Feeding Pressure On Open Water Swimming Coaches

Feeding Pressure On Open Water Swimming Coaches

Courtesy of WOWSA at the USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships, Fort Myers, Florida.

Where does one stand to feed open water swimmers at the Olympics or World Championships or any one of hundreds of marathon swimming?

It is all a matter of personal preference among open water swimmers and coaches. Some athletes prefer to be fed by their coaches in the beginning of the feeding platform while others like their coaches to stand towards the end of the pontoon.

Under commonly followed rules in domestic and international competitions, each athlete will be assisted by one coach of their choice. What is it that the coaches actually do? Why is it so important? Is there pressure on the coaches?

The history and responsibilities of open water swimming coaches goes back as far as the escort crew of Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. Open water swimming coaches not only guide their athletes’ training and nutrition on a daily basis, but also formulate race strategy, serve as their eyes and ears and, very importantly, serve them fluids during 10 km competitions.

Open water coaches, like their pool counterparts, spend hours walking up and down the deck of a pool training their swimmers while overseeing their dryland training in gyms. Additionally, they spend hours walking up and down shorelines or sitting in kayaks, paddleboards or motorized escort boats following their athletes in open water.

All these thousands of hours of devotion, strategizing, and coaching boil down to a race of less than two hours. And – at least for the coach – this 2-hour race boils down to a few critical seconds while standing on a (typically floating) feeding pontoon.

During the 2-hour race, the swimmers will pass their coach, balancing on the floating feeding station, four times. The coaches will yell, whistle and cheer for their swimmer on every loop. Each time the swimmers pass the floating feeding stations, the coaches will arm themselves with a feeding stick [no longer than 5 meters in length] and the athlete’s preferred drinks.

These drinks include as many concoctions and formulations as there are swimmers, but in highly competitive races, swimmers and coaches work to synchronize their timing perfectly. Any error in timing, any missed opportunity to fed, and the swimmer’s chances of medaling drops as a result.

As the coaches lean, kneel and stretch out as far out on the race course as possible, the swimmers veer off the straight-line course to cruise pass the feeding station. The swimmers have just one shot at grabbing their cups that are delicately cradled on the coaches’ feeding stick.

Unlike race car drivers who know where their pit crews are located, the swimmers do not always know exactly where their coaches are positioned until they see them on the first loop. As the swimmers fight for position coming into their first feeding, they expect the end of their feeding sticks to be slightly above the water’s surface, facing just at their preferred angle, so they can quickly reach up and grab their own cup without breaking their stroke rhythm. A missed stroke means losing valuable ground to their competitors where the difference between gold and bronze is often less than 2 seconds. If the coach-swimmer teamwork is successful, the swimmers reach up for their cup, roll on their backs, gulp their drink and resume swimming – all without losing momentum – within 2 seconds.

Like a Tokyo subway train, there is occasionally only so much space on the pontoon. In other words, the coaches have no more than 2 seconds to position their feeding stick at the water’s surface, hold and release the swimmer’s cup at the optimal position, and then retrieve their feeding stick without hitting any competitors. Unlike running marathons where there are frequent water stops along the race course and all kinds of volunteers and cups of water to aid the runner, the swimming marathoners have only a handful of opportunities to get fluid during a marathon swimming race.

Despite the coach’s best efforts and years of experience, when a large pack of swimmers come flying into the feeding station together, the coaches face additional problems. Sometimes, swimmers may grab or inadvertently hit other swimmer’s feeding sticks or spill their competitor’s cups. In these cases, no apologies are made…both swimmers and coaches simply chalk it up to bad luck and poor timing.

Secondly, if a pack 3, 4 or 5 swimmers come into the feeding station together, the feeding stick simply cannot reach the swimmer who is positioned furthest from the feeding station. In those cases, the swimmer usually has to stop or alternatively accept the unfortunate situation and turn up the course and swim on.

Thirdly, when a very large group of swimmers heads towards the feeding station, all splashing and swimming very close to one another, the only thing that can be positively identified is a…very large group of swimmers splashing and thrashing close to one another. This can be especially true with men who often remove their swim caps during races in warm water. Occasionally, as coaches stretch the feeding stick out to the thrashing pod of athletes, they notice their swimmers are in a different position and swimming away from the feeding station.

Occasionally, tempers flare and expletives in numerous languages can be heard; sometimes directed at others, sometimes direct at themselves.

Yet, an unwritten gentlemen’s code of conduct is strictly followed at the feeding stations because every open water coach knows that if he or she were to fall in the water and disturb another swimmer, his or her own swimmer would be immediately disqualified.

The coach’s formula is pretty simple: 3 feeds x 2 seconds each x 100% accuracy = potential Olympic gold.

In other words, 4 years of standing on pool decks, 4 years of walking along shorelines, 4 years of plotting strategy, 4 years of traveling the world to competitions – and the coach’s best efforts can go up in smoke within 2 seconds.

So the pressure is on – the coaches.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association