Coaching Elite Masters Swimmers By Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen (2003)


Wayne McCauley has taught me some pretty interesting things. The biggest thing that I have always gotten from him is that you don’t have to be a good breaststroker to swim a good 200 breaststroke. It is all about the turns and the pullout. About 40% of the 200 breaststroke is swum under water during the pullout. Every time I swim against a kid and gap them by 3 or 4 feet doing a pullout, I thank Wayne. That is why the title of this discussion is called “Coaching Elite Masters Swimmers.”

There is also a side to this that I want to discuss. There are USA coaches that also coach Masters swimmers in their programs. I want to address the question, “What suggestions or what situations might occur when you have masters athletes that swim in a USA program?”

I have been really fortunate. I have been exposed to and had access to a masters and a USA program for the entire ten years that I have been back in the sport. I have trained with a USA swim team and trained with a masters team. This is how I was able to get where I am today. I want to recognize the people that have helped me, encouraged me, and supported me along the way because I would not be here without that support. Many created the athlete standing before you, shaping, forming, and helping. I would not be where I am today if I was not able to take advantage of this supportive situation.

It is suggested that you could marry your coach. That way you are guaranteed to know what the workout is. There are no surprises there. Let me start off with a little bit of background. I started swimming AAU. Of course, most of you remember those days. I was a competitive swimmer since age 6.

I swam for Mike Troy. Bless his soul; he was a wonderful coach, an interesting man, and a very humorous person. Doc Counsilman coached him. I kind of look at my coaching heritage like a genealogy of sorts. Doc Counsilman being the Great Grandfather, Mike Troy the Grandfather, and my present coach Eric Neilsen as father.

But there is kind of a line of succession in the way that I coach and the way that I have been trained over the years. A lot goes back to my early years with Mike Troy. I was a Junior National Champion in the 400 IM in 1977. That year I also qualified for Junior Nationals in every stroke. I you recall, Junior Nationals was a nationwide event. It was not North, South, East, and West. Now they do not even have true junior nationals. It was really big.

The first event I ever qualified for at Junior Nationals was the 200 butterfly. The second event I qualified for was the 400 IM. I attribute that qualification time to my training with Mike Troy.

I was a senior national qualifier in 1977, High School All American, and accepted a full athletic scholarship to the University of Arkansas in 1980. What you are going to find is a big gap between college/AAU swimming and the start of my masters swimming career in 1993.

I actually dropped out of Arkansas in 1981. From there I basically started back into junior college and then dropped out. Reflecting over the next 10 to 12 years, many things did not matter to me anymore. I started not going to practice. This was the beginning of a downward spiral. I was trying to find ways to get out of going to swimming. I dropped out of school. Basically, I started throwing away my swimming career.

The next thing I started throwing away was my scholarship. Then came my jobs. Eventually, ten years later, I almost threw away my life. It all started from a very early point and took me down this path that I never wish anyone to go down. However it has created who and where I am today. I have a sense of having gone down the wrong path, made the change, turned around, and come back. For me that turn around point was getting back into swimming. So literally swimming has saved my life in so many ways I cannot even express.

So I returned to the sport in 1993. I was very out of shape and I was very unhealthy. I could barely swim 200 straight. I think I swam 400 my first workout, 500 the next, 600 the next, 700 the next, and continued on. This was the best therapy for me being as unhealthy and unhappy as I was. It just gave me a sense of feeling like this is something that I could do, and do well. It did not matter how fast I swam…IT DIDN’T MATTER. Who I swam with or what I did–I was in the water and it made me feel really good. I accepted swimming on a basic level. I really literally asked myself, if I never swim faster than a 2 minute 200 free would that be ok? I actually could honestly answer yes, because I really just wanted to swim. I had no expectations.

I really just wanted to get in the water. As the result of that I have been in the sport of swimming for over 10 years now. Eric and I just passed our ten-year anniversary of meeting each other. My first competition was at the Mission Viejo regionals. Thank you for a very excellent meet hosted by the Mission Viejo Masters. They did a great job. I really did not think I was going to be doing this for this long. Now I realize I am going to be in the sport for the rest of my life.

Right now I have quite a few partnerships as a swimmer. But there are a lot of other elite swimmers that are doing similar things, e.g., Caroline Kratley, Barbara Dunbar, and people in the San Diego area. I put out a survey on the web. It talks about masters swimmers swimming in USA programs.

But the first thing I did was I began swimming with Coronado Masters. I still train with them today. Also I have coached a YMCA swim program for the last year. These two programs afford me the opportunity to coach and be coached by coaches I respect tremendously.

One thing I have been very proud of is my association with the Coronado Swim Association. I swam for Coronado Navy in the 1970’s until I was 19. I have been with this team almost entirely for the last 10 years. When I first approached Coronado Navy Coach John Larson (in 1994), I introduced myself. In my bubbly way I said “Hi! I am Karlyn. I want to swim. I go a 2:06 200 backstroke. I have come down from a 2:08…but I think I can make seniors!”

He just looked at me and said, “What planet did you come from?” His facial expression said, “I don’t have any kids that can make seniors and you think you are going to? How old are you?” So I show up to his program. He has a lot of boys in his program driving from Tijuana every day. They are looking at me like, what is this lady doing with our program. I remember the set he gave us. It was 3 X 800’s (long course meters). The first one was smooth. The second was negative split. The last was all out. I killed them on the negative split and just swam away from them on the last one.

They just looked at me and I could read their eyes, “Our lives have been forever changed. You know this lady means business. She is going to make our lives a living hell if she keeps swimming with us.” I just raised the bar by jumping in the water with them. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it.

Many of you know that I had the opportunity to go back to Junior College. I did need to clean up my transcripts from 1980. Those things will follow you for the rest of your life. I swam for Palomar Junior College. Since I had attended a four-year college, I needed to return to a two-year college. After I finished I could then attend a four-year school.

I pursued going to a Division 1 school. Jim Montrella at Ohio State was working with me. Due to my age and the fact that I did not enough units as a 5th year senior, I ended up going Division II. I am very, very grateful for the opportunity to swim for Pat Skeehan at Cal State Bakersfield. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.

We went to Nationals and NCAA’s. I won three events and set a record. But more importantly our team placed second. It really was (I think there is a show on TV) a do-over. I mean, how many of you would pick one point in your life and go back to do it completely over again and do it the way you think it should be done? Well, that is what I got to do. I got to go back to college, go to class, study, and go to practice. I got good grades and I swam fast. It was amazing.

It took me 20 years to figure it out. I graduated from Cal State Bakersfield and wore a little dolphin on my cap when I graduated. It said after 19 years I am finally done with college. It was tremendous and I highly recommend the Cal State Bakersfield program.

Pat Skeehan has done some great things. It was a very encouraging atmosphere to go back into. Throwing a 35-36 year old woman in with a bunch of teenage girls worked out really well. I think we all enhanced each other in both our strong and weak points. Right now, I train integrating both.

Fortunately for me the coach is usually Eric Neilsen. If I go to masters on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, I have Eric. If I go to the USA program he is coaching the kids at an earlier time. I also swim with the YMCA so the basis for my figuring out where and what kind of work I need is based on what I need to do and the time I have to do it.

Kids swim at an early time. I usually need to skip practice or get out of work a little early. But it works well for us. Currently I am training 4-5 times a week, 4-6,000 yards per practice. I need to do lots of yards. I have tried to swim like a kid. I have tried doing doubles. I have found I just get really, really tired. I have always wondered why I can’t go back to doubles. My body is not the same as an 18 year old or a 13 year old or a 15 year old.

Nor do I have the time. I need to balance my job, my relationship with my husband, and swimming. It has worked out really well. It has been surprising that I have had such great results. Most coaches think I could not get a taper off such short yardage. But I can. I do IM, backstroke, and middle distance freestyle. I stay very specific.

I work with Eric or the coach that I am working with. We talk about what events I want to race for the year. Are you going for the mile? Are you going for the 400 IM? Basically I train IM and middle distance. I can come down or I can go up. My base is broad and wide after ten years of training.

I don’t need to do 100,000 yards per week to get results. I do remember talking to Angie Westercre who swam at Stanford. She and I are similar ages. I recall that she talked about doing 100,000 with the Stanford program and that was what she was comfortable with. We have not seen much of her lately. I just think it is too hard to maintain that. It is just impossible to have much more else going on in your life if you are really doing that volume of training.

It may work for some people, but it doesn’t really work for me. After trial and error doing more and doing less, this seems to fit. I train long course meters and short course yards. I feel that the combination of those two really work out nicely. The long distance in a 50-meter pool helps me lengthen my stroke. The short course is excellent for turns and transitions so critical in the IM or 400. I do weights twice a week and running a couple times a week. If you are looking at a busy schedule, how else can I fit all these things in?

I try to do weights Monday and some other day in the week. That is the way I get the most out of it. I can do it Wednesday or I can do it Thursday. I can do it Friday and still have two days of recovery before Monday. I find a lot of athletes coming to me saying, “Why don’t you train more weights…why not three or four times?” I don’t have the time to do it this way. I am putting what I can into it right then and there. I know there is one other time in the week that I can get back to it. That is not going to overload my schedule.

I think one of the most important aspects of training is not to get in there and swim mindlessly. I really try and think about what I am doing. What is the coach telling me? What is the purpose of the set? How can I get the most out of it…especially if I am only swimming four or five times a week and 4-6,000 yards/meters each workout. That is only 5 hours out of my week.

It is not a big chunk of time. A masters workout has a warm-up, a warm-up set, a main set, a little kick and you are done. What can you get out of a workout in such a short time? It begins with the warm-up. I tell people a lot of times, “Come on you guys. Get in. Warm up. It is the most important part of the workout.” They are all standing around talking and then the main set comes along and I will say, “ Come on you guys and get in. The most important part of the workout is going to happen. It’s the main set.” They all do it and get out at the end. I say, “Come on, swim down. It is the most important part of the workout.”

They are all important parts and I treat them as such. You do one, and then the next, and then the last part. If you don’t do the warm-down, guess what is going to happen tomorrow in your next workout? You are going to be feeling it.

Are you willing to make changes? As soon as Phil Widdam posted a story about that new Australian crawl with pictures, I poured over it in a heartbeat. It made total sense to me. Wide recovery, high elbow, press back, release…instant change? It took me six months for that stroke to feel like it was mine. But it has worked and my freestyle times have dropped.

There is a flyer with my resume on one side and on the other side a year-to-year comparison of my yard times. There have been lots of studies showing women decline as they age in both power and speed. My times across the board have improved. I had lifetime best times (age 40-41) in the 50 free, 100 free, 200 free, 100 fly, 100 breast, and 100 IM. So much for power going out the door when you reach a certain age.

It is still a possibility to get improvement with technique. Lots of athletes, runners, and cyclists are going to deteriorate in their power. But swimming is the one sport where you can improve your technique and improve your time as the result. Wayne is a perfect example of that. You can take 2 seconds off your 200 breaststroke time with just improving your technique on your pullout. It is not over when you are 35 or 40. I am hoping Jenny Thompson and Dara (Torres) get back into it and we see these people for a very long time.

The partnership with the coach is really critical in training. That is what I am going to touch on later in my talk. Communication is important between coach and athlete. Find out who is doing what and what is going on. If you talk you are going to feel like you are part of the team. That is really critical. I have always felt a part of the team, but at the same time I have made myself visible. I have done clinics, worked with the kids, and helped out on deck.

It is important to have balance in life, not just in swimming. I have other things I need to do, other things that are equally important. When I find myself spending too much time or putting too much emphasis on my swimming I readjust and reel it back in. The crazy thing about it is when I am balanced I am usually a happier person. A happier person does better. So if I am not a happy person, something is off.

If you have an older athlete and a masters athlete, they have been around the block a few times. You really have a coach and a swimmer all rolled into one. I think that is a respect between the coach and the athlete that is important. The coach or the swimmer or the swimmer does not necessarily want to be coached down to. It should be more of an equal if possible.

Here is a big one. Elite swimmers, master swimmers, adults need more time to recover. That is the bottom line. It is the extra weights and the longer training. If you are only swimming twice a week, then swimming four times a week would help you out quite a bit. There is a maintenance level and then there is a level in which you are going to see improvements. Then I think after that, there is a point where going over is going to be creating some issues in over-training.

When I got to Bakersfield, Pat Skeehan came up to me and asked how I wanted to be trained? The last thing she wanted to do was get to February or NCAA’s in March and find out she had over-trained me. She asked what works best for me. It worked out really well and I had a great meet

I am a big person on using supplements. Accelerade is one of the greatest things that have come around. I am not even sponsored by them. Drink it during practice. Drink it after practice. Drink it when you can. It is great and easy to get down. I have been with Go. They sponsor me. It is a lactose-free milk drink that has a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio similar to Accelerade. I could drink Accelerade but I kind of like that nice milk chocolate shake after practice or as a meal replacement. I also use it when I am running behind and I know I have caloric needs. Lots of times liquid seems to be the easiest.

I also use Body Wise products. I have been with them for quite a while. They have some terrific supplements I use when I train. I will tell you a funny story. We were in Bakersfield and went to a meet in Clovis. I left my backpack at home for some reason. CRS is setting in. I get to the meet. I have no suit, no cap, and no goggles. We found a suit, cap, and goggles, but I needed the supplement I use from Body Wise. It was called Super Cell and it is an anti-oxidant formula. I sent Eric home. He willingly drove back from Clovis to Bakersfield and back again to get my supplement so I could swim well in a race.

But I really need the recovery of these anti-oxidants. There are a lot of people that feel the same way. I know I need to recover. If I can’t hit it 5 days a week straight, something is going to give. If something gives then I am going to be back behind the schedule. It is basically swim when you need to swim and rest when you need to rest. Listen to your body. That over-training syndrome is really no fun. It knocks me off balance.

A lot of times I will do recovery workouts instead of skipping practice. I swim easy or do something I don’t normally do. Maybe I will wear fins. What will happen is I end up getting a different type of aerobic workout…one emphasizing my legs. Eric trains with a gentleman who is an exercise physiologist. He thinks I do pretty well getting 9 hours of sleep. Sleep is important and benefits everybody. It is the time when you are repairing those muscles.

Why would most people want to swim at this age? I think the number one reason is it makes you feel young. I go to a kids meet and I know I am by no means old. But when I am running around with these 16 year olds in warm-up and stuff like that, I don’t think I look or feel any different. Then I look in the mirror and its like, ugh! Who is that person? When I am around them, I feel just like them. They might be thinking, “Who is that mom swimming with us over in the warm-up pool?” Doesn’t she know lap swim is canceled? Also when I check-in, they say your daughter is in event 16 and 20. Then I have to say no, that’s me. I am swimming the meet. This is mine and eventually they do kind of get around to me.

I think it is great fun to reach goals. I have been told that I am a very goal oriented person. I sometimes still don’t believe it. My history from those 10 dark years was when I had no goals, no direction, and no follow-through. I have kind of made up for that now being very goal oriented. It is a lot of fun. It keeps things interesting and we always pick something far out. Why not shoot for the Olympic Trials? Why not try something you have never done before? It is great to be healthy and feel alive.

Now during the course of my day there are only a couple of things that could top the energy I get from doing a really good set. I just feel most alive when I am in that position in training and racing. The endorphins are growing. It is just great.

Even if I slow down (and you can quote me on this), I will keep swimming. Even if I get passed up and records no longer fall, I will still be there swimming because it is just basically what I want to do. I never want to get out of shape again. I am pretty much in the best shape of my life. I have been saying that for the past 5 years. That is pretty darn good to be able to keep saying that year after year.

I have fun. I don’t set limitations. When I started out at 2:08 in the 200 backstroke, I thought it would be fun to go under 2 minutes. The next thing you know, I am down there at 1:59. So if you don’t put the limits out there, you will never recognize them. You will just swim right past them. You just never know what is possible. Set and reset goals.

You have heard this before. It is the journey, not the destination. It is going to clinics like this, seeing the people, and seeing this family we have in the swimming world. In Hawaii they say you are “ohanna”. My swimming “ohanna” is huge and it means everything to me. The people in my swimming circles are also my volunteers at the events I put on. They are also people I socialize with.

I used to think it was unique to San Diego that we just have all these really cool people we get along with. You know what? It is everywhere. It is a swimming family. If I moved to North Dakota, I would find the same thing. Not a lot of older athletes have access to this kind of likeminded-ness. This eclectic group of people is fun to be with and it is something I really cherish.

When I swim I have nothing to lose. I am out there swimming next to the 14 year olds. She might be thinking this mom might beat me, but I have nothing to lose. So what the heck, why not go out there and do your best. When I talk to kids I ask why are you nervous? You want to do well. It is just one race. It is not your lifetime. I try to take all the pressure of racing away. I am not going to die at the end of it. Nobody is going to think less of me. You take the fear out of the negative and just go out there and have fun. Do your best and whatever happens should be okay. You are still going to wake-up tomorrow morning and probably have to go to school.

Attitude or gratitude—that is something I learned in my recovery. I am physically fit and capable of swimming fast. I keep a grateful attitude all the time. It is my little mantra. Another part of my motivation is swimming every distance and every stroke. When I was younger I was pigeon holed into swimming certain things. Now I do everything as often as possible. When I look at a meet I go wow! There are so many things I can do. Eric says now slow down. This is 3 races a day plus heats and finals. You might be biting off more than you can chew. But I think wow, a 200 breaststroke. Sounds like fun. The 50 fly and 200 fly…I did three of those this year (this summer).

It is fun. Why limit yourself? If an athlete only swims one or two events and doesn’t do well, they are going to feel they are not successful. It is similar to age-groupers. If you stop dropping times in one event or stroke, you mix it up. It makes it more interesting. Then you might find out you are actually pretty good at events you never thought you were good at. I also do open water, long distance, and postal swims. They are kind of boring sometimes but they are fun. They are a goal to set.

It is almost impossible to stay positive 100% of the time. I focus on the known when I race. This is covered in the last swim magazine article. If I focus on the unknown I wonder if I am going to swim fast. I wonder if I am going to do well in my turns. These are all the unknowns. Instead I flip flop it into the knowns. I know I have trained well for this. I know I am ready to swim fast. I know I look really good in this bathing suit. I know, I know, I know! When I focus on the known, rather than the unknown, I am much better off. I sometimes write on my hand, “Know.” Every time I go to put on my cap, I know. It is a calming thing. I learned that one this year.

Here is a list of some of my accomplishments in order of importance. I met my husband. That is pretty cool. We share the love of swimming together. That is really beneficial. I still enjoy the sport. I had eight lifetime bests last year. Swimming paid for my college. When you are in your mid-thirties and someone is still forking the bill for your college, that is pretty cool. Just about any coach would say it is great when your college pays for your education.

I was a member of the Cal State Bakersfield Division II second place NCAA team. I qualified for the Olympic Trials and it just happened to be six months too late. But a goal is a goal. I currently hold over 50 (depending upon who is breaking them) world records and 70-80 USMS national records. One thing I really hold dear is winning junior nationals in 1977. My time was a 4:32 for a 400 yard IM. I got down into the 4:24’s. I am still hovering around the 4:26 to 4:28 range. Whenever I can do that time, I think it is pretty darn cool. I never want to go slower than a 4:32. You can quote me on that one.

Okay, I love to race and I race a lot. I get up on the blocks 78 to 90 times I think. I go through my Speedos like crazy. I do want to say thank you to Speedo because Speedo has been with me since 1994. They have supported and sponsored me for quite a few years. I think they are the best suits around. I just think it has a lot to do with my progress. I also feel like life is too short to swim in a slow suit. I wear out a fast suit whenever I can. I don’t care.

Byron Davis told this story a long time ago. It really stuck in my head. This applies to any athlete, any age, racing. First of all we know kids stay in the sport longer when they race. That is a proven fact. I think this also applies to masters swimmers. If they get up there and have something they are working for, they have a goal.

Byron had this kiln story. He said we are all kind of like this piece of clay. You can create it and move it and bend it. You can make a bowl or an ash try or something. You can glaze it. The only thing is, it is nothing until it actually goes into the fire. What happens is, you take this piece of clay. You dry it and then it goes into the fire. When it is put into the fire the true test of that piece you just created becomes apparent.

Now if you didn’t knead it out enough it will have some air bubbles. It could just crack or blow-up. Maybe the glaze you used did not come out the way you thought. It looked kind of good on paper but it did not turn out. What Byron was saying is every time you step on the blocks you are putting yourself into the fire. I get little goose bumps just talking about it. I step up there. I don’t know what is going to happen. I am going to control this the best I can. But I am just going to go out and do my best.

When you come through the fire, no matter what the piece looks like (ugly or distorted, or not quite what you wanted), it is firm and you can hold onto it. You can take that with you. Then the next time you can create something different. I just think that was really, really, really poignant. You step into the fire every time you step on the blocks. You are stepping into the fire and testing yourself. That is where you find out whom and what you are.

Masters has been a great training ground. You only have one shot so you learn how to swim fast for that one time. That in turn has helped me make finals more times than I can count. I get up in the morning and I know how to race. Masters…one shot and you are done. Kids meets, you get to make the finals and then you can come back again to do it again and better your time and place.

It is funny when I go to a USA meet. The first day of a three-day meet nobody will talk to me: None of the girls and none of the parents. By the second day the girls are starting to ask me how long I have been swimming and how much I train. The parents are coming up to me thanking me for beating their daughter. They would say things like, “She really needed that.” By the third day I can barely swim down. People are talking to me and really opening up. I hear wonderful things like, what a great role model you are. I really feel when I go to these meets the time doesn’t matter. It is the kind of impact you have when you are a masters swimmer at a USA meet and doing well.

I recognized later on that it is a privilege. When I was a kid I just wanted to look cute in finals but not make finals. Well, now that I am an adult, I really, really, really want to make finals. I know it is a privilege to be there. I race everything so I am never bored. I swam the 50 breast semi-finals at the Speedo Grand Challenge. I am not a breaststroker but I was a breaststroker that day. Why not? And I race long distance as well. I do the 800, 1500 and the 1,650. I will do the 200 fly and 400 IM. I don’t necessarily train those events. But once again, if you have a swimmer that has been competing or racing and training for ten years, you can put them in these events and have them do really well.

Tapering in the competition phase is something I have tinkered with for many years. It is obviously a fact older athletes need a longer time to rest. I feel one of the greatest issues in a lot of our masters championships is people never get enough rest. I have learned this through trial and error in 10 years. My taper period starts about four weeks out. What I will do is swim a meet about 3 weeks out to gauge where I am. Are my legs still tired? Am I really dead sore? What do I need to cut back on? If I need to get rest on short notice, it is not going to happen.

I have found in the last couple of years that if I do one week at 20,000, I will drop it to 18,000 the next week. I will drop down to 9,000 the week of the meet doing almost nothing. That way I go through that yucky phase early and then I can build from there. I take myself down, go through the yucky phase (when you are going through endorphin withdrawals) and then I kind of build-up.

If I find myself feeling like I am getting out of shape, then I can bump up the yardage. But I certainly can’t do it the other way around trying to get two weeks worth of rest in two days. When it comes down to the championship meet, older athletes need a longer time. Of course we are always looking for the elusive speed. I hardly ever find it. It seems like I get it and then it goes away. But it is certainly nice when it is here. So like I said, it is easier to bank rest than to try and get rest on short notice.

I will swim the Speedo Grand Challenge right after masters nationals this year. I took a week off and did a Girl Scout event. Then I flew to the Charlotte Ultra Swim. A week later I went to the national open water swim meet. Then I swam a USA meet. I swam 5 or 6 weekends in a row. What I am able to do is race 2 or 3 days of heats and finals. I have 12,000 under my belt right there. I go the next day or two and recover doing some moderate or easy swimming. Maybe on Wednesday I swim a 3-4,000 workout. I keep myself in the groove of things. Then I race again on the weekend. I maintain this taper for six weeks.

I did a 5,000-meter swim in an hour, 2 minutes, 53 seconds. Some days I can’t even go one 1:15, let alone 50 of them. Your taper is not a one or two day window. It could be a very long period of time. I call it the training and competition phase because it is. It is just a phase. It is not just a short period.

Masters workout, we all know, are fun. I can usually get a good workout. They are shorter in duration to kids workouts. It is usually after work, but some of the problem is there are not enough people to push. That is kind of a universal problem. You have a real fast or a slow person. You can still get a good workout but it is nice to swim with other people.

I want to address how USA Swimming has complemented my masters career and vice versa. I think it really worked well because I have recognized some of characteristics along the way. Hopefully this can help you out. What I have done is swim a masters workout and find no one to challenge me. I go backstroke on the free interval or swim by myself.

I have found over the years I really need to train with other people. I can only get so far training by myself. I need to have a group. The group feeds off each other. The group supports each other. I always say you swim faster, you swim further, and you have more fun. These three F’s are very critical to masters swimmers.

I love swimming with kids in the USA program. I just saw my kids today. I pushed one of my girls right into Lenny Krazelburg. I said, “Oh, you just bumped into Lenny Krazelburg you know?” It was really fun because I see these kids know me as a swimmer. They don’t know me as somebody’s parent. They just know me as a swimmer. I train in the water and they accept me. It is more challenging. It is long course. I get specificity. It is longer in duration. I like the fact that practice is over before masters begin. That is kind of nice in my schedule. I love the coach, so there he is.

So here I am in a USA program. This could be anyone. I am a positive role model. I am a mentor. I am a motivator. I am another set of eyes in the pool. I can watch what the coach doesn’t see under water. I work with the kids giving them unsolicited stroke instruction. A lot of times they respond very well to me. The kids listen to me for five very good reasons:

I am doing the workout
I am ready and willing to work hard.
They know that I can race.
They know that I am fast.
I lead by example.

I put my money where my mouth is. If I tell someone to swim the 200 fly a certain way and then I go out and swim it differently, I am contradicting myself. I live by what I tell the kids. I think they hear it and then they see it.

One of the biggest benefits to a USA program is having a masters swimmer in the training program. It is a tremendous asset, but it is usually untapped. They have great attitudes. They are on time. They have good behavior. Their language is usually pretty good too…most of the time. Time is valuable. They don’t want to waste it. They might have left their job early so they could get to you. They are investing their very sought-after time because they want to swim.

They are positive role models. They show the kid by example that swimming can be for life. One of the best things is it creates a competitive atmosphere. Those kids do not want to get beaten by an old fart. You put a kid next to the adult and they are both going to swim their best. This is a great situation.

Kids behave better. I have seen that happen when I am in the water. The kids mess around quite a bit less when I am in the water. Your older athlete could be with you for the next twenty years. It could be a post- grad. These people are not going off to college. They are going to be part of your program and your life possibly for a very long time.

Masters swimmers also can play chaperone at travel meets. They can help with fund raising. They are connected in the community. These are people that have jobs. They know other people that might help support your goals. The can also support the team in other ways. Those things can be discussed.

There are some challenges for the USA coach in dealing with a masters swimmer in the water. First of all you might be thinking that this person is now taking up lane space that a kid could be using. This is where we are going to have to weigh out the balances. The coach is unsure what the swimmer wants. The lack of communication between the coach and the swimmer is pretty much the biggest problem here.

The other thing is the seasons are different. I know the USA season ends quite a bit earlier than the long course season ends for masters. A lot of times the coach is not on the same page. That is an issue. There are challenges from the masters swimmers’ perspective. As for me, I can be a little bit pushy. I did tell them what I wanted.

But most people are not going to tell the coach what their agenda is. They may feel this is a big one. They may feel swimming with the kids obligates them to swim every single set as hard as they can so they are setting a good example. That can lead to some pretty disastrous results. They may drop out because it is just too hard. If they can’t keep up, they don’t feel they can make a change to a set. That would be deviating from the workout and that is really not cool. Then they feel like an outsider.

What does a masters swimmer want from your program. According to the survey I have done, everybody wants to be coached. They want to be coached. They want to be recognized and want to have that person say, “You are swimming with me and I am going to coach you.” Now it doesn’t need to be a lot of time, but it does need to be words. Just like you try to do when you are coaching. Everybody tries to day at least one word to every swimmer in the water every practice. It should be the same way with a USA coach and a masters athlete. Acknowledge that they are there. Encourage them. Just say, “Hey! That was a 2:56. All right! Lets bring that down John. Come on! You can pick it up.” Okay? Communicate.

Why are they swimming with you? What are their goals? How can you help and when is their big competition? And then the last thing I found is every single masters swimmer wants unsolicited stroke instruction. They cannot see their stroke. You are seeing their stroke but thinking he has been doing that for thirty years. Maybe he is just comfortable like that. In reality, most coaches would like to give stroke instruction, but they don’t know how it would be received.

Suggestions for the swimmer: Make the overture. Go talk to that coach. Take him out for a drink. Get something to eat. Talk about what is going on and how this can all work. Talk about goals and how you hope to accomplish them. Ask for help. Don’t just expect the coach is going to know what your agenda is. Share your schedule. Put a schedule in front of him and say, “Let’s see how we can work together on this. I think you are going to realize some of these schedules are a little more compatible.

Be careful about over training. You get the point. I remember doing a set one time. I was going 1:18 for a hundred meter backstroke in workout. The next day I am going 1:25. It was the same effort. I looked at the coach and said, “I get the point.” Some days you are good, and the next day you are not.

One thing I wanted to go back on was suggestions for the coach. Share your team goals. You are a coach. You have a vision for your team. You have goals and desires. You have personal goals. Get a relationship going here. Ask how the swimmer can help with team events, clinics, or general support. You know, money always helps. Every team I know of could always use a little bit more money. Some of these people (swimmers tend to have a little higher income) might have some finances they can help you with.

Then be realistic with your time. If you can’t really provide that person with a lane or at least a minimal amount of instruction or encouragement, be realistic. Say it is just not going to happen. But I think it would be a mistake. Find out about the major competitions and schedule. Something I have not mentioned but I strongly suggest is inclusion of masters swimmers in age group meets. In San Diego Imperial we have oodles and oodles of 13 and over and 15 and over meets in which I am able to compete. We even have no time standard meets. My mother who is 69 can swim if she wants.

Our LSC is very supportive and encouraging of people who want to swim, as they get older. If I am swimming and if the meet only offers a 15, 16 or 17-18 category I am out of luck. I can swim JO’s in my area here. I could just swim prelims so our LSC us tremendous in how they support the older athlete. I am not sure if it is by design or default, but it is great. I have at least 20 meets I can attend during the course of a year. They are not masters so I am going to those meets in addition to masters.

I am very visible. If you are coaching, you might talk to your LSC and say, “Hmm, never thought of it that way before, but maybe more masters would swim our meets. Guess what? You just registered another swimmer to your team. So it is really a win, win. Acknowledge the fact you are dealing with an older athlete. We obviously don’t respond the same way—different stimuli—different agendas. Physically we do not respond the same way a kid does. We just can’t bounce back. Allow for minor modifications in your set. Give that to the swimmer saying look Suzy. I know you want to swim this and they are going IM. You really need to go freestyle. Allow them to do that on their own and let the kids know. Just because the adult is doing this doesn’t mean it is what you are doing. Realize there is going to be a little bit of conflict there if the kids are following what the adult is doing. Know that this can be worked out with a little patience and communication.

Suggest recovery when needed. “Hey Suzy! How are you feeling today? That set was pretty hard last night. Maybe we will just do a little more recovery today. Let’s bump you down a couple of lanes.” That should work and then try and make that person feel part of the team.

Now I will review. I don’t think I would be where I am right now if I had not had the opportunity—the numerous opportunities. It has been really great because I have met some really terrific people along the way. And by the same token, those coaches have been receptive to me and that was what really made me feel like I was okay to do this. It is all going to come from the coach’s attitude.

Are you going to encourage it or are you going to discourage it. If you discourage it, you may never know. This has made me a better swimmer and a better coach. I know how I like to be coached. I coach that same way. I like calling out times. I like that the coach knows what my times are if I am descending. I like that the coach is watching what is going on rather than just putting a workout on the board and just kind of kicking back.

I also feel the coaches I have been with have received a higher level of exposure due to my accomplishments. That has been really tremendous to know I have helped too. You have helped me and I have helped you. It has been a win/win situation.

The older athletes that are training with USA teams can be a win/win situation and I suggest if somebody comes to your deck and says, “I want to swim,” you really figure out how you can work it out to everybody’s advantage. You could have somebody show up on your deck and not know who it is. That might be the swimmer of your entire career. It just might not be that 12 or 13 year old.

It might be a Katrina Radke who has never fulfilled her dreams of going and doing what she wants to do. She might show up on your doorstep and say I want to be trained. I am 32. I haven’t swum in four years but I think I can make the Olympic Trials. Look at what she is doing right now. She is the perfect example.

You just never know who those swimmers are going to be: How they can help your program. How they can help your swimmers. Help you meet your own personal goals. Who knows what could possibly become of that relationship that you are going to create with that masters swimmer.

Question from a coach: Any advice on how he (Eric) can keep up with you?

Answer from Karlyn: Using fins and paddles. We really got good at modifying sets together when we train. He will go free and I will go backstroke. He will go free and I will go IM. I think that can be modified any time you have a higher level or elite swimmer with a slower group. If they are going 200’s, I go 250’s. It can all work out.

You can take a whole variety of abilities in one big program and everybody still have their needs met. That is the biggest one. We just adjust. He is a pretty good swimmer. He is a really good runner. He qualified for Boston this year.

Answer from Eric: If she (Karlyn) caffeinated too much in the morning, it can be dangerous (laughter). All that energy and enthusiasm shows when she is talking with a group or when she is around any kids. Some of you have no doubt seen Karlyn in meets or been around on a local level. You know she is engaging. She gets fired up. It is hard and sometimes I have to sit on her just to slow her down. Maybe she might need a massage or just sit still for an hour or so. That is hard. That is hard for me. That is hard to do. In that situation she is wired up. I just try to be the pacifist here and say okay honey; you have got to slow down. She mentioned with her taper stuff about the whole thing with rest and having to bank her rest. She can’t go a three-day crash taper or three days of rest. It won’t happen. We tried that. It just doesn’t work. Getting that rest ahead of time for the older athlete is huge. That is hard for her to do. That was a good question.

Question from a coach: While in the taper mode, do you believe that swimmers decrease their amount of yardage by a specific amount?

Answer from Eric: No! Everybody is different. It is trial and error. When Karlyn first started back she was swimming more volume and yardage would be doubled. When she was in college in 1981 she did two mornings a week. By December she was down to one morning a week. I think once January rolled around she just gave up the morning workouts altogether. That is just being an older athlete. But you know, different body types are going to taper differently. Obviously sprinters need way more time than distance people. You have some people that if they rest too much they are worse. But my opinion is if you can bank the rest regardless of sprint or distance it is better for the older athlete.

Older athletes have so many external factors in life—wife, family commitments, job, and work. Things get in the way. There are so many what-if factors in there. The thing she does really well is, given the opportunity; she chooses workouts during the day. That has been really helpful for her. I know a lot of masters might have one slot, one hour in that day. If they miss it, that is it. It is gone. You don’t take it back. Karlyn has a little more flexibility in her day. She can head to a noon practice or evening session. The morning might not work, but a noon or an evening is available and that helps a lot.

If you are 14 and you want to make seniors, you are not going to play around with things too much. As a masters athlete, you can have twenty or thirty years in this sport with plenty of room to change and try new things. Over the past 10 years I have found this out. It is really surprising and it probably would go against everybody’s grain. How could you sustain a taper for that long and really work? What you do is you need time and you need to do trial and error. We put too much emphasis on the way taper is defined in the book. The truth of the matter is everybody is going to feel different at different stages.

What I have tried to do is eliminate the bad feeling and get to the good feeling as quick as I can. Then hold onto it for dear life. I found it is easier to hold on once you have it. The other thing is I am going through this taper/competition phase. I am racing my butt off so I am doing what we only usually do 1% of the time. It is usually 99% training and 1% racing. I have switched the odds on that and race as frequently as I can so there is my training. I am getting lactate production. I am getting plus doing my warm-ups and swim downs before and after races. I am getting the yardage that I need to keep the aerobic base but it is all racing and recovery, racing and recovery and a little aerobic.

I think it could work really well. People always say they missed their taper. Well, where did it go? Maybe they never get there. Try it. Believe in it and if it doesn’t work, try something else at another time. Put another meet right behind the meet you are tapering for. Mike and I were talking after Masters regionals. He had a ton of people in the 1500. I suggested it would be a great time for you guys to do your 5K swim next week. That was not a bad idea. They are rested. They just did a 1500. They are open to the idea. Why not throw them in there? You don’t have to do it when you are in the middle of hard training. You can do it at the end when you are rested and you have the energy.

Comment from the floor: I agree 100% on your multiple long-taper stuff. You see Europeans during the world cup and they are going week after week all around the world. How about Michael Phelps?

Response: They are swimming at the highest level of competition and going week on end and it doesn’t hurt them. There is no reason why those people that went to World Championships couldn’t come back to senior nationals a couple of weeks later and have a great meet. Mentally they said, “Oh I’ve done my taper. I am over it.” It is not just is not just this tiny little fine line window. It’s a window that can be expanded and maintained and cultivated. You feel great. It is pretty neat.

Comment from the floor: Mentally, an older athlete with the experience you have now, you know when you need to focus and you know when you need to fire yourself. Conversely, you also know when you have to put the brakes on and slow down…something hard for you.

Response: We have an advantage. The younger athlete just doesn’t have that experience of mental toughness yet. That definitely helps Karlyn in that respect. It is a huge thing. She is up there behind the blocks and she is just hanging around. Like Mike said, she is onto it…really on. You see the other kids back there and they are just scared to death or they are nervous. They do not know how to channel that energy.

As you get close to your peak event, to be race ready, you need to get up on the blocks and do it a few times. Sometimes that hurts masters because they might say Nationals is their meet. They might not swim a meet until Nationals. They might go whatever. So they get there and haven’t had a chance to really get up and race.

There is nothing like a race. You and I know that. There is nothing like a race. You can push hard in practice, but you get up on the blocks and feel little goose bumps and tingling. You’ve got your size 28 on and you can’t breathe. You want to hop in the water and go and you’ve got to do that. I think getting some races under your belt is as much of it as the taper. If you don’t have access to a meet it seems to me you create ones in your workout environment when you get up on the blocks and get that time…as often as you can.

Comment from the floor: Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to get some of the older athletes, even if they were college swimmers, to get in the water and go to a meet.

Response: They feel really intimidated, right. That’s the same deal because if you want to race you have got to go. You will be so surprised at how they will accept you. You will feel so much better and have so much more fun because there are not that many masters meets.

We schedule six a year, but there are numerous meets they can focus on. When Karlyn first started going back to USA meets in 1994-95, there weren’t really a whole lot of older folks swimming. As each year passes, there are older athletes staying in the sport. Maybe you want to have a USA meet just to get some competition and some flavor. Also they inspire the youth.

Let’s face it. Once you are 19, you are a masters swimmer. Oh yeah! You will be pushing up daisies. Now think about it. If you are 19, you may have 60 or 70 years of longevity in the sport. It’s making kids realize that life does not end at 15 or 16. You can keep pursuing the sport assuming you have a healthy lifestyle. I think that message gets shared a lot more with the older swimmers.

I think as we are going along, we are progressing and the convention is next week. The lines between masters and USA are blurring. It is becoming grayer and grayer and becoming more acceptable. It is becoming more the norm and that is just tremendous. If that is the way our sport is going, like I said, you have a teenager for a couple of years but you have a masters swimmer for the rest of your life. That is where our sport is going. That is where we are going to have that longevity and support.

Question from the floor: Do you like swimming against guys in major meets?

Response: I like men and women together because I think you should swim against the person that is going to push you the most. Since masters is so intertwined, most of the time our meets are mixed together. That is great. I personally do much better in that regard. Mike and I swam against each other just a couple of weeks ago in the 1500. I think you had a better swim and I had a better swim knowing you were there.

There was a guy in the other lane that was pushing me. Oh yeah! That was Todd. I think the energy (whether you are a male or female, 50 years old or 20) really helps promote the best possible performance. Truthfully, I don’t always get it when I swim against the women so I welcome the opportunity. We train with men. I want to race against men too, you know.

Well thank you folks for everything. It has been great.

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