Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Off to Argentina with Mallory Mead to race at Maratón Hernandarias-Paraná

February 2012

Since 2008, the FINA Open Water Grand Prix offers the world’s best open water swimmers a chance to compete in an annual circuit comprising distances over 10km.  In 2012, the competitions kicked off with three races on three consecutive weekends in Argentina: 15km on January 22nd at Rosario, 57km on January 29th at Santa Fe-Coronda and on February 5th, 88km at Hernandarias-Parana.  My good friend and very fast young swimmer, Mallory Mead, had been invited to race at Hernandarias-Parana and would be representing the United States.

USA swimmers are required to have a USA swim coach in attendance at these competitions, to look out for their safety interests and make sure they are represented by a qualified coach at the location of the race.  Mallory asked me if I would be interested in doing this for her and not being one to pass up an adventure, I said “sign me up!”  We began to make plans for our debut on the Grand Prix circuit, getting advice from our friends who had been there, both as coaches and swimmers.
I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to do the long swims any more, but am very good at coaching them.  Mallory is self-coached, which is working very well for her and she is swimming faster than she ever has before – even during her college years.  We were, indeed, a winning team!

After a two-day commute, we arrived at our hotel in Parana and immediately met some of the other swimmers.  Most had come from Santa Fe and having raced the weekend before, were sporting swim cap sunburns on their faces to prove it.  Many local open water stars from Argentina arrived, as well as swimmers and coaches from Australia, Spain, Italy, Holland, Canada, Macedonia, Syria, Croatia and other countries, all staying at the same hotel and eating our meals together in the dining room.  It’s a close-knit group and even though they are in competition with each other for place finishes and prize money, the bond of friendship is strong and Mallory and I were accepted into the group and felt welcome the first day.  Swimmers and coaches gathered after breakfast each morning and walked to the local swimming pool for daily sessions to loosen up and keep their feel for the water for race day.  The local children at the pool looked upon the swimmers as heroes and didn’t miss an opportunity to practice speaking English and have their picture taken with as many of them as possible.

We enjoyed much pageantry around this adventure.  A press conference (and party) was held the evening after we arrived and we very much enjoyed the festivities and hospitality.

I got a chance to catch up with my friend, Jorge Delgado, who was the FINA official in charge of the races.

Two days before the 88km race down river from Hernandarias to Parana, there would be a 2km sprint race.  None of the swimmers there would consider themselves sprinters, but this was a good opportunity to showcase the event’s sponsors and a good ice breaker for the swimmers.  The finish would be the same as for the long race, so it was an opportunity for them to check out landmarks and get in the river, swim hard and get rid of some nervous tension. Mallory did extremely well in her 2km “sprint”… garnering a 4th place finish.  Not quite good enough for a podium finish, but encouraged when she noticed she would only be racing one of the women who finished ahead of her on Sunday when they would be swimming their “game race” of 88km.

Mallory and I had been spending some of our down time making video for a documentary and you can see I’m hard at work as Mallory prepares to swim!  We’ll be telling the “behind the scenes” happenings of our travel adventures, the swim stories and some hilarious and surprising interviews with other swimmers and coaches we met on this trip to Argentina.

One of my favorite sayings about open water swimming – “Expect the Unexpected” – began to unfold on Saturday, the day after the sprint race, when coaches and swimmers boarded buses and headed to Hernandarias.  The race was scheduled to start there on Sunday morning and swimmers, with their coaches alongside in wooden row boats doling out feedings, racing advice and encouragement, would make their way down river back to Parana, finishing sometime that evening.  Because the river was low, the swimmers were expecting to be racing for 10-11 hours or more.

Here are some of our new friends from Holland, Canada and Croatia… our “roomies” in Hernandarias.

We could hear emus, peacocks, pheasant and other birds during the night.  They were the pets of the proprietors, along with many friendly dogs and a very cute puppy.

We spent the night at these cottages in Hernandarias and were treated to breakfast the next morning… then the rain began again…

And now, for the unexpected…  Upon our arrival in Hernandarias the afternoon before the race, we were greeted by a sudden and strong rainstorm.  We were all seated in the dining room of a building which would also serve as the start of the race in the morning when the wind started to blow very hard and the river began to swell from the sudden downpour of rain.  During our lunch on the pontoon, sudden bursts of wind screamed through the sliding glass doors opening out to the river, blowing them right off their tracks. In a flash, the Dutch and Croatian coaches caught the falling doors and held them against the force of the wind until the restaurant staff lowered the storm shutters.  Waves were cresting in the river and one of the Argentine swimmers said he had never seen the rio like that.  I remembered the comments from the pre-race informational meeting the evening before in Parana about “some wind” and what might happen in the event the event needed to be canceled for safety reasons.  This was what they knew had been forecast and all we could do was wait and see what the weather did… very reminiscent of the “Dover rollercoaster” to me, after spending many weeks there waiting to see what the weather was going to do and when or if I would be able to have a go at swimming the English Channel.  So, here in Argentina, we had the roller coaster again.  The swimmers were very brave and professional about it all and continued as though there would be a race, but I know the uncertainty had to be tough.
To make a long story short, we spent the night in the cottages in Hernandarias, with no wi-fi and lots of conversation and laughs, passing the time happily as we all kept an eye out the window.  Swimmers and coaches awoke to pre-race duties such as making feeds and collecting caps, goggles and feeding poles.  The weather seemed to have cleared and spirits were high at breakfast.  Until the rain began again.
We all continued on as if the race would happen.  Buses took us to the start line and I made my way to Mallory’s row boat and the two men who would escort us down river.  I put her feeds nearby and hoped they would not get too muddy before the race started.  Mallory and the other swimmers were suited and greased up and their race numbers were being put on.  The weather kept changing from minute to minute and the race directors were getting reports of more bad weather about four hours down river, where the swimmers would begin swimming straight into very strong headwinds.  At 9:00am FINA representative Jorge Delgado canceled the race for security reasons.  There was just no way swimmers could be allowed in the water when the safety of all participants could not be guaranteed.  It was, without a doubt, the right call to make.  Local politicos were not happy and protested, but it was good to see the well-being and protection of the swimmers taken into account above all else.

An alternative race (another “sprint” – 5km) was held the following day in Parana.  FINA points would not be awarded and the prize money was cut significantly, but the swimmers at least got to get wet, albeit only for about 40 minutes as the current was swiftly at their backs for most of the race.  I was in the row boat, next to Mallory and with the same two rowers from the day before, giving her hand signals to help her navigate the strong currents as well as dodge flotsam and jetsam along the race course.  One of the most important signals I was able to give Mallory was when she had swum a safe distance in front of a competitor and could stop for a moment and adjust her swim cap, as it looked like it was about to come off… a little disaster if you have hair long enough to get in your face!

Mallory was third female finisher, good enough for a podium finish.  She swam a smart race and gave it her all.  I am a very proud coach!

Mallory and I enjoyed visiting with Aussie Trent Grimsey, overall winner of both races.  Team FINIS!

Our Dutch buddies, Daan Glorie and his coach Marcel Stroet, were a highlight of our adventure.  Mallory and Daan swam together in the pool before the races and Marcel was a Godsend to me since I was the new kid on the block!

And there was quite a party the night before it was time to go home!

In case you’re wondering why there aren’t too many pictures of me and they are mostly of the swimmers, I have a theory… The coach is the schlep in the background making sure the swimmer is the STAR !!!

I look forward to many more coaching adventures…