When The Pressure Is On Open Water Swimming Coaches

When The Pressure Is On Open Water Swimming Coaches

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

A feeding station is a fixed or floating pontoon, pier, boat or other location where coaches can provide hydration or fuel to open water swimmers during an open water swimming or marathon swimming event. It can also be called a hydration station, feeding pontoon or feeding stop. In international races, national championship events or marathon swims within a fixed loop course, each swimmer is assisted by a coach of their choice. What is it that the coaches do? Why is it so important? And, why is there so much pressure?

The history and responsibilities of open water coaches goes back at least as far as the crew on the escort boat of Captain Matthew Webb, who was the first person to swim across the English Channel in 1875. Competitive open water swimming coaches not only guide their athletes’ training on a daily basis, but also formulate race strategy, serve as their eyes and ears and, very importantly, serve them fluids during the 10 km.

Open water coaches, like their pool counterparts, typically spend hours walking up and down the deck of a pool training their swimmers and oversee their training in a gym for dryland exercises. Additionally, they spend hours walking up and down shorelines or sitting in kayaks, paddleboards or motorized escort boats following their athletes in open water. For those athletes who aim to compete at the Olympics, these thousands of hours of devotion, strategizing, motivating and coaching can boil down to a race of less than two hours. And, at least for the coach on a feeding station, the 2-hour race can boil down to a few critical seconds.

During the 2 hours or less 10 km race at the highest echelon of competitive open water swimming, swimmers will pass their coach, standing on a floating feeding station, usually four times. The coaches yell, whistle and cheer for their swimmer on every loop. Each time the swimmers pass the feeding station, coaches arm themselves with a feeding stick and the athlete’s favorite drink.

These drinks include as many different concoctions as there are swimmers. Some athletes are fed different formulations during the race due to varying physiological needs. During the first or last loop, many swimmers do not stop. However, during the next middle loops, swimmers and coaches try to perfectly synchronize their timing of handing a drink with as little slowing as possible. If there is any error in timing, then the swimmer’s chances of being in an optimal position within the pack drops considerably.

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

Swimmers do not often know exactly where their coaches are positioned until they see them on the first loop.

As the swimmers jostle for position coming into their first feeding, they expect the end of their feeding sticks to be slightly above the water’s surface, facing at their preferred angle, so they can quickly reach up and grab their own cup without breaking their swimming rhythm. A missed stroke means losing valuable ground to their competitors where the difference between a gold medal and finishing out of a podium position is often only a few 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 a few seconds.

Meanwhile, the coaches have only a few seconds to position their feeding stick at the water’s surface, hold the swimmer’s cup at the optimal position, and then retrieve their feeding stick without hitting any competitors.

Unlike the 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 2-4 chances to obtain hydration during a 10 km race.

Despite the coach’s best efforts and years of experience, when a large pack of swimmers come swimming fast 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 which is what happened to swimmers at the 2016 Rio Olympics marathon swim.

Secondly, if a pack 3, 4 or 5 swimmers wide 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 outside swimmer can either turn up the course and accept the unfortunate position – or slow down and stop to take a few strokes closer to their coach on the feeding station.

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 often be positively identified is a…very large group of swimmers splashing and thrashing close to one another. This is especially true with the men, who often remove their swim caps during warm-water races. Occasionally, as coaches stretch the feeding stick out to the thrashing pod of athletes, they notice their own swimmer is in a different position and swimming away from their position on the feeding station.

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

Yet, an unwritten gentlemen’s code of conduct is strictly followed at the feeding stations among the coaches and trainers 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 of a few seconds each x 100% accuracy is what their swimmer expects – and deserves.

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 a handful of seconds.

So the pressure is on – the coaches.

Copyright © 2008-2017 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones