Sun | Oct 24, 2021

Deepening the pool

Swim coaches share views on how to groom Jamaica’s next generation of senior international swimmers

Published:Wednesday | July 28, 2021 | 12:10 AMDaniel Wheeler/Staff Reporter
Jamaica’s Alia Atkinson competes in the Women’s 100m Breaststroke heats  at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday.
Jamaica’s Alia Atkinson competes in the Women’s 100m Breaststroke heats at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday.
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MILLWOOD
MILLWOOD
FENNELL
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National swim coaches Wendy Lee and Gillian Millwood say that the developing World Junior championship calibre swimmers has to be the main focus in order for Jamaica to consistently compete at the international level. Their assessment comes as...

National swim coaches Wendy Lee and Gillian Millwood say that the developing World Junior championship calibre swimmers has to be the main focus in order for Jamaica to consistently compete at the international level.

Their assessment comes as five-time Olympian Alia Atkinson is set to conclude her professional career at the end of this season after failing to qualify for the semi-finals of the Women’s 100m Breaststroke at the Tokyo Games. Her impending departure brings to a close a career that has included various titles and records in the short course format (25m pool) while not finding similar success in the long course (50m pool).

It has also brought questions about whether Jamaica can consistently produce elite swimmers for future games and possibly win world and Olympic titles. Lee, head coach of Tornadoes Swim Club, says that the emphasis will be on local coaches, including her, being able to produce world championship performers in their junior years, not just earning Caribbean titles, to give them a better chance of excelling at the top level.

“Before we start looking at making Olympians, we need to start making World Junior champions because we have control over them until they are 17 and 18 years old,” Lee told The Gleaner. “And if we can’t make them the best in the world at 17 or 18 years old, we deserve to lose them. If we are not, in the next four years or in 2022 [producing elite junior swimmers], they are not going to make it to the Olympics. So it’s on the Jamaican coaches.”

Millwood, who coaches Y Speedos Swim Club, says that this approach is critical as Olympic champions experienced success as junior swimmers. American Lydia Jacoby won the Women’s 100m Breaststroke title in Tokyo at just 17 years old. It is a trend that Millwood says is now possible and not just a one-off if there is enough financial support for the athletes to get them at that level.

“The swimmers and coaches do understand that it is possible,” she said. “I think before we didn’t think it was. And if it was, it seemed like an anomaly. But now with this Olympics, it looks like it’s exactly where it is, getting after the youth.

“If you look at the Olympics currently, most of the winners or top contenders are younger than 20. So we have to start excelling at the junior level, Pan American Juniors, Commonwealth Youth, World Juniors, etcetera.”

However, Lee mentions concerns about when they make the move to tertiary schools in the United States and do not replicate the types of performances that can challenge the world’s elite.

“What are we doing in the Caribbean why we are not converting our athletes into at least top eight, top 16 [swimmers],” she asked. “And it’s not for lack of trying. And we are all exporting our athletes to the United States.

“So why is it our athletes are going into the same US programmes where Katie Ledecky (US Olympic and World Champion) swims and they are getting medals?”

“So for us to be able to convert our talent now into the next Alia, we have to really assess what is happening with our athletes when they enter the last US programme.”

NO MONETARY SUPPORT

That reassessment Lee says could mean swimmers choosing to remain in Jamaica to train and compete, but she says that it will be difficult to replicate the same successful track and field which began in 2008 because the monetary support is not there.

Former Jamaica Olympic Association President Mike Fennell, who said that Atkinson was able to get the necessary funding for training and coaching through the Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, says that more internal investment in athletes is necessary to get athletes to an elite level.

“I know memories are short and people don’t remember those days when she had absolutely nothing like many other athletes, and the scholarship assisted her in the cost of training, cost of preparation, and enabling her to develop in her craft,” Fennell said. “The majority of those that are successful, their countries are investing in them. We have to take a decision in Jamaica whether we are prepared to go that way and invest in them as a country.”

daniel.wheeler@gleanerjm.com