Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bak Tae-hwan goes coach shopping

In this post, I engage in a bit of name-dropping. I name several Olympians whom I have met but only one would recognize my name. To the others, I was only one of a multitude. I offer their names only to describe what was public knowledge and claim no special insight into their choices or behavior.


In my youth, I was a competitive swimmer of barely national caliber. I managed to scrape past the standards and qualify for a few national championship swim-meets.

To be quite honest, Bak Tae-hwan is as far beyond me in swimming ability as I am to the average Korean.

Which suggests that I cannot comment on the most recent Bak Tae-hwan news from personal experience. Ah, that news being he has fired his coach and is in the market for a new one. The new coach would be his third.

It is the second time for Park to change his coach this year. In January, when Park decided to train with coach Park outside the Korea Sports Center in Taeneung, he split with former coach Roh Min-sang, who had taught him for 10 years.

Still, even without experience at his level of swimming, I have seen world champions up close and I can certainly compare their coach/swimmer relationships with his.

I met and spoke briefly with Alex Baumann, at one time the world's best swimmer, a few times at swim meets and worshipped his ability. I also spoke to his coach, Dr. Tihanyi, as I was considering going to that university.

I raced him in the 200 Individual Medley at a meet in Laurentian University. I presume he raced the clock for no one came near him at that little meet. In fact, I paced him for the first fifty metres, mostly as a protest to my own coach for entering me in a race I disliked so much.*

And that is the key to my confusion over Mr. Baks revolving door regarding coaches. A coach is someone you need to have faith in. You can argue at times, but the coach is the expert. The Olympian I knew best (not all that well, but best), Dave Schemilt, once ranked fourth in the world for 1500 metres freestyle, followed his coach when the coach changed jobs and locations. Baumanns loyalty to his coach, Dr Tihanyi was well known. I think Victor Davis followed his coach, Cliff Barry, when he changed jobs as well.

Perhaps there is a cultural element. I am not exactly comparing this situation to Koreas dumping of Cha Bum-gun after a bad showing by the national soccer team but Koreans do seem comfortable changing course frequently.

I am thinking more of the famous stereotype of focus and concentration and fanaticism in Koreans. I think Mr. Bak thinks he can provide the motivation and focus internally and only needs an assistant for some technique tweaking.

Finally, there seems to be a strange dynamic regarding the sponsor, Speedo.

``Speedo and Park's parents have meddled in training Park along with the low salary,'' said the coach.

The meddling parents part is nothing new. All swim coaches (and I was one) need to be prepared for second-guessing parents. Again, I don't have international experience, but I have never heard of a sponsor being all that 'hands-on' in the actual training.

While I hope he does well, I fear that changing coaches so often will hurt him at the Olympics.

Oh, one Canadian example of a swimmer choosing coaches would be Mark Tewksberry. From Wikipedia: For some years he ranked as one of the top backstrokers in the world; never a strong below-the-water swimmer, he was unmatched on the surface, but, as the importance of below-the-water swimming increased, Tewksbury's ranking began to fall.

He eventually hired a synchronized swimming coach to train him in breath-holding techniques. That seems like a minor adjustment compared to Mr. Bak's though.


*My coach had a coherent plan and looking back I can see that if I had followed it more closely, I would have done better over all in my swimming career. I still have my problems with his choice of events for me but I respect and admire him for his efforts all the same.

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