Training at unsociable hours with your head spent underwater for up to six hours at a time makes for a life of solitude for elite swimmers.
A life of solitary refinement for lonely swimmers
A profound loneliness ... an inconvenient biology ... an unusual brand of physical and psychological punishment …
OK, so these might sound like symptoms of some bedraggled supporter of some beleaguered low-tier football club, but they also are common enemies of the ambitious swimmer, and they illustrate why it is so blasted hard to build any human being into the tier of elite. These goblins exist, they lurk and they howl so as to be formidable enough even if you did not mix in, as in the UAE and other places, an old, old enemy of sporting success …
… the athletic burden of economic prosperity.
It's all a bit much in any game, but it might just be a-bit-much-more in swimming.
As an international gaggle of swimmers merge this weekend at the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex along the Dubai Bypass for the first leg of the Swimming World Cup, you might think of the bright lights in fresh ways, including the most generally meaningful:
- These people have conquered loneliness.
- They have spent a heaping amount of time with just themselves and some chlorine and that black line on the pool floor.
"Sometimes it's a very fast black line," said Chad le Clos, the South African world champion, "and sometimes a very slow black line."
When the Australian titan Ian Thorpe returned from retirement early this year, the three-Olympics gold medallist Dawn Fraser told Australia's Sunday Telegraph, "Thorpie, I believe, retired too early, but I can understand that, being a swimmer myself. It's a lonely sport."
As the Commonwealth Games double-gold medallist Ross Davenport wrote on his blog: "Day after day spent staring at the black line, adding to the unsociable hours. This makes it especially nice when you get a chance to see outside the swimming pools of places you visit."
Jay Benner, the American coach of the UAE national team, points out that not only the training qualifies as lonely, but the training-within-the-training, as within a given length of pool. "There's not that stimuli," he said. "Here your face is in the water for four hours a day and you're alone with no outside stimulation." No immediate gratification, no social contact. "You are battling some obstacles, culturally."
Attempt a nice chat, and get a lung full of water. When running or playing rugby or playing football, Le Clos said: "You can always say, 'Hey, what's up'?" Swimmers converse only after they touch the wall roughly simultaneously, as Benner noted.
"It's taking from your social life and you're alone, with just the water," said Obaid Al Jasmi, the accomplished UAE swimmer still going (and still planning to keep going) at age 30. "With your coach, only. And to see him every day. [Smile.] So it's a boring routine, but I am enjoying it. I cannot see myself outside swimming."
To combat the loneliness, he said: "You just talk with yourself. Sing songs." And seek different aims. "Like, for example," he said, "now I don't feel happy in the water if I don't get tired. I go for training, so I want to do something."
Said the Austrian champion Dinko Jukic, deepening the idea of loneliness: "You see the competition not being everyone else, just yourself. That's how I always do from the beginning. There's the clock, and you've got to beat the clock, and that's how I also saw it." He also said: "If someone needs to motivate you to practise, then it's not the real thing. You're not going to achieve anything."
So mull the difficulty of finding people who can surmount the loneliness, then mix in an oft-forgotten aspect: the sheer unnaturalness of swimming for human beings.
Building what Benner calls "an aerobic base," then tacking on all the techniques, requires "five to eight years," he said, which explains why elites start as young children.
"There's just so many things, technically," said Benner, a former competitive swimmer and award-winning club coach. "This is a sport where, unlike running or cycling, you're having to move through water and you're having to build stroke mechanics that are much different" from normal human motion.
Then, to the tricky crux of it: "In this sport, what you're really aiming at is, you're not looking so much at building power, building strength, as you are trying to minimise resistance in the water. This," he said, "takes a very long time."
Lop on to that, then, that unusual physical motions performed over unusual chunks of time - note: with loneliness - produce unusual physical tolls, and admiration for these semi-aquatic members of the varied global athletic family begins to mount still further.
Question, to Le Clos: "Are there ever times when you …"
He answered right after the word "you", or maybe even before.
"Plenty," he said.
He didn't even need the "wonder why you're doing this" portion, and he is only 19.
"You can definitely see plenty of times and you wake up at 5.30 and you're like: 'Oh my gosh, why am I doing this? Am I really going to go six-and-one-half kilometres in the cold outside?'"
"In moments," said Jukic, "you think: 'I can't do this anymore, I can't stand this anymore, it's hard,' but …"
But exceeding those moments becomes a reward itself, he said.
"I might be a little bit biased," Benner said, "but this is an extremely demanding sport, what you put your body through. In order to excel on a daily basis you've got to be able to put yourself out of your comfort zone. You're going to be tired, you're going to be sore, yet the ones who excel are the ones who kind of thrive on that."
As a high-level illustration in an interview in the North Carolina-based Charlotte Magazine in 2009, Cullen Jones, the US Olympic gold medallist, said: "My body has broken down in ways that I can't even explain. There have been times where, like, holding a glass of water is hard."
To his UAE swimmers, Benner said: "You sell them on the process of taking pride in the chase, setting the goal … They have ownership of what their goal is."
Of the 21-year-old Mubarak Mohammed Salem, with a heap of promise and four gold medals at the Gulf Games, Benner said: "He's far from where he needs to be, but he's done a real good job. He's pretty focused. I think he has a really good idea of what he wants."
In a jovial exchange after training on Wednesday, Benner advised Salem to notice this weekend that the elite world swimmers tend to spend limited time plying yet another menace: text-messaging.
Many of the UAE swimmers also work police jobs, as with Al Jasmi, who ran through his daily slate of wake-swim-work-lunch-swim and kidded: "Please don't tell me about that. The thing I really, really don't like is to wake up in the morning to go training. For example, today I woke up at 6 o'clock in the morning because I have to be ready mentally and physically."
Tabulate all of those demands, then, but then in some cases, add another occasional hurdle: economic prosperity. In recent years this issue has percolated in, for example, the United States. It rose this past spring when the US reached a point where it held no men's golf major titles and the world tennis rankings revealed no American, male or female, in the top 10 for the first time in the 38-year history of the rankings.
Devon Brouse, the women's golf coach at Purdue University, won a national championship and very nearly another with a roster comprised almost entirely of foreign players. He told Diane Pucin of the Los Angeles Times: "The international kids are more appreciative of the opportunity. In some cases they are more mature, hungrier."
For his book The Talent Code, the author, Daniel Coyle, emphasised that as much as Americans like to ascribe athletic prowess to some magic gift, his viewing of Russian tennis players and other travels revealed that deep, deep practice mattered overwhelmingly more. In an interview published on the book's website, he cites painstaking practice as the agent most responsible for Frank Sinatra's voice, Vladimir Horowitz's music, Tiger Woods's majors. Michael Jordan's decorated career came adorned with stories of practice tirelessness.
"To put it in construction terms," he said, "genes are the blueprint for our bodies. But the skill circuits that allow those bodies to perform complex skills are built through deep practice and all the things that drive it [ignition, coaching]."
That kind of want can be harder to reap in comfortable places, a notion hardly new. The late Jim Murray, the renowned Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote, in 1989: "Nothing in my business, journalism, makes me laugh louder than to pick up a newspaper and find some story marvelling wide-eyed at how some deprived youngster from a tar-paper shack in Arkansas, one of 26 children, rose to heavyweight champion of the world, all-world center in the NBA, home-run champion or Super Bowl quarterback.
"Well, of course he did … A much bigger, more astonishing story would be if a youngster came out of a silk-sheets, chauffeur-to-school, governess-at-the-house atmosphere in the mansions of Long Island, to become heavyweight champion of the world, or even left fielder for the Yankees. You get athletes from the bottom of the economic order. That goes back to the days of ancient Rome, when the gladiators were all slaves."
Still, Benner envisions children out there at the moment, keen for development and keen for work. "The first person that really has that here will be the great elite athlete here," he said. "The one that's very hungry and willing to do work on a different level is the one that will have a chance."
That goes even in the unforgiving demimonde of swimming.