Second CBC blog – Swimming trials and Selection
It was great to watch our top swimmers competing to earn their Olympic berths at the Canadian trials in Montreal recently. I love seeing elite athletes compete with everything on the line – win and you go to the Olympics, lose and you have to wait four years for another opportunity.
The simplicity and purity of the swimmers’ selection process impressed me. The fastest athletes go to the Olympics, no questions asked.
As the summer approaches, many of our national teams will be making final cuts and announcing their Olympic rosters. It’s incredibly exciting for a select number of Canadian athletes, and devastating for others. That is the reality of elite-level sport: some win, most lose. It’s harsh and can be difficult to deal with. But, win or lose, if you can walk away saying “I got a fair shot,” that’s all you can ask for.
As basic as that sounds, I think it’s actually somewhat rare in amateur sport.
Let competition decide
The topic of selection is a touchy one because so much is at stake. We dedicate our lives to trying to be the best at our chosen sport and are fairly sensitive to anything getting in the way of achieving that goal. Coming to terms with the notion that you aren’t good enough is one thing. Failing to achieve your goals because someone or something got in your way is a whole different story.
I think that the most any athlete can hope for, and the bare minimum that they should be able to expect, is the exact same – a positive training environment and a fair, transparent selection process. No favouritism, no hand-holding, no protection. Just pure, open competition.
Without those basic tenets, the waters get muddied and the core motivation to be the fastest begins to erode. It becomes less about pushing yourself and the team to be the best in the world, and more about playing the political game to gain the favour of those in positions of power. And not knowing how you will be judged, or if you will even get the chance to be judged, adds a huge amount of unnecessary stress to the life of an athlete.
That’s what’s great about the swimming trials: touch the wall first and you earn the spot to represent Canada at the Olympics. Everyone can step onto those starting blocks knowing that the only thing that matters is the clock.
My heart goes out to Mike Brown and Annamay Pierse – both great Canadian athletes with impressive resumes. Unfortunately, they both had disappointing races at the trials and didn’t make the team. I’m sure that these are tough days for them, but imagine the different set of emotions that they would be struggling with had they not been given that chance to race. At least, even in defeat, they can leave the pool knowing that it came down to their performances on that day.
Find out who’s fastest
Selection is difficult for everyone involved. I can imagine that it’s the least enjoyable part of coaching – trying to find an equitable way of evaluating all the athletes to put together the best possible team, and remove their egos or preconceived ideas from the equation to let the athletes and their performances speak for themselves. But that’s part of the job. It isn’t something that can be avoided or left to the athletes to figure out.
I’m sure each sport has its own set of complexities that need to be accounted for in the selection process. Swimming appears (from an outside perspective) to be quite simple: touch the wall first. In rowing, coaches have to account for the wind, water conditions, consistency of performance with all of the athletes involved, athletes knowing who is racing for his/her spot in the boat and who isn’t, crew dynamics, etc. That’s a lot of information to take in before deciding who is most likely to perform best in the Olympic final. But the process still has to be results-driven. Eliminate the confounding factors and allow the individual performances to shine through.
It isn’t a perfect science, but there is a way to do that in rowing. Line two boats up next to each other, race them, switch one athlete from each boat, and race them again. The two results will show you which athlete moves the boat faster. If possible, it’s even better to have another boat do both races unchanged to act as a constant to which the two “switching” boats’ times can be compared. Again, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best way to reduce everything down to what matters: which athletes moves the boat fastest.
I think that anything less than this, or the equivalent process in other sports, shows a lack of respect for how much our top athletes put into trying to win medals for Canada on the world stage. Speed on the water, in the water, or around the track: that’s all that matters. Just touch the wall first.