Monday, March 12, 2012

Three is a Magic Number

Last weekend at the USA Swimming western sectionals marked my third competition at the Weyerhauser King Country Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Washington, in a span of 21 years, and continued a streak of successful meets that has been unmatched at any other facility in the world.

The first time I visited the pool was in 1991 at the USA Swimming spring nationals. I placed third in the 100 breast with a 1:02.51 (very fast back then) and was selected to compete at the Pan American Games from that swim. Plus, I swam a lifetime best in the 200 IM (2:11.51). I won't count my 200 breast on the first day, because I've blocked it out anyway.

The second time I swam there was in 2007 at the US Masters short course nationals, where I broke a very old national record in the 30-34 age group in the 50 breast. I also swam my fastest times at that point in the 100 IM and 100 fly, and close to my Masters best times in the 100 back and 100 breast.

I remembered this history when I first walked through the doors this weekend, knowing that the pool and I had a very loving relationship that I did not want to end. Though I was not tapered or shaved for this meet, I wanted to put together some good swims and grow the confidence I already have for the Olympic Trials in about 14 weeks. Bottom line: My confidence is now through the roof! I swam so much faster than I expected in all three of my individual races, and in two cases, swam faster than my shaved and tapered times from last summer! I've never done that before!

Why did I decide to not shave or taper for this meet? I already have my Olympic Trials qualifying time in the 100 breast, so I saw no need to end this current training cycle, just to see how fast I can go. I felt just resting for a couple of days and pulling back a bit on the dryland was the better option, so I could get back into training this week as if nothing happened. A few people at the meet who already had Trials times were shaved and tapered, and I hope they can get back into hard training soon before taper in about 12 weeks!

Below, a day-by-day breakdown of the meet:

<b>Friday, March 9</b>
I arrived in Seattle the night before, and got to the hotel at a reasonable hour, enough time to settle into my hotel room and not have to go to bed right away. It had been a long day at work, trying to get everything in order so I could focus solely on my swimming. With Federal Way an hour behind Phoenix (at least until Sunday), I was feeling tired by 10 p.m. anyway, so I fell asleep with no problem.

However, since I am used to waking up at 5 a.m., my body did just that -- at 4 a.m. Pacific time! I tried to fall asleep again, and when it didn't work, I just got out of bed at 5:30, checked email and ate the free hotel breakfast early. I went to the pool during warmup to swim in the long course pool. I hadn't swum long course since the Austin Grand Prix in January, so I needed to acclimate.
That afternoon, I swam the third leg on the 200 free relay on the "C" team for Phoenix Swim Club. I wasn't upset by that. I'm not a freestyler, and I was surprised to be on any freestyle relay. I split 24.7, pretty good for the first swim of the meet. I was told that my head position wasn't stable during the swim, but other than that, it was fine.

That evening during finals, I swam the breaststroke leg on the 200 medley relay on the "B" team. After the race, I was getting a lot of congratulations on my split. I thanked them all, but not sure why everyone was so happy about it. A few minutes later, a coach who I knew said "Wow! 27.4 is amazing!" I didn't know what he was talking about at the moment, but then I figured it out. My swim didn't feel like a 27.4. That's world championship/Olympics speed, and I've never been that fast! I checked the results, and there it was in black and white: 27.49. It had to be a mistake. If I had gone a 27.4, our relay would have been well in the lead after that leg, but we were only in third. Luckily, Coach Tako was filming every race, and after watching it and timing my swim, I got a 29.01. That's my official split.

Later in the weekend, people were still congratulating me on the swim. I didn't correct any of them. I felt bad about it, because I needed to do that. If you are one of those people, my apologies.

Unfortunately, our relay was disqualified because the backstroker went past 15 meters on his start. We lost the crucial third-place points.

This was a good way to start the meet, though. Two 50s in races where there was no pressure.

<b>Saturday, March 10</b>
I woke up this morning feeling excited about my first official day of racing. Unlike most of the people on the team, I was only swimming in three events. Mostly, that was because that was all I qualified for, and the only events of interest to me. I started the day with the 100 back. I was seeded with a 1:00.70, which I swam shaved and tapered last June at the Southwest Classic. It was at this meet that I came within .09 of the Olympic Trials time, so I was very much rested for that meet. It wasn't a great 100 back time, but consistent with how I had been swimming the past couple of years in terms of backstroke.

The race today was awesome. The first 50 was almost effortless. When I pushed off at the turn, I felt better than I expected. With no long course training, the pain was bound to kick in earlier than usual. It didn't start to hurt until the final 20 meters. When I touched the wall and saw "1:00.41," I said "Whoa" out loud. I couldn't believe it! I didn't have too much time to savor the moment. The prelims was being run with chase starts, which meant they were starting races at both ends of the pool. I got out of the water quickly and had a few seconds to see the time again before the scoreboard cleared for the next heat. I was in shock. That was fast! I had never gone that fast unshaved before, and I started to get excited about my 100 breast, which was coming up in about two hours (after about 30 heats of the 400 free).

(Click here to watch my 100 back prelims race. Apologies that you don’t get to see the finish.)

When the 100 breast prelim came, I stood behind lane four (as the third seed, I was the fastest swimmer in the first circle-seeded heat) and visualized the stroke mechanics I needed to focus on for a good race. Coley Stickels wanted me to surge my shoulders, arms and hands forward faster on the recovery, and I wanted to make sure I got the most out of every kick. The second-fastest swimmer in the heat was about a second off the Olympic Trials time, and I figured he might be making a run at it.

The first 50 was smooth. I didn't feel like I had easy speed, but I was swimming fast and not feeling any effects. When I pushed off at the 50, I saw a couple of swimmers at my shoulders. That meant I touched the wall first! I wasn't expecting that. In an instant, I told myself I was having a great race so far, and not to screw it up! I maintained my tempo for the next 25 ... and then the pianos started falling. My technique started to falter, and I could feel myself sinking in the water. I continued to surge forward in the final 15 meters and hit the wall. I got the opportunity to see my time before I had to get out :1:05.43. Amazing!

If I was in shock after my 100 back, I was in utter disbelief after my 100 breast. I was wondering if I had looked at the wrong lane, and I was thinking I swam someone else's time. After all, I only had a couple of seconds to see it before I had to haul my tired body out of the pool. I refused to believe it as I talked to Coley about the race, and as he told me to stop spotting the wall for the turn, since my speed and tempo slow down.

I qualified third for finals!

(Click here to watch my 100 breast prelims race. Again, apologies that you don’t see the final 25 meters … which might be a good thing!)

I only got about an hour sleep before I had to go back to the pool for finals. I did about 1,000 meters of warmup in the big pool. Even though I wasn't swimming for about two hours, I wanted to warm up in the competition pool, because the water was about 78 degrees. In the diving well, the water was about 83 degrees. Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know how much I hate swimming in warm water. I had to do my pre-race warm up in the diving well, though, and I feared the warm water was making my muscles too relaxed.

After I paraded out to the blocks with the other finalists, I splashed a lot of cold water on my body, to get myself re-acclimated to the competition pool temperature. It helped greatly. I felt re-energized as I listened to the announcer name off the finalists.

When I swam that 100 breast in 1991 to make the Pan American Games team, I did it in lane three at this pool. Twenty-one years later, I was in the same lane, swimming a 100 breast that had much less at stake, but still very important. Three was definitely a magic number this weekend! Maybe I’ll get third place in this final!

I executed the race in finals similar to my prelims race, with one exception. I wanted to be just as fast as the top qualifier, who had swum about a second faster in prelims. If I could stay with him the first 50, I might be able to go under 1:05, which would be extraordinary!

I made a quick turn at 50 meters and glanced to my right. The top qualifier was even with me! Instead of rushing my pullout to get to the surface and start swimming, I held the glide and snapped my arms in the pulldown, just as Coley had suggested. Of all the things I've been working on since the Austin Grand Prix (where I swam a 1:07.11 due to shoddy preparation at the meet), my pullout was the biggest change I've made to me my stroke. I'm doing the dolphin kick at the top of the pullout, and gliding a little longer off the start and turn before doing the pullout. I think it's made a <i>very</i> significant improvement!

The final 50 hurt just as much as the prelims swim. I made a couple of errors. First, I was checking on my competition multiple times throughout the race. I think I looked at each lane on either side of me a total of 10 times. I thought I was being conspicuous about it, but Coley said he easily noticed it. Also, in the final 25, as I was speeding up my tempo in an effort to begin my all-out sprint, my legs went too far outside my bodyline, and definitely affected my momentum. I saw the swimmers on either side of me in my periphery, which meant they were ahead. I panicked a little bit in the final 10 meters, but not too much.

But none of that mattered when I touched and saw "1:05.28" next to my lane for fifth place. Because of the little mistakes I made, it might have cost me a sub-1:04 swim. But I already had my Trial cut, and wasn't planning on getting a better seed in the meet. Plus, I had only expected to go a 1:06-anything, so to be so far under 1:05 -- and so close to 1:04 -- brought on a wave of elation. I kept my cool and shook the hand of my teammate in the lane next to me, who got fourth place and swam within four tenths of his best time. The top four swimmers swam under the Trials cut, and two of those guys hadn't qualified before this meet, so I made sure to congratulate them.

As you can see from the video, my start has improved, but still needs work. Do you see how my legs are not together right before doing the dolphin kick? That’s not good streamlining, and it’s something that pretty much every swimmer knows. It gives me something to new to work on, since from the look of things, my stroke is pretty good, even when my stroke breaks down.

A lot of people who either read my blog, know me from my work with Swimming World or know me from "the old days" came up to me and congratulated me on my fine swims. Even Missy Franklin gave me a high five!

The only problem with having a great day at the pool is having a brain that won't stop replaying it over and over and over and over while you are trying to sleep. I don't think I fell asleep until 11:00 -- and that didn't count the hour we were losing due to daylight savings time! It didn’t help that I started watching the Sarah Palin movie “Game Change” when I should have been asleep.

<b>Sunday, March 11</b>
I only got about six hours of sleep, which made me worried about my swimming performance. I was set to compete in the 200 IM, which is a fun event to do when I’m tapered, but not so much when I’m broken down from training. The final 50 hurts much more than usual, and my legs start burning on the breaststroke.

I warmed up well, and the cool water helped to wake me up. I still had some apprehensions about my endurance, since I’ve been so focused on my 100-meter races in the past three months. I was in a very fast heat, full of guys who were all entered with a 2:14. That was the time I went shaved and tapered last summer, and I thought that was a very good time then, considering I had seriously put off any 200 IM training in favor of trying to make Olympic Trials in the 100 breast. I told myself to just race the guys in the pool and let the lactic acid take care of itself.

Butterfly is my worst stroke, but it turned out OK in this race. My shoulders survived those 50 meters, and I felt very good on backstroke. That always sets me up well for the breaststroke, and when I did my turn, I saw the guy in the lane to my right just a half body length ahead of me. That gave me confidence that I could run him down in breaststroke, which I did! But the trouble started brewing about 15 meters into freestyle. My shoulders and lats started burning and my legs were getting heavier. But seeing that I was ahead of a few people made me ecstatic about the way the race was going. I was pretty sure I was the only unshaved person in the race, and my goal was to go 2:16 or better. I feared that would put me dead last in the heat, but if I was beating these shaved guys who were seeded at 2:14, I must be doing something amazing!

A 2:14.10 unshaved is indeed amazing! I was so happy to see the time on the board, but because of the chase starts format, I had only a few seconds to catch my breath and pull myself out of the water. I had to lay on the bulkhead for a few seconds to get my heart rate down. You would think I had just run (or swam) a marathon!

(Click here to watch my 200 IM prelims race.You can skip ahead to the 2:09 mark.)

Of all the individual swims of the meet, I was most shocked by the 200 IM. I love doing the 200 IM because of all the strategy entailed, and when I’m in a good race, it makes it more exciting. But given all that, I did not expect to swim faster than my shaved and tapered time from last year! I’m swimming at the Masters long course nationals the week after Trials, and this severely changes all my goals for that meet!

One more race to go: the 400 medley relay. Phoenix Swim Club had already sewn up the men’s team title despite two relay disqualifications, but we wanted to make our presence known, and hopefully go 1-2. I was swimming breaststroke on the “B” relay, since the other breaststroker beat me in the 100 breast final. I was very happy with the way I swam. I dove in a body length behind the breaststroker from King Aquatics in the lane next to me, and almost out-touched him at the finish. The race for second turned out to be between my relay and the King relay,and though I was a little sad that we didn’t go 1-2, we raced very well. After the race, I heard that I split 1:05.5, which seemed right. I had put everything I had in that race, but it didn’t feel as good as the 100 breast the night before.

I’m not always the best relay swimmer, as my former college teammates will attest. But I was happy with my performance, regardless of the time. When I returned to the hotel later that night, I checked the official results. There, on my monitor, read “1:04.95.” I was thrilled to know that I finally went under 1:05 this weekend. Yes, I had the advantage of a relay start, but I’ll take it where I can get it!

We won the men’s team title and got third overall. Here’s a photo of me with Walter Ross holding the team trophies!

It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m still analyzing how it was possible to swim so fast last weekend, with only two days rest. Normally, that’s not enough for me to feel in good racing shape. I was worried I would swim as badly as I did in Austin, which would not have been a good barometer for my training these past seven months. Everything seems to be progressing very, very well on this journey to Olympic Trials. What’s even more exciting is that I was not nervous for any of my races in Federal Way. My stomach is usually in knots before a race, but each time, I was perfectly calm and collected and “in the zone.” I want that to be my mindset when I walk onto the deck in Omaha.

Since I did not do a taper for this meet, I can pick up right where I left off training-wise. I’m going to the gym today for a medium-intensity weight workout, then back in the pool tomorrow. I’m off to Dallas in the afternoon, starting a 19-day cross-country journey covering three swim meets for work: the Division II NCAA championships, the NCSA junior nationals and the Far Western championships. The best thing about my job is having a pool available! I plan to do workouts in between sessions at all meets, and promise to not quit even when it gets boring swimming alone.


  1. Congratulations Jeff, you never cease to amaze me!

  2. Jeff -- awesome swimming. The analysis is spot on; the 200 IM was wonderful. You've got to be psyched for Omaha.

  3. Enjoyed reading this ! This is why I still enjoy swimming.

  4. Thanks, guys! I'm trying not to get too far ahead of myself, but my outlook on Trials did change dramatically after last weekend.

  5. Matthew TschippertMarch 14, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    Hey Jeff,

    I just got around to reading your recent blogpost today and would like to say how much improved everything looked compared to a few months ago when you started to change your pullouts. This definitely shows in the times you're swimming right now! With how much work you are putting in, I think when you do shave/taper, you will be in for a huge surprise.

    It's difficult not to think about the trials with them right around the corner. Use that new outlook to push even harder for the next 3 months.


    Matthew Tschippert

  6. Thanks, Matthew! It is easy to not think about Trials when you have plenty of things in the present to keep my mind occupied.

    But I do know that this is the final stretch, and am working harder!