Forget Ocean’s Eleven, the Welsh Pool 11 are back in the water. The leading swimmers in Wales have returned to training in Newport with their eyes firmly fixed on next year’s Olympic and Parlympic Games. Ross Nicholas tells Graham Thomas why a rest is even better than a change.
Four months spent on dry land could turn out to be a blessing for Wales’ leading swimmers, according to the coach overseeing their return.
The likes of Alys Thomas, Georgia Davies and Dan Jervis may have felt like fish out of water since March but national performance director Ross Nicholas believes there will be benefits to the curse of lockdown.
With 11 of the country’s top swimmers now back in training in Newport, they are feeling the joys of being back in the water again, even if training routines are much altered.
But the enforced absence has not just helped ease injury niggles for the Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games hopefuls – it has stimulated a whole new appreciation for their sport.
“I think what we will eventually see out the back end of this is a better athlete,” says Nicholas.
“Certainly, we are seeing swimmers who have been mentally refreshed. They may have been desperate to get back, but swimming is a demanding sport where athletes are in the pool twice a day and some of those days can sometimes feel very similar.
“This has been the longest break from the pool most of these athletes will have had for 10 or 15 years. But they are telling us they have back their love for their sport. They have a renewed energy.
“It shows it can be done safely”@SwimWales‘ national performance director hopes the return of elite swim training gives the Welsh Government confidence to allow the public back into pools.
Pools can reopen in England from this weekend. In Wales there’s no date yet. pic.twitter.com/oqv0fYA0bx
— tombrownsport (@tombrownsport) July 21, 2020
“These are people who started swimming at six or seven years of age. They join a swimming club, show some talent, get into training sessions maybe five or six times a week and before they know it, they’re competing in national competitions.
“Then, they go into international waters and maybe they have never really had time to reflect on how amazing that journey has been – but this break gave them that time.”
That emotional reconnection to the sport may have been what Thomas – who won gold for Wales at the last Commonwealth Games – was hinting at when she spoke recently of missing the pool so badly she was spending more time lingering in the shower.
The elite swimmers may not have been able to enter any of the pools shut down across the UK, but they were able to continue their training.
For a lucky few – who lived within five miles of the coast when restrictions were at their tightest – there was the option of an outdoor stint in open water.
But for most, it meant working on strength and conditioning, plus cycling work, yoga, pilates and flow exercises designed to replicate movement in the pool.
“We use a variety of different techniques now,” says Nicholas. “We’ve probably moved from a position where land-based exercises may have been less than 5% of their work – to one now where it’s more like 25 or 30%.
“We need to continue to look at each athlete and their attributes and ask how do we develop and improve them. Sometimes, the best gain won’t necessarily be from swimming.
“Alys has been doing a lot of work on the bike and she’s enjoyed that. She’s reporting back that she feels much stronger in her lower limbs, so it will be interesting how she goes when we bring in some testing and high intensity training.”
Thomas is one of 11 swimmers who are using the 25m pool at Newport’s International Sports Village. For economic reasons, it was not considered viable to open up the 50m pools in Swansea and Cardiff.
Along with her and Jervis are Kathryn Greenslade, Chloe Tutton, Xavier Castelli, Kyle Booth, Harriet Jones, Medi Harris, Lewis Fraser, Dylan Broom and Rhys Davies.
They complete a daily monitoring service via an app before they get to the pool, travel on their own or with a family member, and have their temperatures taken before they even get in the water.
Masks are worn until the point that swimmers enter the pool, there are individual changing and warm-up areas and swimmers use individual lanes. Their coaches also wear masks until all the swimmers are in position to swim and hear instruction.
It is hoped that if all goes well, the next group of swimmers – those at a level just below – could soon be allowed to return to the pool, which, in turn may pave the way for club swimmers throughout Wales.
What is still very uncertain as the threat of Covid-19 remains, is when competitive racing may return to the UK and the wider world.
Olympic hopefuls such as Thomas, Jervis and Davies are expected to be gearing their training towards Olympic qualifiers around April time next year, with the goal of making the Great Britain team for the Games in Tokyo three months later.
Until then, however, the shape and look of organised, competitive swimming for elite athletes remains very uncertain.
Nicholas believes the sport needs to adopt an imaginative approach, even if it means using technology to match up swimmers who are denied head-to-head racing.
“We don’t know whether it’s going to be possible, or financially viable, to go back to international competition this year,” he says.
“There may need to be a Plan A, a Plan B, plus C and D, too. The key will be to flex and adapt to changing circumstances.
“This a global pandemic, but there is a huge opportunity for the sport to break with tradition and come up with exciting new forms of competition for both the swimmers and the viewers.
“It may be that even if swimmers are not in the same venue, technology may allow them to race at the same time. We need to be open-minded.”