Melanie Wright: Goal Setting & Preparation for International Level Swimming Events

Interview by Declan Holt
Photograph by Chris Hyde – Getty Images

Melanie Wright, an Australian Swimming Gold Medalist began her career in the pool with Coach Brian Stehr in Maroochydore, Australia at the age of 15.

She was quickly recognised as an athlete showing the qualities needed to compete at the highest levels of swimming, which lead her to move to Hawaii and compete for 2 years in the NCAA colligate system.

Melanie returned to Australia in 2006 for the Australian Championships. It was the first time she had qualified for the Australian Pan Pacific Championship team under guidance of coach Chris Mooney.

Following her successful debut Melanie went on to qualify for the 2007 World Championships and won medals for the Australian relay team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Illness prevented her from competing at the 2009 Australian trials where she briefly retired from competition all together in 2010. After a 10-month break Melanie reestablished her training program with Southport Club head coach Glenn Baker on the Gold coast.

2011 saw Melanie return to internationally competitive form setting a 100m freestyle result of 53.8 at the Queensland State Championships. The next year she went on to win 3 medals at the London 2012 Olympic games.

In 2014 she and her teammates set a new 4×100 Freestyle relay record, easily outdoing previous times set by teams wearing full body swimming ‘super suits’.

Melanie now has her sights set on the 2016 Rio Olympics where she will be competing as part of the Australian ‘Dolphins’ international squad.

How did Glenn Baker motivate you to compete again and help you achieve results so quickly?

Glenn and I just clicked right from the get go. He keeps things simple and understands as an older athlete I respond differently and sometimes need different training methods to the younger swimmers.

There is a lot of trust in our relationship that goes both ways and it works really well. Initially when I returned to the pool I wasn’t seeing the results I was hoping for.

Glenn took me aside and told me to stop analysing and questioning everything we do (I am naturally very analytical), and just buy into the program. That’s where our trust developed and I haven’t looked back since.

You mention on your website that you have experimented with the tapering phase leading up to competition, what timing has worked the best for you?

It’s a tricky thing to get right and the biggest challenge is that it changes slightly the older I get. We learn lessons from every competition and take the knowledge into the next season.

It doesn’t always come down to feeling fresh, it doesn’t have to feel good to be fast. Each time I race, Glenn and I will determine how I could have swum faster. Sometimes it comes down to skill errors, other times it comes down to freshness.

My taper adjusts accordingly during the next preparation. Again it comes down to trust. I must trust that Glenn knows how to get me into the best possible state to race fast and he has to trust that my experience in racing and the feedback I give him is important to the process.

In the end we both want the same outcome and it’s a team effort.

Has there been more of a focus on you obtaining results in individual events due to Mark Anderson’s goal of Australia becoming the best in the world by 2020?

I don’t feel as though there is any more focus than previously. Swimming is predominantly an individual sport. Relays are the only time we get to swim as a team and even then, every swimmer must swim individually in their own leg to the best of their ability to get the optimal result.

I think every swimmer has one goal and that is to improve their own best, to swim as fast as they can individually which in turn contributes to the whole team result. Success breeds success and that’s where the team environment can foster greater individual performances that may lead us to our goal in 2020.

Australian swimmers have been able to obtain great times in the training pool, how is the team preparing to recreate those outcomes in a competition environment such as Kazan?

I think more and more training programs are adopting the philosophy of specificity. Not only in training energy systems which we have done for a long time but also in creating the competition environment.

We race more in training. We put on racing suits and recreate the whole process from marshaling to finishing a race. The mental approach is critical and the more comfortable we become in this environment the better we are able to perform when it counts.

It comes down to being prepared and I do believe the elite Australian swimming community as a collective is more focused on this than we ever have been.

All Australian team swimmers are expected to be possible relay team members how does this shape your training?

To be completely honest, it doesn’t affect my training at all. I train each day with the soul purpose of becoming a better, faster, more skillful swimmer. I know that if I can do that, the results will take care of themselves.

Being a part of a relay is something every swimmer wants to do, but that will never happen if you don’t take care of the process. Most of the time, if I swim fast enough I will be selected in relays and therefore once again my only goal is to do what I can to get faster.

The Australian Swim team is held to such high regard in terms of results, how do you put that pressure to the side when training and competing?

It’s an honour and a privilege to represent Australia in swimming. The proud history that we have only makes it more humbling to be a part of. I believe pressure is only what you make it.

For me, I try to never focus on outcomes. While I do have specific goal times and I hate to lose, when it comes down to racing I don’t pay attention to what time I can swim, if I will win or lose, or what result I might get.

Those things are engrained in my subconscious and I don’t need to think about them. Racing for me is about being excited, enjoying the best part of our sport and getting the process right.

By the time I step on the blocks I have done everything I can to prepare in the training pool and its time for my body to take over and put it all together. Clouding my mind with outcomes, pressures or other things I can’t control will only inhibit my ability to perform.

There was a lot of media criticism of the Australian Swimming team culture at the London games, how have things changed leading up to Rio?

In London I believe our biggest challenge was that we had a group of swimmers who were virtual strangers. There were many new faces on the team and we didn’t get the chance to interact more than a couple of days before we got to the games.

In a team of 50, that can be a challenge. Over time there has been less of a change within the core group of the team which has allowed us to get to know each other and build support around one another.

I don’t believe we ever had a culture problem we just suffered from a lack of time together as a group.

Has there been a big focus on social media training for the athletes?

Social media is so prevalent these days it would be silly to ignore it. We have had one workshop on the use of twitter but there’s no ongoing formal training or anything like that.

We are free to use it as we please. Having said that, some coaches do not like their athletes using it during competitions but this is worked out on an individual basis and between coach and athlete.

I actually enjoy using social media during competitions. I don’t immerse myself in it, but sometimes its nice to pick up your phone and read a message of support from a virtual stranger cheering you on all the way from back home!

Has there been a shift away from defining success as simply a gold medal performance?

Ultimately, I think the broad belief is that winning gold is the pinnacle of success and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I think the shift has come in the way individual athletes view their own success.

Setting our own goals and improving on our own best is the measure of success and the longer we can do that, the more we improve and the closer we get to that pinnacle.

Do you have any advice for up and coming swimmers with goals of reaching Olympic level competition?

My advice to young swimmers would be to enjoy the sport, set your own goals, go after them and don’t let anyone else define your success. Be proud of yourself when you accomplish a goal you’ve set no matter how small, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Most of all have fun.

Melanie Wright

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