in these days [of closure] to build something amazing for the swimmers [in terms of providing] the perfect match on perfect dates in early season” as soon as its possible to get back to race practice, with clear dates and deadlines for what is likely to be a 2021 season like no other season before it.”

What It Means For Mireia Belmonte & Co On The Ground In Dryland Season

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Photo Courtesy: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

Belmonte is 29 – and as El Pais reporter Diego Torres notes in an article under the headline “Mireia Belmonte, the champion facing a blank page”, no swimmer under the age of 27 has ever claimed Olympic gold in the events she is targeting for Tokyo2020(1), the defence of the 200m butterfly crown and the 400m medley.

There’s also the 800m freestyle on the list of ‘events I also made the Olympic podium in’, while the women’s 1500m freestyle has no precedent in Olympic waters, Tokyo the debut ahead, Belmonte, who excels in open water, too, never to be counted out, even come the hour she enters the water as a thirty something.

Her next ‘feliz cumpleaños‘ falls November 10, Belmonte having been born a little over two years after the Barcelona 1992 Games in what would become the backyard in which her own Olympic pantheon would be built with pioneering panache.

Belmonte is a national sporting hero: the gold is backed top by the biggest Olympic medal haul among Spanish athletes at the Games, two silvers and a bronze. Add in 8 world titles, one of them long-course (200m butterfly, 2017), six silvers and two bronzes in global waters, 13 European titles and the rest in a tally of 24 gold, 20 silver and 7 bronze for Spain in international waters and you get a household name much loved in her homeland.

Mireia Belmonte of Spain reacts poolside after competing in the women's 200m Butterfly Heats during the 13th FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships at WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, 07 December 2016.

Challenges along the way – Mireia Belmonte – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

At 25 in Rio, she became a pioneer for her country, for women in her country, for the pace and age of swimmers in her country – and beyond. In this time of passage from 20s to 30s, Belmonte’s challenge is not what it was as a teen nor even what it was on the way to Rio while navigating, with the experts around her, the choppy seas of shoulder injury.

The pool is to the swimmer what the air is to a bird, the sea to a fish. Thriving means to be as one with the element. It’s why we find Vergnoux, an advocate of cross training whose swimmers are used to working outside the water, telling Torres, sadness tangible:

“Swimmers go off without a pool. I fear that after this quarantine some will stay on drylands.”

Where Physiology Is Paramount

In swimming, Therese Alshammar, Federica Pellegrini, Dara Torres, Anthony Ervin, Michael Phelps and Mark Warneke before all of them are examples of swimmers who excelled in their youth and as thirty somethings – but none over 200m, and only Phelps and Pellegrini over 200m.

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Michael Phelps the boy – Photo Courtesy: Baltimore Sun

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Michael Phelps the man – Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Iñigo Mugika, the master physiologist working with Vergnoux and the Spanish swim federation (RFEN). He tells Torres in El Pais:

“It is a matter of limiting physiological decline. We know that for endurance sports activities there is no significant decline before the age of 30 and if there were, we know that it can be fully compensated with training and long-term planning, with adequate nutrition and with a lifestyle that guarantee health and the maintenance of physiological qualities that allow you to perform at that level. I have worked with Eneko Llanos for a long time and he was almost 43 in the last Ironman he won, and he was under eight hours, and I worked with Ainoa Murua , who competed in four Games and in Rio she was 38”.

“More relevant than age is being able to maintain the motivation to be an elite athlete 24 hours a day and 365 days a year and be able to take on new challenges. This is the case of great champions like Phelps, who won everything but was still motivated to continue training day after day after returning successfully, beyond retirement, at the age of 30.”

Phelps claimed back his signature prize at Rio 2016: 200m butterfly gold, as a thirty something.

Why not Belmonte, say the experts around her, especially at a time when no-one has got back down to her winning 2:04.85 from Rio. No sub-2:05s have been swum since that season four years ago.

Raúl Arellano, biomechanic and analyst for the Spanish team, tells Torres:

“The one who innovates best and adapts to the situation will be the one who wins the gold. Perhaps until winter it will be difficult to compete at a sufficient level. There are two striking things: first, there is the swimmer who may have had this coronavirus – it is not known to what extent it could affect his respiratory system. For people who need extraordinary ventilation capacity this may not be good. And then there is the question of how they recover from this transition period. The swimmers, except the long-term injured, never stopped in such long periods without getting into a pool. Swimming is very different to other sports in that regard. There are specific biomechanical factors and psychological components. The uncertainty affects swimmers more than many other athletes.”

The here and now

Two weeks into Spanish house arrest Vergnoux tells Swimming World:

“We try each day to find positives in this crazy situation, and training has become somehow creative and I get to realise that there are many things to do at home! We now understand that this Olympiad will be a 5 years period, and what we do today will determine the most important season, which is the one to come. Adaptation on a daily basis! Personally I have time with my family, which has never been the case before, so I’m full on with Lego, puzzles, Harry Potter etc!”

Scourgify, Tergeo, Expecto Patronum*, the Citius, Altius, Fortius of the age.

  • * – Potter’s spells for ‘Cleans things’; ‘Cleans off surfaces’; a spell to conjure joy, happiness and hope – and send messages to those you want to hear them