Britain’s medal-winning performances and dominance of the marathon swimming events at the Beijing Games has kick-started a wave of interest in the newest sport to be included in the Olympic programme.
The subsequent enthusiasm and support shown towards open water, from those within swimming as well as the public at large, is something British Swimming Open Water Performance Manager Mark Perry believes will be a major factor in its continued success.
The British trio of David Davies, Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten took three of the six available medals from 10km events in Beijing and in doing so highlighted the vital work of a team of people that has put Britain at the very forefront of open water swimming.
As good as the summer of 2008 was for the open water programme, Perry knows it will take an even greater effort to retain Britain’s formidable reputation while looking to build on those results.
“We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time and achieved some wonderful results,” said Perry. “This is a testament to all who’ve been involved in the open water programme and journey to Beijing but in reality this is just the start – there’s still so much more to be done and work towards.
“The success we saw in Beijing has drawn a great deal of attention to open water swimming from many coaches, athletes, the media and the public as a whole. It’s created a very positive attitude towards the discipline and sets us up perfectly in terms of preparations for London 2012.
“Britain has done a great job in terms of open water swimming but the rest of the world will undoubtedly catch up. We’ve got a lot of momentum currently and that can only help to grow the sport in this country.”
The recognition and interest open water swimming currently enjoys is in stark contrast to a time before the Olympics where it was relatively unknown and therefore unappreciated.
Times have definitely changed and this provides the momentum for an exciting future for Perry and the programme that became part of the British Swimming World Class Programme when the 10km event was adopted as an Olympic event.
Perry was appointed as the performance manager for open water in July last year but prior to that worked for British Swimming as a consultant charged with transforming a non-Olympic event programme into something that by the summer of 2008 would be competitive on the Olympic stage.
“I identified changes that needed to be made,” said Perry. “I saw the competition, other strong nations and got very excited about it and what marathon swimming had to offer.
“When I first got involved and took on the sport it was in need of modernisation. We knew we had really good swimmers out there with lots of young talent coming through the ranks. The first thing we did was to try to recruit these top swimmers and brought on board David Davies, Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten immediately.
“We want to make the most of the new-found interest now and extend this even further, encourage more athletes to explore the possibility of marathon swimming and to provide them with the right opportunities at the right time.”
Perry prefers to look at things in terms of distance swimming and not just open water. The programme looks at who is swimming the 1500m and 800m Freestyle and what they would be like at 10km.
The programme’s philosophy is that every distance swimmer in Britain has the opportunity to swim an appropriate open water event and is something Perry is working closely with the home nations to achieve.
“A large part of the focus of the programme is to work from the grass roots up,” explained Perry. “It involves meeting the different regions throughout Britain and liaising with those working with young talent, not only coaches but those working in the background. All involved in swimming need to drive this initiative forward.
“Before Beijing and the fantastic British performances, when I was on the pool deck at major meets I used to get asked about boats and binoculars. Now the coaches are asking me how they and their swimmers can get involved. The shift in attitude towards the sport has been a massive one.
“There’s a lot of interest now from swimmers and coaches alike and the challenge we face now is facilitating that throughout 2009.”
Part of the development of the sport in Britain is to work with those responsible for last year’s highly successful great North Swim at Lake Windermere and see how a combined approach can increase further the opportunities provided.
Open water will also have a heavy presence at the ASA Age and Youth Championships as what happens in the pool with young athletes has a direct relationship with the direction of the sport of open water swimming.
It’s not an element of the sport that stands on it’s own anymore, it’s part of the overall swimming World Class Programme.
“It used to be seen as a separate entity, sometimes a completely different sport but I want to change all of that,” said Perry. “It’s an integral part of the World Class programme and there’s no bigger testament to this than the results from 2008.
“All medallists came from a impressive pool background and together with our knowledge, experience and commitment to open water swimming it’s transition into the world class programme has been seamless.
“The priority of the work we do is in looking after the athletes and making sure they have all the resources they need. It’s also about working very closely with their coaches. This has created a great rapport which provides a very close-knit team when we compete.”
The aim isn’t to create specialists in open water swimming but rather to keep swimmers excelling in both open water and pool-based competitions.
Athletes are encouraged to keep variety at the core of their development in terms of strokes and distances and this will include open water as well.
Perry is currently working closely with Development Coach Chris Martin to identify open water opportunities but the priority won’t immediately be results based, it will be about getting the right experience and leading towards winning medals at the Olympics.
“This year we’ll be taking our athletes and giving them experience and exposure at international level. We’ll be highlighting talent and working with them to develop themselves,” said Perry.
“The event in Britain has come a long way in a short space of time but our strategy going forward will focus on developing technique and gaining experience..
“Leading into 2008 the girls were fairly experienced. They had a good track record and experiences of international events. They didn’t always go to events to win, it was about swimming the race, gaining more experience and creating a better understanding of the event.
“Ahead of the Beijing Olympics David Davies had very little experience and therefore his plan was to stay out in front and out of trouble. There wasn’t a British directive to go out in both races from the front, it fell down to the athletes and how the race developed.”
Perry believes results in Beijing were even more impressive when you appreciate, unlike many of the competing nations, Britain has only a small window every year, due to climate, in which to compete in open water in this country.
In reality Britain only has three months – June to August – where athletes can swim as the water temperature needs to be a minimum 15 Celsius.
Because of the limited time in Britain athletes will be offered appropriate opportunities in warmer climates for our younger athletes who show a real interest in open water swimming.
“Our aim is to be a world leader in terms of open water racing. More races and events will go towards building experience and knowledge. It’s about being able to react to certain situations and the best way of managing this is through experience,” said Perry.
“2012 is our next big event but we have World Championships in open water every year. Other than that it’s a learning curve we’ll go through to be up there at the very top in time for London.
“We need to develop our race plans and this will require more events and opportunities on the calendar. The race plan is a massive element of open water swimming. It’s all important.”
Perry himself comes from a pool-based background and a very successful one at that. Coaching in Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, Perry has a rich history of training 200m and 400m Freestyle swimmers most notably Caitlin McClatchey and Mel Marshall.
“Training for the open water and the pool-based events should be the same,” explained Perry. “We’ve been very successful with our swimmers following pool-focused training regimes. The only additional training requirement they’ve undergone is in the tactics of the race and this is something that comes from exposure to competition.”