How The International Swimming League Took Flight

Caeleb Dressel - the League look flight in 2019 ... much more to come - Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

The International Swimming League was the creation of Konstantin Grigorishin. The boss, founder and funder of the will be delighted was not in Las Vegas to see his vision unfold at the first Final Match in League history. Visa issues meant that the power player of Ukraine’s power sector was unable to be there in person but if (if there could be any doubt) he was watching on the TV, he will surely have been cheering as Energy Standard, the prototype international squad he created, claimed the first ISL Trophy at the dawn of the Pro-Team eras in the pool.

On a day of thrills and spills as the first International Swimming League season drew to a nail-biting finish, there is much to say. Our coverage of the first Final Match includes:

Grigorishin built the Energy Standard Team and placed James Gibson, head coach, and Andrea Di Nino, manager (before he became managing director of the League), at the helm a few years before the League left the drawing board bound for the welcoming ear of athletes and coaches.

The idea of Energy was set out very clearly by Gibson and Di Nino, founder of the eponymous ADN Project that included swimmers from many nations, in a series of interviews with this author back in the summer of 2017. It was the start of a revolution in swimming that is yet in its infancy.

Swimming reimagined…

There’ll be more to say on it all from all of them and all of us in the coming days and weeks… for now:

  • Extracts from the archive of interviews from 2017 can be read below our Photo Gallery of great images from La Presse’s Gian Mattia D’Alberto and Fabio Ferrari:

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From The Craig Lord Archive, reproduced with permission

Summer 2017

Why ‘Fully Pro-Program’ Will Do More Than Sock It To The Status Quo – Gibson

Calls for swimming to ‘go-pro’ are on the wind, change and improvement the theme, but such things are not only confined to representation of coaches and swimmers in the decision-making process of their sport. New model armies are on the move in the pool.  SwimVortex caught up with coach James Gibson to find out a little bit more about a work in progress called the Energy Standard Swimming Club

“Fully professional program”. In current parlance in the pool, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the term applies to all swimmers who are based at a national centre of excellence or similar world-class set-up – and that that status falls well shy of where swimmers could be just a few short years from now as athletes start to insist on a decision-making role and politicians wake up to the idea that it has to happen.The issues spill well beyond the limited debate about one bad world cup model or another. In future tense, the meaning of the mission at Energy Standard Swimming Club extends the swimming offer beyond the established order of things.

It was on show at the Foro Italico in Rome last week in the fledgling form of a gathering at the Sette Colli Meet that brought the likes of Chad le Clos (RSA), Ben Proud, Georgia Davies, Rachael Kelly (all GBR), Kliment Kolesnikov(RUS) and many others together under one banner regardless of where they hail from and what country code they race for. Their language and culture is swimming – and clean sport, all the more important where Russians are seeking to shape a future that makes a break with a past they want no part of.

Ben Proud – by Ian MacNicol

Chad Le Clos – by Patrick B. Kraemer

The model of engagement with swimming being developed by Energy is both challenging for those guiding it and a challenge to the status quo.

The latter includes well established models that follow the linear pattern of learn-to-swim, local club, regional selection, national squad, subsidisation and national excellence centre – and then top funding once the medal is hanging around your neck.

Placing distance and a far-away, overseas-based program between athlete and their federation is not unknown, college swimmers in the U.S. a case in point, but such things have been distinctly discouraged down the years. As such, Energy’s model, in which funding and support comes not from HQ and official source but somewhere beyond the control of “system” is bound to be challenging, is it not, I ask Energy head coach James Gibson.

One word comes back: “Yes.” He pauses and adds:

“The model we’re putting out there is both welcome and popular and that’s going to be very challenging for the status quo.”

Swimming as a job that requires and hones skills and disciplines transportable to the rest of a lifetime, swimming as team work not only with your national mates but with training partners from all over the world who sign up for the business of being professional in swimming and prepared for life when the racing is done; swimming as common language and passion shared, understood, respected; and all underpinned by a signature that agrees to ‘Fair Play or leave the water’.

All of that is already of this world in various guises at programs far and wide.

Where, though, do you find a multi-national club that provides a professional pathway for swimmers from junior starter with potential all the way to the Olympic podium; that funds the way of youth swimmers from two or more countries and their coaches; provides the facilities and back-up for them, provides exchange meets and training camps at which national teamsters and aspirers from five or more countries gather to race and learn from each other; has centres in several countries; and to top it all has an elite program world-class stars from various nations signed up to tailored preparation with shared values?

Konstantin Grigorishin addressing teams at the Energy Standard Cup this year – courtesy of Energy Standard

Energy, that’s where. The founder and president of the club is Konstantin Grigorishin, described by Forbes as having “made his fortune selling metallurgy products from Ukraine to Russia in the late 1980s and eventually became a big trader in the metals market of the former USSR”. Today he is the lead shareholder in Energy Standard Group, which owns several electric energy equipment factories in Ukraine. Grigorishin loves to swim and, Forbes notes “has an art collection estimated by Lloyd’s to be worth $300 million.”

If he is not your standard swimming club owner, he is not a standard oligarch either (indeed, he rejects the term): in a feature on Grigorishin in Ukraine’s Kyiv Post last December analysts Volodymyr Fesenko and Vitaly Bala say he is “not an oligarch in the classical sense because his links to politics and media are rather tenuous, compared to other tycoons”. They conclude:

“Moreover, his apparent support for anti-corruption and reform agenda pursued by liberal media and politicians is criticised as a sign of political influence by some but is seen as an upside by others. All of this makes him one of Ukraine’s most unique and unusual tycoons.”

Any support for anti-corruption and reform agendas are more than likely to be seen as “upside” at this website and would be welcome far and wide in swimming, too. Grigorishin is in the pool for other reasons, however.

As Gibson puts it: “The owner loves swimming – that’s his thing. We’re about developing the sport as well as the individuals and setting them up not just for success in the pool but with the skills and tools to take on the rest of life, too.”

James Gibson, from World-Championswimmer to coach and now the head mentor on the decks at the pioneering Energy Standard Club of international swimmers – images by Energy and Patrick B. Kraemer

His new role is somewhat back-to-the-future for Gibson. As a world-class athlete, he also had access to some fine folk down the years, at home and in the pool, who guided him down pathways of learning to places where he knew the highs of winning and progress and the lows of setback and disappointment. So much of what he learned is fresh in a 37-year-old who five years ago could be found on the deck guiding Florent Manaudou to French gold in the 50m freestyle at London 2012 before he returned to his aquatic alma mater in Loughborough.

Team matters – and here is how, he notes, casting an eye across the pool in Lignano as the squad-based Energy Cup gets underway for youth teams from Italy, Germany and Spain taking on the  Energy crew from Russia and Ukraine:

“We made the format for the meet one that’s team based. You can feel the change in atmosphere when you do that: there’s a great atmosphere here today and that’s always the way when you swim for your country. It’s the same for all of them here today: when they race for their team, performance goes up. Look at the US duel meet system and at how successful the Duel in the Pool was in Glasgow when the whole meet came down to a tie-break relay. There’s something about swimming in teams that brings out the best in people. We’re trying to capture the spirit of the U.S. college system and NCAAs. And there’s this aspect to it: team events are a little bit friendlier, too.”

By that he means that such meets unfold in a competitive spirit but without the expectation that the swim needs to deliver as personal best, a record and a career high every time a swimmer hits the water. Racing, the thrill and fun of it, is the focus. Says Gibson:

“One thing we learned when preparing for the Olympics in Britain is that racing, regular racing, not being scared to get up and race are part of the essential habits and skills the swimmer needs. What’s the purpose of training? Performance: the race. So, my philosophy is to race as much as you can.”

If a sprint-based athlete “trains all these kilometres and does all these hard sets”, says Gibson, then alongside that “racing should just be the norm – something you do – and do well – on a regular basis.”

Take Le Clos, Adam Peaty (GBR), Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) and many others: a clear pattern of targeted racing throughout the season and often at impressive pace – though each of them with goals and focusses unique to self and occasion.

On that score, I ask about Gibson’s new elite squad and the work Chad Le Clos is doing as a new Energy recruit with the head coach of his CLC Academy from South Africa, Bobby Hurley, the former Australian international.

I assume that Le Clos (left, photo courtesy of Energy Standard), Proud and others are not all ploughing up and down to the beat of the same program. Their work is tailored, is it not? Says Gibson:

“It has to be. Education wise, my own, we worked with Nigel Redman [retired England Rugby lock who in 2014 was appointed by British Swimming as Elite Coach Development Manager] on individualising a lot of the things that pertain to specific people. I’m a coach and I’m from London and I’m currently coaching folk who grew up in eastern Ukraine and Malaysia and elsewhere. You actually begin to understand that everyone has different value sets, they are brought up in different ways and its about finding ways to connect and communicate with these people.

“For me, coaching is more of a psychological thing: finding ways to get a good fit between the athlete and the coach. This is what we’re trying to do with them.”

That said, the Energy Standard program involves grouping of like skills, Gibson focussing on a sprint shoal, for example, and swimmers who follow more similar paths that those the club’s distance group are following.

 Professional Focus

Gibson seeks professional dedication  from all who sign up for Energy, regardless of where they sit along the spectrum of new recruit to the development ranks through to Olympic podium placers. There’s a journey ahead, he says:

“We’ve come along very quickly. There are going to be growing pains, There will be learning to be done within our organisation. We’re not going to get there overnight. We have a direction and we’re very fortunate that the people I’m working with are keen on learning and progressing themselves.”

In words that echo the plan and process being put in place by Proud’s former mentor Jon Rudd in his new role at the helm of the Irish national program, Gibson adds:

“You have to invest in staff and the people around you. Better people make better coaches; better people make better team managers; better people make better physios and massage therapists. We’re getting there with our appointments; we still need a full-time physiotherapist. We have very good consultants on physiotherapy, nutrition, strength and conditioning.”

There are also a good set of mentors at hand when it comes to passing on the tips and experience of world-class experience and outcome, in the form of Milorad Cavic, Evgeny Korotyshkin, Peter Mankoc and others who formed part of the ADN Swim project and still do.

All of the coaches working in the Russian and Ukraine operations of Energy were in place before Gibson arrived. The head coach says:

James Gibson, second left, and some of the staff he is working with – courtesy of Energy Standard

“The staff we have so far, we’re very happy with: we’ve made no external appointments yet. We’re investing in the people we’ve got. The reason they’re here is because they’re on journey with us. We need to bring the staff up to a higher standard. They’re working on it and embracing it.”

Events such as the Energy Cup, which bring together the national youth teams of several nations each year to race with the Energy team, are not only there to serve the swimmers and the original purpose of providing International expose to young athletes from Russia and Ukraine. Coaches, too, are on a learning curve.

Those guiding and those being guided were gathered in Lignano to hear some key messages earlier this season. Many will be in Netanya, Israel, at the European Junior Championships. They have youth ambitions but their sights are already set on bigger things.

As coach Andrea Di Nino, the general manager at Energy, noted: “One of the strongest messages they heard today was that there will be an Olympic champion in the room. A champion of the future. The kids will aspire, set their sights to that level. The coaches can hear these words in a different way: it is the responsibility of the staff to develop young athletes in the right way.

“At the Energy Cup, we see different cultures, we hear different languages: these people had never spent time together and they are so excited to be here together and then on top off that there is Milorad Cavic and they are listening to his every word and thinking ‘wow, this guy has something to tell me’. In part, that helps to set the culture, the right [tone].”

Teams eat, compete, attend presentations, go on outings together. Gibson notes that teams from Britain and France have also attended and that all who do realise that they are “people on a special journey and that they are sharing that with fellow swimmers from many countries – and those people are no alien. They are like them: committed to dedication, honouring their talent and the disciplines that go with all off that.”

Di Nino intervenes: “Whether they are Russian, Ukrainians, Italians … they are sitting down together as friends who love swimming and they are learning from each others: it makes me very happy to see that.”

Chad le Clos addressing Energy swimmers on training camp – courtesy of Energy Standard

How good would it be if the presentation delivered by Cavic and many similar things going on around the world in individual programs and national-team units were a part of the culture of world swimming from the top downwards in a way that speaks to ideas being discussed for the future shape of swimming? Says Di Nino:

“It is a huge loss not to have these guys, these former athletes and big medal winners in swimming, working with the next generation and passing on the right ethics, the right approach, setting the tone for the whole sport.”

Kliment Kolesnikov leads the Energy team out at the Cup meet this year – courtesy of Energy Standard

In Lignano, habits becoming ingrained (some already well ingrained) were on display in the pool as well as out of it, the dining room a place where teenagers breeze past vast choices of food and chose a balanced diet of sales, fruits, fish and much else without being told what’s good for them. They know it. Says Gibson:

“One of the things that is obvious about working with my team and the coaches and kids that come from Russia and Ukraine is that they have good discipline. In fact, very good discipline in almost every aspect of life and they are very professional from an early age.

“Our job is to shape them in the right direction and give them the correct discipline and models to follow. The rest will follow.”

In the midst of the youth ranks are the likes of super talent Kliment Kolesnikov. Says Gibson: “We have a long-term responsibility to him: we have to make sure he’s properly managed through the rest of his career.

“That’s the way we look at the who project: we’re here for the long-term, the development not only of athletes but young humans who will benefit from all off this beyond their racing days.”

Energising Fair Play: ‘This is critical – We are clean or we are nothing’ – James Gibson

In the sky full of stars shining in Rome at the start of Sette Colli International action today is a new-model aquatic galaxy gathering momentum: Chad le Clos, Ben Proud, Evgeny Rylov, for example, will all race with their country code next to their names on the scoreboard but all will also race as teammates in the fledgling elite squad at Energy Standard Swimming Club.  Working in the Energy group of late are Canadians, such as Mary-Sophie Harvey and her coach Tom Rushton.  Swimming gone global in a different way. Over the weekend, SwimVortex will take a look at his the project is developing, what its key goals are and where it wants to get to. Today, we consider what head coach James Gibson calls “critical” to the success of a professional set-up with lofty ambitions: clean sport. 

If you have a goal, a mission, in world-class sport, best set the bar as high as high can be, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be doing just that.

Gibson, a world champion himself in 2003, did not flinch at the mission of Energy Standard’s owner Konstantin Grigorishin but he did understand the what comes with tall aspirations:

“I arrived in November 2016 and the remit was clear: to develop the world’s first fully professional program. The vision of the president is to be the best swimming club in the world. That’s a big responsibility for me – and a challenge, too.”

Consider Gibson’s words carefully:

  • the world’s first fully professional program
  • the world’s best swimming club

The latter is harder than the former, not because there is no abundance of professionalism out there in the wider swimming world but simply because “fully professional” is something that does not exist in swimming, while “world’s best swimming club” means competing against programs that have produced legions of Olympic podium placers.

With Energy, there are added challenges beyond the coaching of swimmers and squads, too: language and culture wrapped in levels like a matryoshka doll: there’s standard, then sport, then swimming specific, performance specific, long-term development and, at the heart of it all a keen need to keep it clean, not only for the sake of the program as a whole but the health, welfare and prospects of a generation of talented Russians who will grow up as the ambassadors of a new start for a country in a need of one.

Energy for the next wave: (clockwise from top left) Evgeny Korotyshkin, Milorad Cavic and Peter Mankoc against a backdrop of the parade of teams at the Energy Standard Cup

Gibson is both learning a language and teaching one. At the Energy Cup in Lignano of late, Babylon was being broken down to common cause and interest among the youth teams of Italy, Germany, Russia, Spain and Ukraine gathered for a team event aimed at building not only a competitive spirit and matching skills but also the respect that follows if you make Fair Play a core value.

Given all that has happened in Russian sport of late, it would have been understandable if Gibson had opted to bring a travelling circus of experts with him to Energy when the club decided it wanted to add an elite international squad to its offer and set up satellite programs in Moscow and Kiev. The 2003 World 50m breaststroke champion chose trust and put his faith in the folk already working at the Energy club. He tells SwimVortex:

“When it comes to Eastern European culture, there’s a steep learning curve. That comes with working with different people and cultures. I was given a free reign to do what I want and I could have brought in assistant coaches of my own or opt to work with the coaches already involved with the club. My decision was to work with coaches already involved in the club.”

There is much to do but Gibson is in no rush to get there. “I’m taking time with planning. There are changes in the structure of the club due in September this year.”

For starters, there will be centres in Moscow and Kiev to run alongside the core elite program based at the Gloria centre in Turkey.

At the helm of Mission Energy as founder and president is Grigorishin, a man who knows what business and financial success looks like and what it takes. Money can’t buy success in sport but it can help to put in place the expertise and good guidance required to unlock and develop world-class potential in the ranks of raw talent signed up to Energy.

James Gibson – courtesy of Energy Standard

Good culture spills from the top. So what is the boss like? Gibson barely hesitates before replying:

“Konstantin is amazing. Amazing for our sport, too. He’s been involved with this for four years already. Its his passion and he drove this from a junior level. The investment in youth there past four years has been significant. There’s not many people in the world that will currently support junior swimming, let alone senior internationals.

“The vision for him was to provide support for the youth of Russia and Ukraine and he now wants to move that support into senior international ranks, which is why I’m here.”

Support anything Russian at the moment in sport and raised eyebrows will be a part of stock response.

Understandably so, given the weight of woe at the height, depth and width of a doping crisis that transcended the constant fight for clean sport and included a systematic element to cheating, the involvement of official institutions and even secret services in the cover-up associated with the Winter Olympic Games and others events, according to WADA investigators following up media investigations.

There is no getting away from the criminal nature of what unfolded in Sochi – and this week brought confirmation that the IOC will impose further penalties on Russia even at a time when reform is underway as part of a clean-up exercise and new start.

Evgeny Korotyshkin – anti-doping campaigner at ADN, with the RUSADA paperwork after he called on them to come and test him on a regular basis.

To this day, questions go unanswered by FINA, the Russian swimming federation and others when it comes to positive EPO tests that were never reported. The Russian clean-up, in which Evgeny Korotyshkin is a key player, runs parallel with the awkward silence of officials who were there when bad things were unfolding – and, as yet, remain there.

None are more acutely aware of the risk of taint than those running Energy as they invest in the youth of Russia (and elsewhere) with a view to a brighter future in which the call to the blocs of a Russian competitor will be greeted once more to cheers and not the booing and jeering that swimmers, coaches and others felt oblige to engage in at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to make their feelings known to those who allowed all with a doping record in tow to return to racing.

Swimming is at saturation point when it comes to tolerating cheats in its midst. The eponymous ADN Swim Project founded by coach Andrea Di Nino was among those ahead of that curve. He got his charges to sign anti-doping contracts some years ago. That culture has now passed to Energy though Di Nino’s involvement and Gibson’s backing of that as head coach.

With that in mind, good to know what the boss thinks. Had Gibson spoken to Grigorishin about the doping issue? No hesitation:

“Absolutely this is one of the fundamentals we have had many conversations about. We take a hard-hitting approach. I’d say our anti-doping policy within the club is probably the hardest in the world of swimming, to the extent that we even impose our own penalties on athletes who miss tests.

“We understand how critical that issue is to our future development. The message to every swimmer is very clear: we support anti-doping and that is reinforced when we invite ex-professional swimmers, ex-Olympians, to come and speak to our guys.”

Milorad Cavic

In Lignano at the Energy Cup earlier this season, Olympic silver medallist and World champion Milorad Cavic gave a terrific presentation to youth teams from Italy, Germany, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. He spoke to athletes from five countries and aged 15 to 18 on the theme of ‘how to win – and how to win right’. Alongside Cavic were former training partners, fellow Olympic medallist Korotyshkin and Peter Mankoc, a world s/c champion who is the winningest man the history of the 100m medley. Says Gibson:

“Education is a priority for us. We’ve had those three older Olympic medallists come and talk to the kids on ethics and just how to do things right, the need to be an educated athlete and have the right values.”

Is it fair to say that anti—doping is one of the first messages club members hear when they arrive? Says Gibson: “Yes, its the backbone. In the current climate – and I’m going to say global climate, not picking out any particular nation – that has to be our approach.

“This is critical for us. Our key swimmers, like Chad le Clos, Ben Proud, Evgeny Rylov, they are all signed up to this and they follow the code very strictly. We are clean or we are nothing.”

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