The world championships in swimming the year before the Olympics are the perfect opportunity to test race strategies and size up the competition. For Team USA, this week’s championships in Gwangju, South Korea, also served as an ideal dress preparation for Tokyo 2020 Olympic thanks to one small quirk about the host city. Fans who want to watch the live-action of Olympic Swimming can get Olympic Swimming Tickets online.
The worlds took place in a near undistinguishable environment to the Tokyo 2020 Games. Japan’s capital is in the same time zone as Gwangju—or 16 hours ahead of the West Coast, where dozens of American swimmers train. Plus, the hot and moist weather that was in full force will be similar to the conditions during next summer’s Olympic.
“It’s a perfect dress preparation, U.S. National Team coach since 1991, who also leads the men’s and women’s swimming programs at the University of Georgia. That’s why having this meet right now is beautiful.”
The most important races in Gwangju began at 8 p.m. local time—the microscopic hours of the morning stateside. Swimming is known for its exhausting morning practice times, but no team makes a habit of scheduling high stakes races before sunrise.
That’s where the scientists come in. Team USA relies on the research of Randy Wilber, a senior sports physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Russell Mark, U.S.A. Swimming’s high-performance manager, to plan their international schedule. Everything from where the team should host its pre-meet training camp to when the team should depart for the other side of the world is determined years in advance based on years of data from previous competitions, explained U.S. National Team director Lindsay Mintenko.
This year, officials at the U.S.A. Swimming planned for its eight coaches and 46 athletes to assemble in Singapore on July 8, 12 days before the start of the meet. The majority assembled in either Los Angeles or San Francisco during the first week of July for the 17-hour flight to Changi Airport.
“No matter what the first days you feel pretty hammered, we try to encourage [the swimmers] not to take naps, because we just try valiantly to get into our practice schedule immediately.”
Once in Singapore, Team USA trained at the OCBC Aquatic Center for 10 days, building the intensity of practices as the jet lag wore off. They embarked for South Korea on July 17, three days before the first preliminary session got underway.
We try to find a training campsite that is not in the exact country so that we can have a change of scenery, but that is ideally in the same time zone director of Team Elite Aquatics in San Diego and U.S. women’s head coach at the 2016 Rio Games.
Team USA’s timeline this summer was slightly compressed from what experts recommend: one day to acclimate for every hour change in time zone. The first four days of racing were marked more by absences than podium appearances. The Americans won just eight medals and a sick Katie Ledecky distressed to second in one event and scratched out of two others.
The narrative turned sharply on Thursday when U.S. swimmers medaled in each of the night’s five finals. That spark turned into a full-blown fire on Friday with two blazing-fast semifinal swims—Caeleb Dressel broke Michael Phelps’s 10-year-old 100-meter butterfly world record and 17-year-old Regan Smith lowered Missy Franklin’s 2012 world record in the 200-meter backstroke—and a gold medal from Simone Manuel in the 100-meter freestyle by breaking an American record. By meeting’s end, Team USA topped the medal standings with 27, 14 of them gold.
It’s hard to determine exactly why Team USA’s swims improved as the eight-day meet wore on. It could be that the more days the Americans spent in Asia, the more adjusted they became to the radically different time zone. It could also be that the events scheduled for the final days of the meet were the U.S.’s strongest.
“We’ll have to evaluate once the competition is over, noting that the travel plan for Tokyo 2020 Olympic will largely depend on what the high-performance consultants conclude about worlds in conjunction with this summer’s other major meets.”
Regardless of the blueprint, Gwangju will provide, Tokyo 2020 Olympic brings an added challenge: the preliminary and final sessions are flipped to allow NBC to broadcast the races with medal implications live in prime-time in the U.S.
That set up is rare for an elite swim meet, but not unique. The 2008 Beijing Games used this schedule to allow NBC to televise Michael Phelps’ historic quest for eight gold medals without tape delay or the threat of spoilers.
Given this, U.S. Swimming is leaning heavily on Bob Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach and the current coach at Arizona State University. To help Olympic candidates prepare for Tokyo 2020 he recommended that coaches save their most challenging workouts for morning training sessions and ease up the yardage in the afternoon during the fall and winter. Several meets on the Arena Pro Swim Series circuit may also flip prelims and finals.
While the morning final schedule is a bit odd, Marsh is hopeful his athletes not to make too much of it. The change affects every swimmer competing in Tokyo 2020 Olympic, so in a sense the playing field is level. Instead, he’s inspiring them to make the most of their experience in South Korea.
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