By: Rich House
All Star Aquatics (ASA), led by head coach Bob Walker, is a medium-sized club here in Potomac Valley with approximately 300 swimmers, training out of two pools in Bethesda, MD, ranging in abilities from ‘Learn-to-Swim’ to Senior National qualifiers. Established in 2002, ASA has achieved Bronze Level Status in the USA Swimming Club Excellence Program from 2014-2016 and most recently achieved Safe Sport Recognition. ASA is the 4th team in PVS to earn Safe Sport Recognition and one of only 34 across the country!
Back in April, Coach Bob travelled to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, CO with four coaches and 30 athletes aged 12-18, to take advantage of the facility and all the available resources for optimal training purposes. Through an application process, USA Swimming makes the OTC available to any USA Swimming registered club team. Teams have to submit their applications with requested dates approximately a year in advance. USA Swimming then makes their selections using a priority system, giving priority to National Team programs and elite athletes from all Olympic sports. Bob remarked that he’s applied for over four years straight; this was the first year the application was accepted. I had the chance to sit down with Bob and five swimmers from his National Training Group:
- Lianna Rossman (15)
- Jack Murphy (17)
- Alexander Vlasov (17)
- Valentine Vlasov (17)
- Patrick Connelly (17)
To start the interview I asked if any of them had been to any developmental swim camps. They each shook their head ‘no’, then divulged that a few had been on the ASA sponsored training trip over winter break, but nothing like the OTC. The group then elaborated on their expectations going into the trip, the opportunity to train in the facility, and working together.
RFTW: When you arrived at the OTC, what was one of the first things you did?
Jack: We checked out our rooms, but more important was the trip to the gift shop!
At this point everyone smiled and chimed in, ‘Yes, the gift shop!’
RFTW: With the wide array of ages and abilities, how did the coaching staff accommodate and adapt the training to meet the needs of all the kids?
Patrick: We were the only team the a 10-lane pool for each 2-hour training session, and with 5 coaches we had room to spread out. Some practices and sets were split by stroke/distance so we were able to focus on our discipline at various times during the trip.
Jack: During the trip we did doubles plus gym work, so technically we did triple sessions, which allowed us to diversify.
RFTW: Speaking of gym work, did you have someone from the OTC providing the workouts and/or guidance on the exercises?
Valentine: The gym workouts were devised collaboratively by the 5 coaches. They had a huge gym area with weights and a ramp from the first to second floor covered in turf, which was excellent for doing ‘ramp-runs’. We didn’t do much with the weights as we were usually pretty tired from the 2-hour morning swim session.
RFTW: Did you have access or see any other teams or coaches during your stay?
Patrick: The US Open Water team was there training, and usually came in right after us. I stayed behind and got to talk with the coach.
Lianna: We also got to see the paralympic team which was cool to watch and see how they train.
RFTW: Did you get to tour the facilities to see any of the innovative areas of the OTC such as the flume or video rooms?
Patrick: We didn’t get to see the flume, however we had ‘all access’ passes so we could roam the campus, take pictures and take it all in.
RFTW: So I’ve heard that the OTC has great dining options- what was the go-to meal for you guys?
Alexander: Dinner the first night was roast beef & pasta, it was part of a buffet…it was the best buffet I’d ever had!
Jack: Agreed on the first night food, but the chocolate milk!
Patrick: The pasta and salad bar were really good with a lot of options.
Lianna: The chocolate milk and the soft serve ice cream!
Valentine: They had a great variety of carbohydrates and proteins, you could also order anything to cook ‘on demand’. Just the quality of food in a buffet was amazing. You could tell they are providing the necessary fuel for Olympic athletes.
Lianna:Fortunately our practice times coincided with the meal times, so we didn’t have to rush to eat, we usually had about an hour to fuel up.
Alexander: Our coaches didn’t have to monitor our food intake too much as we knew that if we took in too much, we would suffer in the upcoming practice.
RFTW: What kind of team building events were there outside of the practice times?
Patrick: There were a few required talks provided by staff at the OTC which we had to attend, one focused on Safe Sport and another on Anti-doping. There were team-centric debriefs from those meetings where we got to discuss these topics as they related to our team. They gave us space and time to digest the topics and shoot ideas among each other, which was helpful.
RFTW:What are some of the takeaways from that experience that you brought back to teammates that were not on the trip?
Lianna: We talked quite a bit about the topics and what ASA as a team could do to improve and what we could do ourselves…we discussed that focused training is needed, but also ensuring you are getting enough rest.
Patrick: From the Safe Sport meeting, we learned about building group culture and how important it is to be self aware and understand what you are saying and doing has an impact on not only your peers, but also the younger kids looking up to you. Important to reinforce a positive culture and push each other in practice to achieve goals.
Jack: There was an emphasis on the need to work as a team to achieve your goals, that you can’t do it on your own.
Valentine: Training was really hard and I needed my teammates behind me to get the best experience possible.
RFTW: During your training sessions, did anyone have issues with the altitude?
Alexander: It was really dry & it felt like someone had sucked all the air out of the room. At points it was really hard to climb the stairs.
Lianna: I remember the first practice we tried some fast swimming off the blocks & I was ‘toast’. It was really hard to catch your breath, with some of the (what should have been) simple sets being a real challenge.
Valentine: Even during warmups I found it hard to catch my breath, the first day it really hit me.
RFTW: Now that you have returned, can you tell the difference?
Valentine: I was still tired from the trip but I didn’t feel like the lactic acid build up was as pronounced. I feel like I can keep going and going.
Alexander: The air is so thick and full… the biggest difference- I was so happy being able to breathe again!
Patrick: I feel like training at altitude helped my mentality more than physical. Having to push through while gasping for air along with your teammates as we pushed each other along, and keeping that attitude when we came back has been really helpful.
Jack: I think the elevation training really helped and I’ve been feeling great in the water since coming back.
RFTW: What’s one thing you do differently now since the trip?
Valentine: The specialized training helped me speed up and add power within my freestyle stroke rate and I plan to keep that going.
Lianna: We were able to focus on our individual strokes and Coach Rory talked about ‘controlled chaos’ in the sprint group. I think that mindset will help to ensure I am going all out in the 50 & 100 races in the future.
Patrick: One thing I learned working in the specific stroke group (butterfly) with Bob Walker, was to be more aware of the small details including arm placement, how I’m snapping my kick. That way if something isn’t going right, I can readily make adjustments.
Jack: I was able to focus on backstroke and specifically how I’m rotating. Coach Mallory helped me feel the difference between swimming flat and rotating.
Alexander: Being in the training environment taught me to take more risks, be more bold, less afraid to fail. I should not hold back in practices, always focus on maximum effort.
RFTW: How were you able to break up the hard training and incorporate fun?
Valentine: Having the free time available in the community room, was a great team bonding experience.
Lianna: The community room was key, but also being able to relax in the hot tub.
Patrick: Having the ability to hang together as a group and talk about anything, even swimming made it enjoyable.
Jack: Watching the younger kids play Fortnite and participating with my peers in playing Smash.
Alexander: Some of the exercises themselves were fun. For instance, we climbed up a 7-meter long rope suspended over the pool, and fell back into the pool after reaching the top.
After the interview, I also had a chance to review the retrospective survey the the coaches asked the kids to complete upon their return. Much of the feedback was consistent with the interview. The OTC provided a great opportunity to work hard, focus on team building, and improve each individual’s focus on the sport and their teammates. I think this question/response below is one that can be echoed for any team throughout PVS and demonstrates why so many kids love the sport.
What do you love most about ASA?
- Ability to be competitive at practice. Very knowledgeable coaching staff. At certain times, very friendly environment.
- The reason why ASA will always be a great experience is because everyone is supportive and cheerful. Kids from other groups I did not know before have gotten a better acquaintance with me. I think it’s the people who stand out and step up who influence our team which creates a better spirit.
- The good coaches & teammates.
- I love the ASA community and positive spirit and sense of family.
- Being a team/family, being motivated every day.
- Fostering healthy relationships between all people who are a part of our club.
- How much the coaches care about each swimmer. Not just their swimming, but their health in general.
- The opportunities available to us – travel, etc. The swimmers feel as though they have an impact on their practices because they feel as though their input is valuable. The coaches are great to talk to because they are transparent about why practices are structured this way, etc.
Wrapping up this conversation, I felt the energy these swimmers have for the sport, how much they support their teammates, and how much they love their team.
Thanks to coach Bob, Rory, Chris, Dana and Mallory for providing access to your swimmers and giving us a peek into how you are developing these athletes into young women and men.