Tips On Athlete Sustainability From Therese Alshammar – Swedish Sprint Ace & Model Of Swimming Longevity

Therese ALSHAMMAR of Sweden competes in the women's 100m Butterfly Semifinal 2 at the European Swimming Championship at the Hajos Alfred Swimming complex in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
Therese Alshammar - Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer ©

2020s Vision – after introducing the theme of Athlete Sustainability, we dip into the archive to see what we learn from the long career of Therese Alshammar and why Sweden’s head coach Ulrika Sandmark wants to tap into the wisdom to be had from it

Back in 1991, a 13-year-old junior won the Swedish 100m backstroke title and was selected for senior international duty for the first time. Coach Thomas Lovgren told his young charge: ‘tell them thanks but don’t accept the trip – you’re a bit too young … take things slowly, steadily – and you’ll get there and stay there’. How wise and prophetic the words of Lovgren  proved to be. The teenage talent was Therese Alshammar, on her way to becoming European champion and double Olympic silver medallist in 2000 and a world champion in 2011 with many a thrill and spill between.

It was October 2016 when Alshammar announced that she was to pull the plug on her long and illustrious racing career. There would be one more race day to go the following week. A farewell to all that, a chance to wave goodbye and to be feted by fans as her story entered swimming lore. She was 39 and she told SVT Sport: “My body cannot handle the load required to perform at the level I would want to be at.”

Lovgren’s advice had contributed to one of the finest examples of long-term excellence in swimming history. Did Alshammar agree?

“Yes, very true. I have never trained as hard as I do now. The training I do now is the hardest I’ve ever done in my career. But had I done 100k a week when I was 20 or 22 then maybe I would have burned out. If you have … a clever coach who gives you that advice then go with that. It’s best to increase it in stages, a little at a time and save some for later.”

Born in Solna in August 1977 the daughter of Britt-Marie Smedh, Olympic 100m breaststroke finalist of 1972 just over a second from a podium topped by American Cathy Carr, and Krister Alshammar, 15-year-old Therese accepted a place on the Sweden team for the first time in 1993. The result: fourth in the 100m backstroke at the European Championships in Sheffield. On retirement, she recalled:

“It was one of a few fourths I got in that event for many years at Europeans. It was a nice time to be around in Swedish swimming. There were people like Anders Holmertz (on the podium over 200m and 400m freestyle at Sheffield in 1993) and Tommy Werner (second to a young Russian named Alexander Popov in the 100m freestyle).”

Therese ALSHAMMAR of Sweden is pictured during her warm-up on day two at the European Short-Course Swimming Championships at the Maekelaenrinne Swimming Centre in Helsinki, Finland, Friday December 8, 2006. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Alshammar’s history with Holmertz would rumble on down the years. In 2006, when she took three more solo wins at the 2006 Swedish short-course championships in Uppsala, her tally of 73 national titles took her one gold medal past Holmertz’s high bar. By then, Alshammar was 12 years beyond her World-championships debut, 10 years beyond her Olympic debut, seven years beyond setting her first two World short-course records, six years beyond winning two silvers (50m and 100m freestyle) and a bronze (4x100m freestyle) at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. And, she had a year to go before she would win her first world long-course title (50m butterfly) in the same year that delivered the first world long-course record of her career (50m butterfly).

Alshammar made the World titles podium over 50m butterfly four times in 10 years. For those who scoff at the 50 in Olympic context, consider swimming history, which is stacked with the names of World record holders who never got their chance in Olympic waters because there was no 100m or no 200m in their event; because there was no 200m medley … and so on and so forth. Had there been an International Swimming League in her racing years, nay decades, Alshammar would have been a tour de force.

In 2010, Therese Alshammar graced the European long-course Championship podium for an eighth time in the 50m freestyle, her victory the fourth of her career in that event at the Continental showcase. Someone in the mixed zone uttered the word ‘retire’. Flooring impertinence with a knockout smile, the star replied:

“It’s going so well for me, why should I retire? The 2012 Games are my goal.”

That victory in Budapest was one of the top 3 career highlights she chose – “It was 10 years since I’d won in Helsinki in 2000 and a lot of things had happened in between. It was a very nice feeling to know that you can do it all again 10 years on” – alongside her first national title and her first world record, over 100m freestyle in December 1999: “…breaking 53sec was a dream target that coach Dirk Lange and me and Sandra Voelker had been working on for some time”.

Add to her treasure trove gold in the 50m and silver in the 100m butterfly at the FINA World Championships (25m) last December – taking her tally of medals at the winter showcase to 17 since 1977, with 10 titles in the mix – and two $100,000 pay days for World Cup series victories in 2007 and 2010, and you have swimming lore and legend. Retirement may cause us to place things in the past tense but the present tense is just as pertinent: Alshammar is aquatic vintage, her stock rises with age, her name ever household in Sweden, her status in the pool that of role model to challengers less than half her age.

It is why we find Ulrika Sandmark, Sweden head coach, turning to Alshammar in her search of the elements that contribute to Athlete Sustainability.

The Swedish Olympic Committee runs a “Top and Talent” program, the likes of Sarah Sjöstrom and six of her national swim teammates part of the “top” and eligible for funding and support that is tailored to the needs to each athlete. A “Talent 2022” program is aimed at the developers (it may become Talent 2023 or take on some other name given the shunting of goals and targets and plans due to COVID-19). Under the Talent 2022 scheme, the Swedish swim federation operates its own talent program, which had seven swimmers involved on the cusp on the coronavirus lockdown. Both seniors and juniors work at the elite training centre in Stockholm under the guidance of Alshammar’s husband Johan Wallberg, Sjostrom’s current coach in charge of the senior elite squad, and Sjostrom’s former coach, Carl Jenner, now in charge of the development program.

Therese Alshammar’s fledgling role is, says Sandmark:

“To give talks, top pass on tips, to be around the kids and have them feed off her experience and be motivated and inspired by that … to understand that the road is long. I want her to be around people because it’s only through that process that people open up, start to ask their questions and gain the wisdom that might help them.”

USA Swimming’s junior development program has similar philosophy at its heart, as described by Jack Roach in this video of part of a talk he gave to USA Junior Team members:

“Become a student of the sport,” he urges. “Don’t wait in your coach to have you do that: that’s your responsibility.” Junior talents racing at international level often grow up fast in terms of the resilience and self-reliance required to navigate the competitive environment. There are downside issues to that scenario, too, for another day.

Those American youngsters, of course, belong to the group of those who made it through. Some – but not all – will make it on to the World ‘s leading swimming team and race in Stars and Stripes on the biggest of occasions.

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The wave swimming doesn’t want: the dramatic drop in swimmer numbers in Sweden from the age of 12 – Photo Courtesy: SwimSketch

Sandmark is not looking at a potential catchment of 350 million plus (in extremis, of course, the real catchment the community of folk who make it from the baby pool into the club system). Sweden has a population of 10 million – and most of those won’t want to become swimmers. Sandmark wants to know what’s behind the “12-year hump”,  as captured in a slide she presented to coaches in January at the World Aquatic Development Conference (WADC) in Lund. Our artistic impression of that, to the left, shows a peak representing the number of 12 years olds in the program. As teen years kick in, the plummet to a low tide is a cliff-edge of lost talent.

There are 233 swimmers at High Schools catering for competitive sport in Sweden: just 10 of those swimmers are on the national team, Sandmark notes. “That’s too few. I think it has to do with progression in all areas (of life) at that age.”

Therese Alshammar is among those who Sandmark believes can make a fine contribution to understanding the issues and inspiring young swimmers to stick with it and look to the long-term.

In Lund, Sandmark reminded coaches that Alshammar “has 73 international medals: no-one else in Europe has that. She’s done six Olympics and she was in the top and talent program when I was new in Sweden. Sandmark asked Alshammar for feedback based on her own experience and among answers, the sprint ace noted:

  • differentiate between person and performance
  • work with the inner motivation, autonomy, belonging and consistency.

Having listed those two, Sandmark says: “I’m thinking a little bit about pushing the limits here. I mean when you do that your inner motivation comes up. You have to work with that and find solutions that work for you in a long career.”

Therese Alshammar calculated that she had worked with 35 coaches down the years. Says Sandmark: “So she always moved to different environments in order to get the best coaching.”

Therese ALSHAMMAR of Sweden with her son Fred is pictured during the LEN European Swimming Championships at Europa-Sportpark in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

Therese Alshammar with her son Fred – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

On the back of that, Alshammar’s tips included:

  • the best coaches offer choices
  • they give specific feedback
  • they don’t use a controlling language
  • and they ask their athletes questions

Sandmark points to one of the slide’s in that part of her Lund presentation listing the feedback she received from several senior swimmers asked to help her to find answers on the subject of Athlete Sustainability.

One swimmer noted that when a coach “stated to change my technique and talk over my head, I lost my motivation”. There were several lessons right there, including the need to allow athletes to make mistakes, to fail and learn from that process.

Sandmark the writings of Alshammar, who has penned two books in which a four-year-old girl called Aysa learns through having fun in the water. Sandmark refers to the ending of one of Alshammar’s stories, “This Little Child“, in which a toddler talks to his mother. The head coach guesses the conversation stems from one Alshammar might have with her own young son.

Towards the end of the book, the mother asks her son: “Have you made any mistakes today?” Says Sandmark:

“What she’s doing is saying that a mistake is a part of everything. Failure/mistake: they’re part of development. It’s nothing to be afraid of I think we’re too afraid of that.”

That processes needs to be as long as it takes and will vary from athlete to athlete, person to person. Says Sandmark:

“We can’t forget the late bloomers. Jenny Johansson is a perfect example of that. I still can remember when she won the gold medal in Kazan (World 50m breaststroke title, 2015). I didn’t believe it and she didn’t believe it and no one believed it. It was so great. She started swimming when she was 10, but … she did everything perfect. She was not a ‘talent’. She was a worker. Of course, she was a ‘talent’ in this sense: a talent is someone who takes care of themselves, takes care of their talent. So don’t forget these people, the late bloomers.”

What else we learn from Therese Alshammar

By the time Therese Alshammar was ready to move on, there was nowhere in Sweden she would not be recognised. How did that manifest itself in daily life?

“In the positive sense that people say hello and ask for autographs and in that I push myself in order to be the best role model and public person that I can be while still being me,” said Alshammar.

Balance and moderation are two of the life skills that Alshammar cites as keys to longevity in sport. “I try to keep it balanced – the being disciplined and not,” she said towards the end of her career, reflecting:

“My training is more balanced all round than it was in the early days. Before I could get really run down with training in the pool but still come back for more. Now I have to be more cautious and find ways not to let boredom take a hold. You’ve got to keep it more interesting. I do a lot of land training, as well as swimming, which is important.

“I do train harder than before but it also takes a little longer than before. I think that the great advantage with age is that you get smarter, you work things out, it becomes a question of having worked through trial and error … and go with what works. So, I think for me I learned to be a lot smarter with recovery. I also have to do something I like: I actively have to seek out some alternatives to swimming.”

Top pursuits: “Cooking, eating, walking, surfing, talking, shopping, watching.”

Travel was a necessity, too, but Alshammar embraced it. In January 2011, she was to be found on training camp in Mexico before it was off Down Under for more training and racing with her overseas teammates at the then Sydney super-squad of coach Grant Stoelwinder. At the time, she told me:

“I’m lucky to be able and allowed to prepare for Shanghai together with the elite squad of NSWIS (New South Wales Institute of Sport) in Sydney, where my coach Johan Wallberg and I both believe the environment plus the squad is the best in the world. The things he (Stoelwinder) sees and can put words to in swimming, together with the passion he brings to training, is unprecedented. So after training with them, race day is easy.”

Them meant comeback ‘fly ace Geoff Huegill, Matthew Abood, Andrew Lauterstein, Eamon Sullivan and Libby Trickett. The latter: a rival? Alshammar painted her world with her own eyes and feel:

“I don’t see myself as having rivals, the biggest challenge is always chasing my own goals.”

Early on that had much to do with chasing carrots: recalling that first 50m backstroke national title back in 1991, she noted:

“My parents promised me I would get a red dunny jacket for winter that I really wanted if I medalled … I swam for my life!”

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Therese Alshammar – the comeback years – Photo Courtesy: Arena/ lapresse

Some 20 years down the line, she said she was “motivated by doing things better/harder/faster”. Wallberg, she says, was “the best coach in the world …” Cue laughter: “I’ve swum with enough coaches throughout the years to know”. Their relationship is “filled with respect and shared visions”. Later: marriage and a child.

Asked how she defined success, Alshammar said:

“… how I measure success, that’s a good question. I think it comes down to looking at what I can do better. I try to keep my approach fresh and try to do new things. I’ve travelled a lot and tried different places, I’ve been eager to find the best environment for me.”

The money prizes that arrived in swimming during her career were a godsend, she said:

“The money gives me an opportunity to be a professional, I can’t think of a more fulfilling or exciting way to make a living. So yes, it has kept me in the sport of swimming. I invest most of my earnings in swimming again, in order to keep performing and progressing I believe in putting myself in good professional environments. I also try to save some for the day I feel like doing something else.”

Asked how she felt about racing for titles against some less than half her age she replied:

“I don’t give it any thought. If anything it’s easier being younger because you have no experience. Experience can also be an advantage but so can inexperience, you can learn from inexperience because in youth you don’t think about anything. Later on you become more self conscious and you expect too much. That’s why you get big drops and then it stops for a reason. The mind-set is what stops faster progress.”

Therese Alshammar’s tips for those who follow: 

  • Don’t hurry, take it slowly, take it easy, make sure you have fun along the way and find the joy in swimming
  • I’d say make every day interesting and funny because that’s the best recipe for success
  • and surround yourself with great people because that’s how you get better
  • Keep focused on your goals and training. Prize money is a bonus when you achieve your goals
Therese Alshammar - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Therese Alshammar – by Patrick B. Kraemer

At her very best on freestyle, Alshammar looked as though she was racing through a wind tunnel, so perfectly aligned did she raced, so fine her angle of buoyancy, the spray of her sprint flying off her fingertips as she sped along.o do what I wanted to do for swimming.”

In Rio at the 2016 Olympic Games, her sixth Games, Alshammar made the semis of the 50m freestyle. It would be her last race for Sweden. She left her last race for a moment of her choosing: October 2016 saw her fly down a pool one last time as an elite athlete in Stockholm.

At the time, she spoke of what Sandmark had been so happy to hear in a 39-year-old: her love of swimming, one that means she will not regard her status in the past tense, rather, she will be a swimmer for life:

“Swimming is fantastic as a form of exercise and I hope I will always apply it. After [the last race next week] I will not have the same strict focus and have no intention to qualify for the [Sweden team for international duty]. I’ll swim for the fun of it and to feel good, not to push my body to the max.”

Wallberg took up the head coach job full time at the Stockholm excellence centre in January 2017, as Jenner moved to head the development program after celebrating Sjöstrom becoming the first Swedish woman to claim Olympic gold in the pool. Alshammar imagined she would have a role to play too, saying in October 2016:

“It is something that comes naturally … our son is already swimming and it’s great to train him and other young people.”

Alshammar first made an international podium for Sweden in at the 1997 European Championships in Seville. It was 14 years later, in 2011, that we saw her put a twist in the tale of Piaf when she said that while there were many things on her list of things that she could have done differently down the length of her long international senior race career, she would actually change nothing. She said:

“I would change so many things that you won’t have space [to publish them]. I don’t think I would change anything if I could because everything I did has made me into the person I am today. If you’re willing, you can learn from your biggest mistakes, so it has been a journey and it has been fun.”

There had been highs and lows but since accepting her first selection for Sweden, Alshammar had never wavered in her love of the sport:

“I never thought of walking away – I have done other things, I have trained less and focused more on other parts of my life than the swimming part, but I never really thought I’ve had enough.”

Knocked by injury in 2012, Alshammar started her Olympic career at Atlanta 1996 and ended it 20 years later at Rio 2016. In the late 1990s, she had “Diva” tattoed on her lower back to remind her  to work hard. Looking back in 2011, she told me:

“When I was a bit younger I was a bit of a diva, because I didn’t train so hard and didn’t put in the effort. I made the tattoo to remind me that my previous ways weren’t so efficient and successful, and also as a tribute to women.”

A Highlight From The Archive

Day 8 finals, Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai  2011 – World Championships, Women’s 50m freestyle (contemporary notes)

Jan 16, 2016; Austin, TX, USA; Therese Alshammar (center) dives in the women's 50 meter free final during the 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Lee & Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Therese Alshammar in 2016, her last Olympic year – Photo Courtesy: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Therese Alshammar, 26 days shy of her 34th birthday, became the oldest world swimming champion in the history of women’s swimming with a 24.14sec display of technical brilliance build over years of honing and correcting on a trajectory to that elusive place that the Swedish sprinter says does not exist: perfection.

Off her blocks and into her stroke in one fluid movement, Alshammar returned to that place of  technical superiority she had known more than a decade ago on her way to two silver medals at Sydney 2000: it looked like she was swimming in a wind tunnel of the kind you see in car tests, turbulence-free streamlining the aim.

And look where that took her to: the 24.13 world record of Inge de Bruijn (NED) at Sydney 2000, when Alshammar was closest to the born-again Dutch diva, remains the best textile-suit time there ever was, though De Bruijn wore a bodysuit. Alshammar is the best there has ever been in the cut of suit now allowed under rules that have breathed new life into a sport that was drowning in shiny suits just two years ago.

Where Alshammar has struggled to hold back the pack in the closing metres in the past, today she held on, taking revenge on the Orange nemesis of her career, the silver going to Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED), 24.27, and Dutch teammate and comeback mum Marleen Veldhuis, on 24.49. That confined Britain’s Fran Halsall, on 24.60, to the worst of places, fourth, for the second time this week.

All to the good if you want to be hungry for a home Olympic Games. Great news for Alshammar too. Where she had a world title in the past in a non-Olympic event, 50m butterfly, she now has one in an Olympic event.

Asked about the oldest title Alshammar smiled and said that she saw it as neither positive nor negative: “It’s just a fact”.

The result: 1. Theresa Alshammar, Sweden, 24.14; 2. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands, 24.27; 3 Marleen Veldhuis, Netherlands, 24.49; 4. Francesca Halshall, Britain, 24.60.

Motherhood But Not Ready To Move On

Therese Alshammar – Photo Courtesy: Arena

In 2014, Alshammar spoke to this author in the early days of comeback after the birth of her first child. Task No1, she said: shedding the 20kg of weight she had gained while getting little Fred ready for the world. Asked if she had to work harder to get back and maintain form, Alshammar replies:

“Not necessarily more time but you have to use more imagination, you have to be more creative in how you keep your body at peak performance. One of my beliefs is that you have to change something each season to keep it at its optimum peak powers. Both mentally to keep you sharp and interested in exercise in general and also… if you do the same things over and over you won’t be as explosive or as interested in doing those things perfectly with the right choreography and trying to get things at a perfect movement. I think that is one of the keys to my long career.”

Alshammar continued to train in water and gym until four days before Fred’s arrival. Three months after giving birth, she made her way back to a regime that was based on steady steps and patience. It took six months before the sprinter felt as though “… I had my strength back. I think that is just your body healing and getting back to where it was”.

Training became a family affair: all three would go to the pool for 8am for the first water session, then the gym, then home and back to the pool later in the day. Life will be similar from now on, though Alshammar won’t be getting as wet quite so often.

History repeats. Alshammar’s mother, Britt-Marie Smedh raced in the 1972 Olympic 100m breaststroke final and later passed on valuable tips to her daughter. Said Therese:

“She taught me how to swim and was my first coach when I was five or six. With swimming you start early and you have morning practice so family is very important – that they engage in your sport and give you support. Not just encouragement but actual physical support, they need to drive you to practice in the morning, my mother has been a very big influence. That has been a very important factor – that you have trust and support from family.”

2011 – A Flashback With Scope

 

In our next look at Athlete Sustainability, we’ll consider the things that make swimming ‘unsustainable’ and unattractive for many youngsters and the families asked to support a pathway that comes with no guarantees but a huge commitment.

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