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Training for big events not easy

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It would appear that Columbus North swim coach Jim Sheridan believes it is more important that his swimmers clear their minds than their hairy legs.

Ever since Murray Rose and Jon Henricks dove into the pool at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956, swimmers have followed the practice of shaving their body hair before big events. Rose and Henricks won a combined five gold medals, Pass the NoNo.

It’s all the intricate little factors that make swimming such a fascinating sport to watch. Those factors might also make it frustrating for participants.

Training for the conference, sectional or state meets in Indiana high school competition isn’t an exact science.

Take the whole body hair thing, for example.

Respected swim coaches at the national level have confirmed that shaving body hair reduces “drag” in the pool and therefore allows a swimmer’s arms and legs to work faster, producing faster times. Others argue that the increase is so infinitesimal that it isn’t worth having the Kojak look everywhere.

The other argument is that shaving hair allows the swimmer to experience every last tingling sensation of hitting the water, therefore creating a little burst of euphoria that raises the competitive level. Others say that is a crock.

Throw in all the different strategies related to “tapering” workload and weightlifting practices, and it is easy to see where a swimmer could get confused.

Certainly, Sheridan has spent much of his life figuring out ways to go faster in the pool. He would rather have his swimmers simply work hard and stop worrying.

“For me, the biggest thing is making sure their mind is straight,” he said. “We work on putting their brains at a higher level.”

To that extent, Sheridan makes sure his teammates talk to each other about how they feel during critical parts of the race. That includes how they feel if they are in front or behind. How they feel when they seem to be too tired to churn their arms any more. How they feel when their legs are weary.

“How do they feel when they see their competitors’ feet?” Sheridan said about a swimmer being behind late in a race. “Do they feel, ‘I’m not going to let them beat me to the wall?’”

If they have confidence, Sheridan can deal with the strategy. But is it hard to have confidence when your best times supposedly are down the road and have yet to be seen?

Sheridan has been around long enough to know what he wants accomplished in terms of pool and dry workouts.

“We are in our championship phase now,” he said. “We don’t do quite as much yardage. We’re still doing similar workouts, but time becomes more important to us. It’s a different feel for them because you are asking more out of their bodies time-wise, but you are giving them more rest.”

It all goes back to the inexact science of training for big meets.

Consider a football team that loses to an opponent and is headed into the playoffs. A coach will watch tape of the game to fix problems. When the playoffs arrive, it’s evident whether those shortcomings are fixed or not.

The same could be said about many other sports. Take a wrestler who loses to an opponent 8-5. He knows what he has to do to reverse the outcome.

That’s not really the case in swimming. If you think about it, swimmers are expected to go slower during the regular season, which might be the equivalent of a football team making a mistake. In the regular season, the workload often leaves a swimmer tired and not in peak condition to produce a great time. Most other sports have that “the next game is the most important” mentality.

It all factors down to having faith that head swimming coaches know their business.

Bob Steele, a former Northwestern, Southern Illinois and Cal State-Bakersfield coach who is considered a swimming guru, talks about how “the use of muscle fiber types switches to fast twitch after three weeks of taper.” But he says it doesn’t work so well after four weeks of taper.

That might be great if you are headed to the Olympics, but what if you have three big meets in a row on consecutive weekends? Local high school teams are just entering their most important time of the year.

It’s a complex business, indeed. Pass the razor?

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at or 379-5632.

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