With the 2019 Hancock Prospecting World Swimming Trials days away, we sat down with Australian Dolphin Head Coach Jacco Verhaeren to get his take on everything from qualifying times to final training tips as Australia's top swimmers go through their final preparation before all the action kicks off June 9 from the Brisbane Aquatic Centre.
Why are our qualifying times faster than the official FINA times?
Our philosophy regarding qualification times means your time should be able to qualify you for a final at a World Championships. Therefore, our qualifying times are set to the top eight of the previous World Championships.
This year they reflect the eight entry times of the final in 2017, which was when the last World Championships were held.
Is there a max number of athletes we can have on team?
The team size is capped at 52 athletes – 26 males and 26 females. The reality is we are usually a squad of 40 or so athletes and you can only enter two per individual race.
FINA has both A qualifying times and B qualifying times, if you want to enter two athletes in a race, they both must meet A qualifying times.
At the Olympics, if you select an athlete for a relay only, they must swim that relay at least once. This is not the rule for World Championships, but we are applying this in practise for preparation for Tokyo 2020.
How important is the make-up of the relay teams?
The composition of the relay teams are very important. The lead-off swimmer in a relay team is a particularly crucial position as it can put additional pressure on that swimmer because essentially, it’s an individual swim. So, when you’re selecting you are considering the mental capability of the athlete, as well as their capability to start well.
Swimmers two, three and four are equally as important. When we’re looking at heats we still need to make sure we qualify for the final. You can sometimes leave your fastest athletes out of the heats and have them just swim the final as long as it isn’t a risk to qualifying for the final, so the third, fourth, fifth and sixth athletes are very important.
We can sometimes select as many as seven or eight athletes, depending on the quality of swimmers in that event, so we can then have fresh people in the final.
Relay selection does require quite a bit of strategic thinking and a solid understanding of the strength of your athletes – who has the best start, who has good change overs and who has a good track record in relay swimming. Some athletes can swim significantly faster in a relay than an individual swim. All those considerations combined help us decide our relay teams.
What was the thinking behind scheduling trials five weeks out from the World Championships?
Post the Rio Olympics we discussed changing our qualification process as qualifying closer to the meet as it has a few advantages, including the ability to go into a warm weather camp during our winter.
If we are selecting our fastest athletes closer to the meet, we are giving people more time to prepare so ensuring we select our best athletes.
If you have a shorter amount of time to prepare after your trials the intensity and focus tends to be a lot higher leading into a World Championships and Olympics.
How important are fast heats swims?
Fast heat swims are incredibly important as at international level, slow heats do not exist. The very best in the world can get away with swimming a little bit slower as their best is so much quicker.
You need to be able to train yourself to swim a fast heat at international level and often the reality is you need to swim your best time, or very close to your best, to make the top eight.
The gaps in international fields are becoming less and less. Twenty years ago, there may have been a second between first and second and now sometimes you are only seeing tenths or hundredths of seconds.
You need to train yourself to have a great effort in the morning and then be at your very best in the final.
This is also why during our domestic trials we do not have semi-finals anymore as we want the heats to be faster.
How important is the crowd?
The crowd is important for a couple of reasons. It is great to be encouraged and the crowd brings an extra dimension to the sport which could squeeze out an extra few tenths or hundredths of seconds out of someone’s performance.
In a way it also brings some additional pressure and expectation and if people can manage that, it is a good thing as it sets your body and mind up for a great performance.
At World Championships and Olympics there are big crowds and you need to learn how to use the spectators to your advantage.
What would the last month have looked like for these athletes?
It is different depending on the individual but in general, up until April, most athletes would have had a generic preparation where it is about fitness, conditioning and strength.
Then in May and June their training intensifies, and they move into more race-specific training. In the last two or three weeks, depending on the athlete, they go into a taper or race preparation where they add to that intensity, add more recovery, and get ready to have their best day at trials.
What are your fondest memories of World Championships?
My very first World Championships I coached at was in 1998 in Perth and it was my first time visiting Australia. Coming from a European country we didn’t really know much about Australia at all and decided to hold a training camp in Maroochydore. We didn’t have any concept of how big Australia was and certainly didn’t factor in we had to fly five hours back to Perth for competition!
It was a great World Championships with a fantastic atmosphere and was probably the birth of the careers of Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe. I remember a 15-year-old Ian Thorpe breaking the world record and winning the 400m freestyle.
As a coach it was very successful for me as I coached Marcel Wouda to a world championship title in the 200m individual medley.