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Watching a World Champion Train

Lorry Wagner has been coaching for more than 34 years. He was formerly head coach of
Cleveland State University’s womens’ swimming and is currently a club coach. Lorry, who holds a doctorate in Nuclear Engineering, looks at swimming with a unique perspective. He makes sure there is reason behind the methods being taught and coached. His two sons attended our recent swim camp at Bucknell University.

Nightwish Album cover It all started one evening when I heard Nightwish, an awesome Finnish rock band, on Cleveland State College radio. The next thing I knew, I was planning a trip to Finland. My plan was to spend three days in Kitee, to see Nightwish at their album-release party. I’d then travel to Helsinki for four days of business development (I’m an engineer, and Finland is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world). I would finish the trip (I hoped; this didn’t come together until the last minute) with a visit to the pool where freestyle world champion Hanna-Maria Seppala trains. Finland has produced some incredible athletes over the years (for example, Lasse Viren and Paavo Nurmi, two of the greatest runners of all time; Jani Sievinen, a world record holder in the IM; and Antti Kusvio, an awesome 200 freestyler), and Hanna-Maria falls into this tradition of excellence. I was excited, too, about spending time in the city that had hosted the 1952 Olympics.

I could write a book about my stay in Kitee, the Nightwish concert, and the business skills of the Finns. The most impressive part of the trip, however, was my visit to the Finnish swim club KeUi, where I met Hanna-Maria’s coach and mother, Mirjami Seppala. It was not an easy meeting to arrange. After many emails to different clubs, I finally received a reply from KeUi wanting to know why I wanted to visit and how I found out about their particular club. The club’s president and assistant coach, Ari Martenssen, skillfully screened my request, and only after he and Mirjami were sure that I was not on a recruiting trip or would not disrupt Hanna-Maria’s training, was I invited to visit. In reality, it was not until my last day in Helsinki that I was sure it would happen.

I could only guess what I would see at their training session, and of course my imagination ran wild. How does a small country with 99% volunteer coaches achieve the greatness of a Sievinen and now the World 100m Free Champion, Hanna-Maria Seppala? They MUST do something very special. I thought of every technique I have used in 34 years of coaching. I thought of all the great coaches I have learned from, all of the things that must be done. They must know more! What could be happening inside this world of KeUi?

Ari picked me up at the hotel and as we drove to the pool he told me the familiar story of kids loving swimming and parents getting involved. He was a baseball player whose kids loved to swim and he soon became a volunteer coach. In fact, every coach on their team was a volunteer. Several, like Ari and Mirjami, were engineers (just like me!) and one was even a general in the Finnish Army. I could have been listening to any proud American parent talking about their swim program, except that there was not a paid head coach in this club. There were not ANY paid coaches. A thought came to mind: unsurpassed dedication.

At the pool, I heard the usual stories of crowded lanes, not enough pool time, etc. I also heard that the Finnish government mandates minimum community service requirements for cities. Part of the minimum recreation requirement for a community is a pool! Even Kitee, with a population of 10,000, has a 25m pool. I like this country! As we walked in, it looked like any pool in any community center: 6 lanes, 25m. Three lanes for swim team, 3 for recreation. Now, I am really curious. No 50m pool, no electronic timing system, no high-tech anything in this country of high tech.

I met Mirjami as she warmed up the group — 10 national-caliber swimmers age 15 to 19 — and we began to talk. I wanted to ask everything, but bit my tongue and tried to just listen. She told me about her life with 5 kids, her job with Ericsson, and her start as a coach 11 years ago when Hanna-Maria was just 8. Finally, I began to ask a few things and then I decided to just watch. I stood there amazed for what seemed like hours. I focused on Hanna-Maria at first and then started to look around. I was truly impressed with what I saw. Everyone…yes, every swimmer, pushed off and streamlined well past the flags on every (yes, every) turn. The perfection and flow off the walls was like ballet. There was not one wasted motion. The physics was flawless with maximum energy transfer off the wall and a transition down to swimming speed. And I repeat: Everyone, not just Hanna-Maria, was doing it. Mirjami had asked the questions, analyzed the process, and designed the perfect solution.

I then looked at their strokes — during a sub-threshold set, where they were going about 1:10 for each 100m. I saw an incredible comfort and feel for the water. Maximum rotation, extension like you dream about, high-elbow catches, and pushes past the waist. Of course, I thought Hanna-Maria looked the best, but it was consistent across the lanes. Another thought: Attention to detail, becoming one with the sea, and practicing to be perfect were in every swimmer’s mind. I could see Mirjami’s eye catch it all, but I knew she was just checking to see who was not taking care of themselves. She had already taught these swimmers how to focus and translate practice into perfection. There was not going to be a single useless meter of practice in her workout.

Finally, I started asking all the coaching stuff like…what about weights and yardage? Plyometrics and dryland? Mental and relaxation training? Lactate testing and tapering? Stroke work versus conditioning? Mirjami answered all the questions openly, and let me review the workout. I still couldn’t find the secret sauce! Something was brewing in my brain, however, so I just waited for the process to work its magic.

The next thing I saw was some sprints. One of the guys got on the blocks, Mirjami started him, and he swam a timed 50. Five strokes to the wall and then a turn. NO WAY! This guy was maybe 5’10"so it was not his stroke length. He flipped at 11 seconds! Fourteen strokes later he was back at the blocks. I tried to see this again in my mind. It was just like the turns. Maximum energy transfer off the start, minimum drag, kick and extend as long as possible until transitioning down to swimming speed. Wow, what a start! I knew the rest of the team would look the same, and they did. Ari had talked about how their club is well known for their incredible starts and turns, and I could see why. I thought my team’s were the best — not anymore.

Hanna-Maria got up for her 50 and Mirjami focused again on the swimmer. During the swim, I could see the analysis in her eyes and could read her face. Later I asked what she thought about the swim. What it came down to was that while the time was fast, the start of the race was not perfect. Something had kept the flow from being the world’s greatest ballet. After a while, Hanna-Maria did it again and this time it was better. I am sure it will be perfect in Athens.

Practice was over and after a cup of coffee, Ari drove me back. Both he and Mirjami were perfect hosts and I could not have asked for a better view into the training world of the Champion and her coach. They had told me everything I wanted to know.

This was, indeed, the greatest trip of my life. I came away very impressed with Mirjami’s knowledge and her ability to communicate with her team. Hanna-Maria is simply another member of the team and, as Mirjami said, "Why would I think it would be any different?" I will remember that one when I coach my twin sons! I learned all the things I have learned before and realized for the 32,767th time that the power is in the process. That the laws of physics have not changed and that incredible things can happen anywhere.

So, what is the secret of Mirjami’s success as a coach and Hanna-Maria’s as a swimmer?

1. Unwavering dedication to the sport and to yourself.
2. The farther you go on starts and turns means you swim less and therefore your times are faster.
3. Performing each set exactly like your coach instructs to the BEST of your ability.
4. Trusting your swimmer and trusting your coach.
5. Becoming one with the water and learning to flow — no matter how long it takes.
6. Training the energy systems relevant to the race you swim and not over training.
7. Focus, Focus, Focus and no Hocus Pocus.
8. Not one wasted meter!