By Jim Morris
When it’s time for the next generation of Canadian swimmers to decide on their future, John Atkinson wants to make sure they have plenty of options.
The introduction of Mark Perry as Swimming Canada’s first ever Distance/Open Water Coach is part of Atkinson’s plan to broaden Canada’s medal potential in the water.
Canada had two open water swimmers compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Richard Weinberger, who won a bronze medal in London, finished 17th in the men’s 10-km while Stephanie Horner, a pool swimmer in both Beijing and London, was 23rd in the women’s. Both are back on this year’s national team, which includes six athletes who will swim open water at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director, was pleased with the six swimming medals Canada won in Rio. He also noted only two came in 200-metre events, and none were in distances 400-m or above. Canada isn’t developing enough swimmers in the 400-m and longer events at the junior level, Atkinson said. That results in fewer senior athletes competing at those distances.
“As a younger swimmer, in my mind everybody should be swimming middle distance type events,” he said. “As they mature and become more specific as they get older, they can move up or they can come down.”
Perry’s job will be to convince more swimmers to consider distance or open water events. He is heading up a group of 13 athletes competing at the UANA Open Water Swimming Championships this weekend in Cayman Islands. The team includes swimmers as young as 16 right up to 28-year-old Horner, and her national team counterpart Breanne Siwicki, 22.
“We are going to try and expose all our current distance swimmers to open water. We identified and selected a group of young athletes from the (Canadian Swimming Trials in April), so we’re already out there trying to find the next generation of people,” Perry said. “I think there becomes a point much later in their career when they make a decision on which one they are going to focus on.”
Open water races at FINA World Championships can cover five, 10 and 25 kilometres. The Olympic event is a 10-km open-water swim.
When it comes to distance events in the pool, Perry admits “it’s a loose definition” as to who is a distance swimmer. In Rio, there was a 1,500-m men’s event and an 800-m women’s. Perry considers anyone in the 400-m medley and even those in the 200-butterfly as distance swimmers.
“It would be the kind of tougher events,” he said. “Swimming distance in the pool you have to be mentally tough. Then swimming distance in the open water arena is a much harder mental task. You have to cope with the weather, temperature fluctuations, wildlife. You don’t know what is going to be there until race day quite often.”
Perry wants to grow a deeper pool of distance athletes. He plans to travel across the country and visit different programs to identify potential distance/open water swimmers. Swimming Canada also plans a series of open water races to be held across the country to give the sport more exposure.
Young swimmers should still be encouraged to try multiple strokes and compete at different lengths to “build a solid engine,” said Perry. They can be exposed to open water when as they get older.
“In my experience, when people actually give it a go they kind of fall in love with it,” said Perry. “The majority of people who (try it) actually do enjoy it. Whether they are any good at it is a different matter.”
Perry’s calendar for the coming year-plus includes selecting teams for open water competition at the Pan Pacific Championships, Junior Pan Pacific Championships, World Open Water Championships and FINA World Cups. He’s also working with provincial sections to encourage development camps and identifying athletes at the provincial level.
As the numbers grow, Perry plans to support those swimmers with coaches, sports psychologists, massage therapists and technical staff.
“One of the things we are going to try and do is be more technologically savvy, be more scientific in our approach to the race, actually be more professional in the way we look at the sport,” said Perry. “I don’t think there is really anyone in the world who is looking at the sport in that way.
“The idea is our athletes are the most informed and most knowledgeable athletes at the race. They get confidence from that. They understand exactly what the race involves, what the weather is going to be, where the tides are, what the currents are.”
Open water offers some advantages over pool competitions.
“The venues for open water are quite often iconic locations,” said Perry, referring to the beaches, lakes, and rivers that host events.
Open water races can also be more tactical as swimmer battle for time and space while dealing with currents and other environmental factors.
“It’s a much more cerebral challenge,” said Perry. “There are a huge number of different tactics that come into play. You have five or six different things up your sleeve you can turn to at any point during a race depending on what other people do.”
Atkinson said Canada will also continue to develop swimmers for the sprint events.
“If you have enough development age athletes swimming a middle-distance program where they can go longer or shorter as they develop, we’re going to be a better nation for it,” he said.
“It’s not about throwing out what we are doing now in the 200-m and down events. It’s about enhancing what we are doing to be able to identify distance swimmers and have some of our top distance swimmers look at open water as a way of excelling.”