At the start of the 2016 Olympics it seemed as if four years was a long time in the Swimming world. In London 2012, the Australian swim team had produced our worst performance at an Olympics in 20 years.
This result led to major ramifications with the Bluestone review indicating a ‘toxic culture’ the major cause of a one gold medal return among ten medals.
Following this review and the installation of the highly regarded Jacco Verhaeren as head coach, it was firmly believed that Australia would improve dramatically in the pool. Many suggested Rio 2016 could be our most successful Olympic swim meet ever.
Following the first day of competition this seemed entirely possible when two gold medals were won. However after eight days of competition, Australia delivered just three gold among ten medals, the same total number of medals won in London.
There is little doubt that at Rio 2016 the attitude of the team had improved dramatically. There were no meltdowns on pool deck and the team appeared united, supporting each other rather than being individuals.
Our athletes were well drilled at handling both victory and defeat with class and dignity. So with an improved team spirit and culture where did our hopes in Rio go wrong? Did the Australian media build up our swimmers to be better than they really were?
In its Rio 2016 preview, International publication ‘Swimming World Magazine’ predicted that Australia would win eight Gold, five Silver and seven Bronze for a total of 20 medals. This indicated that our hopes of a vast improvement were being echoed among the international swimming fraternity and not just within the Australian community. To say that we fell short of such lofty predictions is a massive understatement.
Some of our athletes produced stellar performances that exceeded our wildest expectations. Unfortunately there were just as many, if not more, disappointments and missed opportunities. No one can question our swimmers’ abilities given their times at our Australian trials. Similarly no one can question their efforts, doing their absolute best on the day.
So what went wrong?
I firmly believe the answer lies with Swimming Australia and their continued belief in holding our selection trials early in the year. This usually occurs 3-4 months prior to the year’s major swimming event.
The theory behind this approach, from my understanding, is to allow our selected swimmers enough time to perform another training cycle and full taper between events. By contrast, the US swim team held their selection trials just a few weeks before the Olympics.
As a result the US selected in-form athletes that were ready to perform.
The dominance of the US team is obvious from their final medal tally of 16 Gold among 33 medals. The clear advantage in their selection approach, however, is seen when comparing each individual athletes performance at the Olympics compared to their selection trials.
In 52 individual swims (when counting a swimmers final swim in any event) the US saw an improved performance in 27. There were 15 performances that regressed, while ten swims were equivalent to those done at trials.
By contrast, in the 49 individual swims performed by Australians only eight performances improved. There were seven equivalent efforts while an enormous 34 swims had regressed since our April selection trials.
It is obvious our athletes were in better form four months before the Olympics began.
There will be other reasons given for our failure to meet expectation. An inability to deal with pressure, the late start of the swimming finals session and illness in the team, are a few already mentioned in the immediate aftermath.
However when only 31% of our swims were equivalent or better than trials, compared to 71% for the US swim team it is clear that we need a fundamental change in our selection processes. The US team always peaks at international competition whereas in most instances Australian swimmers fall short.
It is time for Swimming Australia to make a tough decision. The time has come to move to a successful selection system that is equivalent to the US model. Our swimmers have amazing talent and ability; they deserve to perform at their peak when it really matters.