Olympic Great Shane Gould Speaks Out on Seeking Insights Into Swimming

Editor's Note: Recently, Australin Olympic great Shane Gould made some statements during an interview — statements that were widely reported and, she contends, misunderstood out of context. Here she explains, in detail, what she meant. –P.W.

By Shane Gould

SYDNEY, May 28. ON May 25th, 2006 I made some comments on SEN radio in Melbourne that caused a furor in the swimming coaching community. I would like to explain my comments and post some related questions.

I am an observer who is seeking insight into swimming. I am curious about why people like to swim, what makes for speed and efficiency. Furthermore, I want to know why people leave competitive swimming or stop swimming for fitness or enjoyment. I'm also curious about Australians and the confidence and identity we have around things to do with water.

My recent exhibition of underwater photographs in Sydney is an example of one way I seek insights to swimming. Another way I sought insight was by competing as the oldest ever competitor in the Australian Open swimming championships in 2004 in the 50m butterfly. I came 60th out of 66, and gained huge understanding from the experience and process.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics I won 5 individual medals — 3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze — and held world records in 6 different events: 100 200 400 800 1500 freestyle and 200IM. I had no involvement with competitive swimming from 1974 to 1998. I was away from swimming, for the most part, beginning in 1974, when I retired from competition.

I became involved with swimming again in 1998 during the lead-up to the Sydney Games. Since then I have traveled the world and encountered swimmers of all ages, interests and abilities. I've been in places diverse as – Thailand, Fiji, aboriginal communities, country and city Australia, Iran, USA, Japan, Portugal, Denmark, Wales, Scotland, England, and New Zealand. Swimmers I've associated with are the whole range: ocean swimmers, recreational and competitive, triathletes, competitive age groupers, masters, elite, school kids, learn-to-swim and world record holders.

In this time I just noticed things – from my unique perspective. The comments I made on radio are from joining the dots of my observations.
These are some recurring patterns I have noticed:
* Swimming is very popular and is taught generally by ethical and responsible people.

* Swimmers are keen for information about how to swim better and faster.

* There is an unusual number of swimmers, young and older, who have shoulder pain or injuries requiring medical attention.

* There appears to be a high incidence of immune system disorders/sickness among competitive swimmers. This seems to be accepted within the culture as inevitable.

* Coaches have worked hard to establish recognition as professionals.

* I hear of bullying by some coaches of young athletes, causing emotional distress, poor performances, or dropping out of the sport.

* The practise of national teams to go on long training camps prior to the Olympics appears to be unhelpful to fast swimming.

From these patterns I think the following needs to be discussed:

1. There needs to be an investigation into the huge number of incidents of injury and illness in swimming, Chronic fatigue, glandular fever, pain and injury in shoulders backs, hips, immune system disorders, Epstein-Barre virus, flu, chlorine related allergies, exercise induced asthma, eating disorders, (and unrecorded emotional and life incompetence post swimming mostly of the "9th placers.")

2. I am not saying that swimmers should do less training; I actually think they don't train hard enough. But it's not hard in the sense of more miles and exertion that's required (that seems to dull the nervous system which creates sickness and injury), but training needs to be harder to challenge and stimulate mental and physical intelligence. It seems, that current training methods have come to their limit for performance potential. I want to see that swimming continues to get faster AND keep swimmers healthy.

3. I made the comment on radio that Don Talbot 'robbed me of two gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.' The 6 week training camp plus 2 weeks in Germany before the racing began was led by Don Talbot who had contributed nothing to my development or performances up to that point. The environment and the type of training I was directed to do by Don Talbot on the pre-Olympic camp was very different from what had made me extremely successful up to that date. As an athlete, I am certain that if I had continued to train and prepare, and develop in my own environment with my coach Forbes Carlile and assistant Tom Green, I would have performed better at the Olympics.

For myself and other athletes, this is our one time moment, gained through a profound commitment of personal time and resources and life choices. For coaches like Don, adjustments can be made for next time and life goes on with the athlete's name on their resume and time to try something different for their next time. Other swimmers from this and other, more recent Olympics, have said the same thing to me about these training camps.

The tradition of these long, pre Olympic training camps are perpetuating mistakes unrecognised from the past. Athletes are in a successful process leading up to selection for the team, and then all of the factors in their environment are changed abruptly, which makes little sense. It is as though a "super-process" is suddenly introduced to add performance. If this is true, why not engage in this super-process, or at least elements of it, throughout the entire development process of the athlete?

Where is the proof that this camp process is the most effective approach? We really have only the opinion of coaches, administrators, and athletes (who have no other experience for for comparison). The camp I went on in '72 harmed my natural abilities to sprint and endure (100 to 800m events), was boring and took me out of my life rhythms. I was on fire in my own environment with Forbes Carlile and Tom Green, my home, school, and family routines, which were interrupted arbitrarily with no say on my part. This process of camps continues to this day, and, while they may have value to coaches, scientists, and administrators, I question their contribution to performance of the athletes, Again, if these camps produce better performance, where is the proof?

* I think the tradition of swimming training camps in Australia began in 1956 when the Melbourne Olympics were in November, the end of southern hemisphere winter. Because pools weren't heated then, swimmers went to Townsville for several months to train during the winter where the air and water were warm. Continuing these training camps is like having a traditional Sunday roast – the sheep was killed on Saturday afternoon and hung overnight. With no refrigeration the leg wouldn't fit in the cooler, so it had to be cooked on Sunday. Fridges mean we can eat a roast any day. Also: selection trials used to be in February at the National Championships, but the actual racing may not be for another 6 months – in late August 1972 for me. (Selection trials in Australia are now only 2 to 3 months from the event). In this time a swimmer who is on the team may not be training adequately for the event. With heated pools, mobile telephones, video recording, high speed internet broadcasting and mobility of scientists and their equipment, swimmers should be able to be watched and tested for fitness and performance while in their home environment.

4. Don Talbot is amongst the generation of coaches who struggled to gain recognition as professionals. He personally has made a significant contribution to swimming, its organization and practise.
* Re: describing Don as 'touchy-feely' wasn't a negative statement; I was describing Don as a person who is more kinaesthetic in expressing himself than say a verbally expressive person.

When I said "and leave my bum alone" on the radio, it was a shock tactic that got more air than I intended. I forgot that there have been a number of recent cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour by coaches with swimmers. Don Talbot was totally ethical with me when I swam as a teenager. I met him again after 30 years at a conference. He affectionately patted me on the bum to say hi and give me a compliment on how healthy I looked at 45 years old. I was surprised and felt uncomfortable with his over-familiarity with me as an adult.

5. Don Talbot had a style of coaching that has been copied by Bill Sweetenham and others around the world. Don's nickname, "Ming the Merciless" was [given to him] for good reason. But this style of coaching has damaging rituals, systems, methodologies, and attitudes that have had a trickle-down effect. Twenty to 30 years later, this style is used in remote areas, poor countries, and to the huge population of non-elite athletes who participate in the culture of the youth sport of age group swimming, which is an end unto itself for its participants, and not a pathway to elite swimming.

6. My coach Forbes Carlile had a saying hung on a wall in the pool I swam in: "Miles makes champions". Swimmers do perform better doing 30 or 40 miles a week compared with about 20 that used to be done in the 1960's. In the 80's and 90's "Even more miles might be better'" was the beginning of a higher incidence of shoulder injuries. Stretching and specific strengthening and rehabilitation or swimming abstinence has helped elite level swimmers to cope with "miles". But the cause of the problems – stroke patterns and training loads on top of lifestyle postures from 21st century sitting and screen time are not being re-evaluated.

Swimming is generally a conservative sport done by young people and run by volunteers and overworked coaches who have little time for research and creativity. Creativity and a common sense understanding of how the body naturally functions in the forces of physics is needed, not more miles and heavier weights in the gym. How much weight can a tuna press?

My comments on SEN radio were criticized as irresponsible for raising personal 'beef' and casting a dark shadow on the sport of swimming that has a lot of positive outcomes from being involved. There are a lot of positive outcomes but there are also a lot of negative outcomes from swimming that are being ignored.

I think I am being very responsible by speaking out. No one else is. It is time questions were raised.

There are only about 50 national team swimmers and about 300 on the short list who may get some measure of specialist attention to prevent and manage injury. There are over 200,000 registered swimmers in Australia and many more probably millions of school swimmers and self-motivated adult swimmers who copy movement patterns and training methods from the champions – via coaching manuals, articles and videos sold by Australian Swimming and by watching how the current best swimmers train and move. These people live out the legacy of the elite swimmers and it is to these swimmers I feel responsible because, as an elite athlete who contributed to the popularity of swimming, I was once, and still am to a certain extent, part of the reason why many people swim for fitness and for sport.

We need more information, of course, and these are my opinions, so I hope my questions will create discussion to come up with answers. I would be happy to be proved wrong. If my opinions are accurate I would be even happier to have institutional changes made to the culture of the activity and sport of swimming I love.