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by Chris Colburn

May 28, 2009

On Friday, May 22, over 75 swimmers and coaches converged on The Woodlands, Texas, with a sense of anticipation to take part in SwimFest '09, U.S. Masters Swimming's first national coach and swimmer clinic. As a first-time clinic, there are always possibilities and expectations for how the coaches will present their material, what swimmers and coaches can and will learn at the clinic, and how the overall experience will turn out. SwimFest both exceeded expectations and put together an amazing experience in an outstanding new facility at the Conroe ISD Natatorium. Featuring seven highly-decorated and award-winning coaches, including five Speedo/USMS Coaches of the Year (Mike Collins, Kris Houchens, Susan Ingraham, Jim Montgomery and Kerry O'Brien), two Olympic gold medalists (Montgomery and Whitney Hedgepeth) and a highly decorated professional triathlete and open-water swimmer (Sara McLarty), Club and Coach Services assembled a staff of the best and brightest mentor coaches in Masters swimming, and they delivered an outstanding performance.

Friday evening kicked off the activities with a coaches' roundtable, where the seven mentor coaches gave descriptions of their programs. Each coach explained some of the challenges faced and successes enjoyed in each unique situation. It's always interesting to hear how coaches make such diverse environments into successful Masters programs. Mel Goldstein, Club and Coach Services Coordinator and an award-winning coach himself, put it best when he said, "Each of these coaches has found a way to take the situations they have to deal with and work both within and outside the system to make their programs great." The presentation was followed by a question and answer period, where the mentor coaches fielded questions ranging from how they recruit and retain their swimmers to how to deal with athletes who come late to practice. The coaches' responses reflected their vast experience, and often provided the audience with new and amusing perspectives on how to improve their own programs.

The coaches presented an all-day swimming clinic on Saturday, where each of the mentors, assisted by the attending coaches, presented on their specialties while swimmers rotated through the stations. The six stations were long-axis strokes with Jim Montgomery, short-axis strokes with Kerry O'Brien, dryland with Susan Ingraham, open water swimming with Sara McLarty, videotaping and analysis with Mike Collins and Whitney Hedgepeth, and a station featuring training equipment from FINIS that was presented by Kris Houchens. Each segment provided swimmers with an opportunity to learn something about their swimming, and for coaches to learn more about the teaching and philosophies of each topic to take back to their programs. Each coach and athlete participated in four stations in the morning and two in the afternoon, which made for an exhilarating but exhausting day for everyone.

One of the most impressive events for me was the opportunity to see the leadership and coaches not only present their experiences, but also to practice what they were teaching. During the two-hour lunch break on Saturday, the mentor, participating coaches, and some of the swimmers took part in a workout of their own, run by Coaches Committee Chair Chris Colburn with the masterful and gracious help of Kerry O'Brien and Kris Houchens. The coaches and swimmers enjoyed working out with the U.S. Masters Swimming leadership, taking part in some sets and end-of-practice sprints with Executive Director Rob Butcher and President Rob Copeland. Many swimmers commented that it was impressive to see that the coaches and leaders of the organization really do take part in clinics like these while continuing to swim themselves. Rob Butcher was quick to add, "It's because we all love swimming, and the benefits it affords us."

On Sunday, the coaches hosted a one-hour open water clinic that featured stations with freestyle mechanics, open water skills, video analysis and a group open water swim to round out the day. The coach-to-swimmer ratio was much smaller for the Sunday clinic, and the swimmers enjoyed almost individual attention from the mentor coaches and their attending assistants as they learned how to improve their freestyle and improve their performances in open water and triathlon events.

As activities concluded around noon on Sunday, athletes and coaches alike departed for home with the satisfaction of having learned something new, and the memories of new lessons learned and friendships formed and renewed over the weekend. The clinic staff received great feedback from the attendees, and is already working with what they have learned to provide even better clinics in the future. Kudos are due to the U.S. Masters Swimming staff, especially The Woodlands Masters Swim Team as our host, for putting together a great event. With the success of the inaugural SwimFest, more swimmers will surely have opportunities in coming years to participate in this excellent weekend adventure.