David Marsh: Team USA Swimming Preparation for Rio & FINA Changes

David has asked for this article to be dedicated to Ian Pope, Australian Olympic and national swimming coach – our thoughts and prays are with him and his family during his battle with Leukemia.

David Marsh: USA Swimming Preparation for Rio & FINA Changes

Interview by Declan Holt
Photograph by Matthew Mead

David Marsh, current Director and CEO of SwimMAC based in Charlotte, North Carolina, was announced as the head coach for the USA Women’s Olympic Team on the 2nd of September 2015.

His career prior to SwimMAC and Olympic commitments saw him coach both the men’s and women’s teams at Auburn University. Marsh lead the Auburn men’s team to seven NCAA national championships (‘97, ’99, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07) and the women’s team to five national titles (’02, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’07).

Marsh has also led SwimMAC to three straight victories in the USA Club Excellence Championships – the first of its kind to be achieved by any program.

Marsh is also a five-time All-American backstroker, providing a valuable perspective of recent Rio starting block changes and the role of FINA from both the coach and athlete viewpoint.

Will the starting block design for the RIO Olympics have a significant effect on backstroke events?

Yes, I think the backstroke ledge is long overdue. I’m not sure that they needed to go to the backstroke ledge. I think Omega could have just made the pads non-slick but the reality is with the new ledges nobody should slip on the start and so it will be what we all hoped for – a level and fair playing field.

I think the ledges take away the anxiety a backstroker may feel before a race – that they might slip on the start; which happens unfortunately too often.

To some degree swimmers even start with their toes above the surface level so there is probably a slight advantage over a gutter start; where you put your toes in the gutter of the pool. Most pools in the US have gutters at the water surface level and I think now that you can go a little further above the water, any centimeter you get above is beneficial and generally if you’re an athlete you can get up a lot further.

Do most Olympic teams have access to the new block technology or do you only get a shot of looking at them in certain environments’?

I have one of the largest clubs in the United States and I don’t have the backstroke ledges. I can’t justify the expense for a relatively low-tech device and so I would say a lot of swimmers, certainly of the developmental level, won’t see one of the ledges until they get to a higher level of the sport and then when they do, the good thing is they are not hard to figure out.

There is not that big of a difference in what they do for you. I think there was more of a difference in the previous block change, which put a track wedge on the back where you can push off with your back foot to initiate a race. I think that was a bigger change than the backstroke ledge off the front.

So it’s more of a confidence booster for them knowing they’ll be fine when they push off?

And that can be a big difference.

Moving to the scheduling of Rio, how are swimmers preparing for the late night timing of the final races and do you expect them to remain scheduled for midnight or is that something that could possibly change?

No, the IOC is not one for changing. Mostly they and their sponsors determine the time they want to run things, maximizing what they perceive as their key audience as they did in Beijing – they are going to move it to where it suits them best.

I personally don’t think it should be a big deal. I think the morning in Beijing was a bigger deal than this time of night. The toughest time will be on the athletes that have multiple races, like Kirsty Coventry. Those swimmers are going to be getting out late, have drug testing, get something to eat, get on a bus that as of right now is not secure within the village and then arrive at the pool.

And now you have to go slightly outside of the village to my understanding to get to the pool. So by the time you get settled and back in to your room it might be 2am.

When you move closer to the event you have to move your training later into the evening or do what the Australians have always done and that’s to do some exposure camps and train a little bit later at night. I don’t personally think it’s going to be as tough as having finals in the morning like in Beijing. There were still some great performances in the morning in China from stars like Michael Phelps.

On that note how do you acclimatize younger athletes to big events like the Olympics so they feel more like they are at a regular low-key swim meet especially ones that are heading off to the Olympics for the first time?

I would say one thing is, firstly with big events like the Olympics, the reality is there is no low key. It is a big, big meet and you really have to acknowledge that.

Then you work on the coping skills of being in routines, controlling all of your controllables, having your music playlist together and really anything that can cause a routine can help you to deal with those kinds of things.

Even something as simple as going through two waiting rooms before you get out behind the blocks can be a different sequence than what they are used to. Having to look at their competitors in the waiting room before the prelims even.

A lot of the athletes only have experience doing that at night, it can change a lot of things and nuances, you just try and expose them to that in any way you can and hopefully successfully deal with those different conditions before they get into the ultimate biggest meet.

The context of your question is right you are trying to make them feel like it’s a swim meet and not an Olympic meet and so at the end of the day the water doesn’t change and the lane lines don’t change. All of that stuff is the same, there are just 3 billion people watching rather than 3 thousand.

Where do you feel there is strength to be gained from the US women’s squad?

I think the one thing in the United States and its global to some degree but probably more pronounced in the US; the Olympic year is a full attention year, at least in my experience coaching a program.

The attitude, attention, focus and consistent effort is so much ahead of where they were last year at this time. I feel like that’s probably happening all by itself and is one of the differences.

Missy moving from her college program back to her club coach who she had the most success with, is I think a very good move for her to get comfortable and to get challenged. She’s got to be ready.

At the opposite end of the scale Katie Ledecky deferring going to college so that she can stay with Bruce Gemmell and keep training with him is the right thing to do even though her training conditions are often subpar but keeping the consistency of that relationship with the coach going is a big deal.

For the U.S., our biggest challenges are the sprint events. Our top sprinters are only ranking around ninth internationally. That doesn’t bode well, especially for the 400m freestyle relay.

I would say overall the one thing that the women in America need to improve on is pure strength. Developing proper strength that can really translate into the water and not lose efficiency and add a little more power to their swimming strokes.

For a long time we thought that we were the best in the world at doing that but with the specialization in sport science and the advancement of strength and conditioning coaches and physios around the globe, we’ve fallen back a little bit in that category.

I’m not sure if there is enough time before this Olympics to do a big mend on it, I think its something to focus on moving down the road. The US is going to have to deal with it to stay competitive in that event in particular.

So applying that strength, particularly in the water does that come down to feel as well not necessarily just the strength of their muscles, applying that in the water effectively can be difficult?

No, not necessarily, I would say first of all an athlete is not going to get on the Olympic team without having a pretty good feel for the water, but if they do have a good feel you can generate a little bit more power within that ideal technique.

There are times when the increase in muscle mass and in strength can have a cost to the economy of how they deal with acidosis but I think the reality is in order to compete at that global level you’ve got to have certain levels of strength, at least be able to handle your own body weight effectively.

To this day I remember I went to a meet in Canet France with a really Rocky-style weight room and Libby Tricket, she was in the weight room and just repping pull-ups. It looked like 40kg around her waist and I’ve got Cullen Jones, the fastest sprinter at that time with me and he can’t even do one while she’s doing 8 reps of it, I was like ‘There you go’.

This isn’t new news necessarily but I think its something that the US women particularly need to get better at going into the future.

Moving towards the more psychological aspects of swimming what sort experiences do you try and replicate at Olympic meets that you’ve picked up from previous years, Australia had a bit of an issue with their Olympic culture a few years ago and they really turned it around by trying to recreate positive moments and better team bonding does the US do anything similar?

No you’d be surprised that the US team doesn’t use as many system directed things. It’s a lot freer flowing. I do think that the natural selection of the coaching staff and the support staff on the trip is really critical to ensure an element of harmony within the group. The best meets that I’ve been to have more laughter; there is more respect for each other and joy.

At the last Olympics it wasn’t just the Call Me Maybe video, Michael Phelps arrived at the camp as a more relaxed competitor, he didn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulder like he did in Beijing.

I think that affected the whole group. Often the stars of the team set the tone for the rest of the program and I think that’s another element. You have the veterans and the rookies, and if the veterans embrace the rookies that goes along way as well. Literally a simple thing like sitting around casually during meals and interacting with all of the different people in the group, I think that can have a very positive effect on team atmosphere.

I think it’s actually simpler than it feels but when it goes bad you really feel it. Honestly if you swim well sometimes that will take care of itself as well. If you start a meet well and get on a roll you can utilize the quality swims to build momentum within the team atmosphere.

It’s an 8 day event but when you’re in the Olympics it really feels like a 12 day event, because the days leading up to when you start feel like the Olympic racing days themselves due to the levels of anticipation.

Moving away from Olympic preparations, our members wanted to know your thoughts regarding some of the proposed parallel governing body plans proposed by ASCA and the world swimming coaches association?

I won’t comment on the specifics but what we are really looking for is an atmosphere that is creating a level playing field where everybody is playing by the rules.

We ask for it to be an athletes attitude and then we ask that the way events are put on always lean towards what is best for all the athletes to have their best chance at their best performances.

Unfortunately when it comes to drug testing, the IOC and FINA cannot guarantee that podium contending athletes are being tested with similar frequency, similar test (panel of drugs tested for), or even how the test is being analyzed. There are not near as many test performed globally in swimming as there is track and cycling. One big challenge is that each thorough drug test whether blood or urine or both is very expensive.

I would support the current proposal that WADA becomes the global testing agency to create more consistency in who and how we test. Again this would involve a great expense–but leaders in the sport owe it to the athletes to offer them A fair and level playing field.

Not so much for the Olympics but I think there’s some inherent challenges in the testing arena when you don’t have a truly independent agency doing the testing.

At minimum it leaves suspicion, but I think the most important thing is an athlete gets to feel that they are there racing 7 other drug free athletes when standing behind the blocks about to dive in.

And if we can get to a day in any form or fashion where the athlete can feel that way I think that we’ve done a great service. We need to look at the best ways we can provide that environment.

The other thing that happens that’s not as near the extreme of the drug test war is the warm up pool – it’s generally chaos at these events.

At the last Olympics we saw that after two days into the meet we weren’t allowed to warm up with boards, paddles or kick boards anymore which are part of a normal routine.

It really took us out of our typical routine and then there were people diving in the pools from different ends. The Aussies were swimming what we call reverse circle while we’re swimming regular circle – honestly it’s a little bit of chaos out there.

And now you throw in the new twist of having 10 year olds in the world championships. These are areas that the organization overseeing the sport needs to address and rectify in order to provide the best possible environment for athletes to prepare.


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