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COLUMNISTS

Thu, August 19, 2004

Putrid in the pool


The man who owns the Baltimore swim club that produced Michael Phelps and other past Olympic medal winners, has a name for Canadian swimming.

Murray Stephens calls it "socialist swimming."

We just call it losing.

And get used to it.

It's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets a whole lot better.

They can fire Dave Johnson and his brother, Tom, and anyone else involved in the disaster that is the national swim program. They can change coaches, sponsors, Speedos, anything like that.

None of it will matter if they don't tear up the blueprint. And there is the distinct possibility that none of it will matter even if they do.

That is the dilemma for Canadian swimming. They are damned, whether they do or they don't. They can't compete at the world level now and as the world grows stronger and Canadian swimmers regress, the gap, in fact, widens.

If Sydney was disappointing and the meet here in Athens has been terribly uninspiring, then what is in store for Beijing?

Once upon a time, we thought medals were possible. Now we applaud the sixth-place finishes. Four years from now, what will the expectations be?

CLUBS ARE BEST

Heats? Semi-finals? Simply qualifying?

Stephens believes swimmers learn in clubs and develop in clubs and that's how it used to work in Canada. The best swimmers -- the names you know -- all learned and developed in their local clubs. They didn't leave home. Practice wasn't a national training camp.

But years ago, the system changed. Sport Canada believed in pumping money into regional training centres and ambitious, self-serving coaches such as Dave Johnson benefited.

And the result now is that swim clubs are closing or downsizing and instead of coaches being hired, lifeguards are. And there aren't enough swimmers and there isn't enough incentive -- and this is a result of a system in decay.

Here in Athens, an Olympic team of no expectations didn't meet them. And what happens?

There are so many fingers pointed in so many directions it's hard to keep track. There is a line between coach and athlete here and almost everyone has crossed it.

This is the Canadian system?

The Canadian system moved Morgan Knabe from his swim club in Edmonton to a training centre in Calgary. Knabe never bothered to finish high school.

No one seemed to care about that.

Now he's 23, having competed horribly in both his Olympic events, without any future in swimming and without an education. Some plan.

What's clear, when you look at the numbers, is how many Canadian swimmers left their clubs for national training programs and regressed in the process. The whiz kids never became whiz adults. And the meagre funding that comes from government -- which is paid by us -- winds up footing the bill for athletic mediocrity.

There are 20 swimmers on the Canadian team here -- only two of them -- Mike Brown and Nathaniel O'Brien -- had personal bests in the Games.

"They've turned their contenders into participants," Murray Stephens said. "I don't believe you can produce swimmers the Canadian way. The system is archaic."

Should Dave Johnson be fired as national team coach?

Absolutely.

But that may not even be the issue, even if it happens to be convenient. If there isn't money and coaches and leadership and a demanding and industrious plan with high standards, we might as well have Joe Frazier swimming for Canada in the next Olympics.

It is that bad.

It is almost that hopeless.

"In the future, there will be no (Canadian) finalists," said Nick Thierry, the international swimming statistician and editor of SwimNews Magazine.

"The worst is yet to come."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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