My Views on Distance Swimming by Mike Burton (1973)


First of all I want to clear up one thing–I did not come out of retirement to go to Munich. From 1968 to 1972 were four long years and I trained every one of them. So I didn’t retire at all, I stuck right with it.

To better let you know how Sherm (Chavoor) was able to train me, I think it would be best if I told you a little bit about my background–how I grew up and got started into swimming. My family was in a low income bracket, middle class, and my father to this day still drives a delivery truck. My mother is still working and the neighborhood we lived in is what I would consider a tough neighborhood. A lot of the guys were involved in breaking and entering, stealing, and stuff like this. Growing up in that type of a neighborhood probably gave me a very competitive attitude, which, as we know, is very important in swimming. I started swimming when I was about fourteen in the summer of 1961. I really enjoyed it, and went into swimming because of the fact that I had a head­on collision with a furniture truck.

I was riding on the handle bars of a friend’s bicycle. The accident dislocated one of my hips and tore the ligaments in the right knee. In 1970 I had to have an operation on my knee. In 1970 both cartilages were removed from the right knee.

I actually started swimming before I was 14, but swam in only a few summer recreation league meets. The real beginning of my career was when I went to Arden Hills. When I first walked into Arden Hills, to meet Sherm and to see if I could swim in his program, I really didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. I don’t think Sherm did either.
We had the usual introduction and Sherm said “okay,” in his usual manner,” get loose and show me what you can do.” Well, I jumped in the water and swam about 2 laps and he said, “that’s fine be here for Monday afternoon workout.” It kind of surprised me how he could figure that I would be good enough to swim on his team after me just swimming two laps. Later I found out that he feels he can tell within a lap what kind of a swimmer or what kind of a potential swimmer a person is going to be just by looking at the stroke.
In those days I swam with an old windmill style stroke, which Sherm didn’t try to alter very much. He said “You’re doing fine; you’ve got the right pull under water.” Then later on my elbow started to be a little higher on the recovery and I was still pulling pretty much the same underwater. I know when I first started, my turnover was very fast and it slowed down as I got older and I think because of the fact I was getting stronger.

When I first started training in Arden Hills, I was working out with the girls, because they were all killing me in workout. I wasn’t able to take the workouts yet and they were beating me badly. I think the key to my success was that I started by picking a certain person in the pool, and training against them. I never let them know it, or never discussed it with anyone else, but, I’d usually try to pick a person above my ability who was faster and who could repeat better. I started to work against them until I’d come to the point where I could beat them and then I’d move on to the next person. Then before I knew it, at Arden Hills I was swimming and I was trying to win every repeat in workout.

I’ve often felt that what you do in workout is a good inclination of what you’re going to do in a meet, so I try to win every repeat in workout whether it be breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, or freestyle. In the early years and even in the later ones Sherm always had us do all strokes and, as you know, long distance. It will be hard for you to understand, but I actually enjoyed working out. I enjoyed working out very hard, and I enjoyed the work that Sherm gave me. And I think that because I enjoyed it, I was able to progress at a much faster rate than normal. And so I think when I swam in the Olympic trials in 1964, I took 5th in the 1500 meters there. Sherm felt that I was about a month away from making the team then.
But, from that time on my goal was to make an Olympic team, which I later did.

I think there are several keys to the success of a competitive swimmer. I think first there might be the coach. To me Sherm was a person I could confide in. I had a lot of faith in Sherm and Sherm trusted me to know my own ability as far as the workouts and the stress in the workouts went. We were able to cooperate quite well on this. I think the other people who play a very important part are parents. My brother and sister had an important part and later on after I got married, my wife Linda played a major role in my win in Munich.

During the workout sessions at Arden Hills, I really don’t think that I was doing anything much different from what anyone else was doing. I think I was trying to go faster and harder
and maybe a little farther. At that time, between 1966 and 1972, I never put in more than 13,000 meters in the summer. The way things are going now people are trying to go 18,000-20,000 meters per day, and I’m wondering where it’s going to stop. Between the years of 1968 to 1972, I said to Sherm, ”Why can’t we go 12,000, and see if we can’t get the same type of job done in 12,000 that they’re getting done in 18,000?” He argued with me, of course, because he wanted to start boosting up the yardage. He let me stay at 12,000. But in 1972 we started going more yardage. I think this helped me quite a bit, but also made me very tired because I don’t think I was ready to accept more yardage after swimming all those years.

Our workouts at Arden Hills would consist of the usual repeats; 50’s, 100’s, 200’s, 400’s, which is what everybody else would do. We very seldom did 300’s, or 250’s, or things like that because Sherm believed in training for the distance and he felt that training with short rest was the secret. I know most of you probably listened to Don Talbot talk this morning and he was talking about 20 x 100 with 3 seconds rest. We also did quite a few of those and I think that it worked for me. Now, for somebody else it may not. You have to be a certain type of individual to go through that type of workout. At Munich, one particular day we were in the training pool next to the main pool and Don Gambril was timing me on some 100’s. I was getting about 3 to 5 seconds rest, and I was throwing in l:03’s, which for me was the first time I’d ever done that. We started drawing quite a crowd, which helped me to hold the l:03’s. I think if the crowd hadn’t started gathering around watching the splits and everything else, I probably would have dropped to l:04’s or l:O5’s. I think that helped me get mentally prepared for my race, because I always had felt that if I was able to go l:04’s for 20 x 100 with 3 seconds rest, or 5 seconds rest, then I would be able to do that in the meet. During a warmup I would practice hitting a 1:03. If I thought a 1:03, that’s what it was going to take to win or a 1:04, if that’s what it was going to take to win, I’d try practicing that before the race.

From 1966 to 1969, I would try to do that each year and I was taking anywhere from 4 seconds to 20 seconds off the world record at a time. Now, from year to year, I think those drops were substantial, because from 1956 to 1966 the 1500 world record didn’t drop very much. I was then able to make a drastic drop and I think it was due to the fact that I had a coach like Sherm prodding me onward to keep going a little faster. But during each workout I would swim the way I felt. Each day I would try to work very hard or harder than the day before, but if I didn’t have it, or if I didn’t feel it, then there was no way I was going to do it. So, I just went as hard as I could for that particular day, that particular time, and that particular set or series, and I would try to feel my way through the workout in this way.

Sherm was always a motivational factor during our workouts, because of the fact that he was a very aggressive man, a very hard core individual, but he also had a heart probably as big as this room. Without Sherm I probably could not have been the swimmer I was. I think he was the deciding factor. When he was on the deck, Sherm inspired me to do a good job, but when an assistant coach took over, it was very hard to give him the same respect and to do the same work as when Sherm was there.

I’m sure all of you have experienced the same thing when you’ve left your assistant coach to coach the team for any period of time. The swimmers just don’t seem to give the assistant coach the same respect they do the head coach. Sherm was great in his ability to keep us motivated. I think it’s also important that Sherm was always there. He very seldom left. I remember in 1968 when he had to go down to the women’s Olympic trials and we were trying to get ready for the men’s. Mike Hastings was the Assistant Coach. This was in Mike’s earlier years of coaching, and he was kind of worried about how to get us ready. I said to Mike, “Just do what you think is best and we’ll do it, and that’ll get us ready.” It worked out quite well. Johnny Farris, John Nelson, and I all did a good job at the Olympic Trials. This was one instance where I think the assistant coach did a great job in taking over a program.

A typical Arden Hills workout might be broken down into kicking, pulling and swimming. I wasn’t a mind reader, but I was used to Sherm and his workouts, and I could almost tell what we would have for workout that day. He’d walk into the pool, and I’d say, “Sherm I’ll bet we’re going to do 200’s today.” And he’d say, “Well, how’d you know?” I’d figure out that it just happened to be Tuesday, and Tuesday was a good day for 200’s. We would usually kick no more than about 2,000 yards a day. Then the rest of the work would be split up into swimming and pulling. I always liked to do the pulling first.

I’ve tried both ways but I always liked to do the pulling first. The pulling would get my arms tired then when I got to swimming I would have to work harder to do good repeat times. I’d usually end up swimming the same series or set that I’d pull. Some of the pull-swim series we went were 40 x 100, 20 x 200 and 2 x 3000.

Don Talbot says he borrowed the idea of 3,000 swims from Sherm. I think Sherm borrowed the 3000’s from Peter Daland when he had Murray Rose doing them. We would start each workout with a 1,000 kick, morning and afternoon, then pull and swim. Usually at the end we’d go sprints, or I.M. ‘s. Sherm’s favorite was 800 I.M.’s. Those things are really buggers if you do a lot of them. We did quite a few of them every now and then.

Getting down to a National Championship, I would usually like to rest starting about ten days before the first day of the meet. For me that seemed to work, although I think I was a little too tired at the 1972 Olympic Trials here in Chicago. I think that was the reason why I wasn’t able to go under 16 minutes here. The reason I was able to in Munich was because I’d gotten that extra rest. All the time at training camp we never broke the 12,000 meter barrier. So, for me that was fortunate. I feel I was very lucky to be able to repeat winning the 1500. But as my good friend, Don Scholander, says, “you make your own luck.” That’s what I tried to do whenever I swam.

Coming down to a championship meet, I liked to throw in at least one series of 3,000. Usually early, early enough prior to the meet so that I was not too tired before going into the meet. Then, going down closer to the meet, I’d break the 1500 at 100’s, or 50’s or 200’s and try to hit certain pace times, or try to hit a time that I was going to try to hit in the meet. This would get me ready mentally, physically, and every other way. On the day of the race I would try to relax as much as possible. The best way for me to relax, was to walk around, talk to different people. Even close to the race, I liked to talk to people and get my mind off the race, until I was ready to be up on the blocks.

I understand that I was criticized a lot at Munich because I was always walking around the village with my wife Linda. I felt that this helped me relax. It helped me to do the job that I did, because having Linda there was just great, because I was able to have someone to talk to at all times. Swimmers would come up to Linda and say, “Why don’t you leave Mike alone, he’s got to get ready for his race.” I think that if I would have had to go back and sit in my room and stare at the walls or talk to my roommate, I would have been climbing those walls by the time the race came along. This is why I say that Linda was a major factor in the win in Munich.

In the warm-up prior to a 1500, I would usually get in, kick a little, pull a little, and swim a little. Then I would do some 100’s, trying to hit a pace. When I had my best races, I would usually be swimming the 100’s a little faster than the pace I was planning on. This was when I would do my best times. I’d drop as much as 20 seconds in races, where I was trying to hold l:04’s and I was holding l:03’s or l:02’s in the warmup.

It didn’t seem like I could get down to a 1:04 or up to it. This was my warmup in Munich. My warmup did not change from the time I started doing it in 1966. This program worked best for me. What would work best for another distance swimmer, I’m not sure. I read in Swimming World about Steve Holland going 18,000 meters a day, 5 days a week, and 20,000 meters on the weekends. I shuddered quite a bit, but it produced good times. I think that’s where we’re at in swimming, is to produce good times.

When I was swimming in a race, I was always trying to do better than I had done the year before. In meets like the Santa Clara meet or any other AAU meet prior to the Nationals, I didn’t worry too much. I was a one-shot swimmer, and that was the National Championship, which to me was the important one. I was criticized in 1971 because I didn’t go to Cali, Columbia, but to me the Nationals were a more important meet than the Pan American games. That is why I stayed home from Cali and concentrated on the Nationals.

Changing from swimmer to coach has given me the opportunity to see just what I went through and to understand what my swimmers are going through now. I’m trying to give them a little harder program than what I went through, but it’s difficult for me to do that. The other day, I had a swimmer miss workout and as I was explaining to him the importance of being there every day and not missing, I was thinking back on my own career when I would miss a workout and try to justify in my mind why I missed that workout.

The change from swimmer to coach has been a good one for me because I love the sport. I’ve always wanted to coach. A lot of my swimmers look to me primarily because I was able to achieve success in swimming. I think at first this is going to help me. I don’t know how much, but I think later on it might hinder me a little bit, because I want the boys that I coach to accept me as a coach and not accept me for what I did as a swimmer.

Questions And Answers
Q. Did Rick Demont’s disqualification in Munich affect you in any way?
A. I think it had to have affected me. There’s no way it couldn’t. Don Gambril came into the room 15 minutes prior to the race and called us outside. He was visibly upset. He was angry, and he generated that feeling in Doug Northway and myself. I think this right away got the adrenalin pumping. It was pumping really fast. There’s no way it couldn’t have affected me. It upset me at the time.

Q. During the warmup prior to a 1500 how many 100’s did you do and did you do them on 3 to 5 seconds rest?

A. A lot of times it depended on how I felt. If I did the first 100 and it felt good, I’d do maybe three more and make it four. The most I ever did was six. Usually Sherm would time me for a 100, then he’d give me my time and I’d stop and rest. I wouldn’t go again until I felt relaxed. Sometimes shorter, whatever I felt. It worked for me, so Sherm didn’t try to make me go the 3,000 prior to the race. I wanted to feel good going into a race, and I didn’t want to be tired. I just rested till I was breathing regularly and then went again, or when there was an open opportunity in the water.

Q. How do you feel about negative splitting?
A. Personally, I never did like negative splitting because I could never do it. I probably will never have a swimmer that I’ll advise to do a negative split, 200 or whatever. I like the idea of getting out and establishing a lead if you can do it without straining. I try to tell my swimmers to go out the first 100, 200 yards fast, but relaxed. If they can do this, then they can last through a 400, 1500, whatever. I probably will never coach a person to negative split.

Q. How do you know if a kid is a distance swimmer?
A. That’s hard to answer, because if you’re going to say, okay you’re going to be a distance swimmer, I think that would be tough on a kid. I think the kids got to find himself all of a sudden in the distance program without knowing it, if he’s going to be a good distance swimmer. I think that’s what happened to me. I have a two beat, cross over ankle kick and I think this hindered my strength. I was more or less thrown into the distance program. I think to develop an attitude in a young swimmer it would depend a lot on what age they are, and where they are in their particular training. I know, my­self, it just happened. All of a sudden I was swimming 1500’s.

Q. What do you think about bilateral breathing?
A. Sherm tried to get me to do that, but I felt more comfortable breathing on my left side. I think it’s a good idea in that you have a chance to look to both sides to see the competition and where they are. During a 1500 I really don’t like to hold my breath that much. I like to breathe on one side.

Q. What did you like to do best in training?
A. My favorite workout was a series of 500’s in yards or a series of 400’s in meters. I liked those best. The 200’s I hated and I didn’t mind the 1500’s or 3000’s.

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