Monday, February 19, 2018

My World Cup journey


flashback: Trinidad and Tobago’s Bronze Medalist George Richard Bovell poses with his bronze medal on the podium during the award ceremony of the men’s 50-metre freestyle swimming event in the FINA World Championships at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona on August 3. —Photo: AFP

Mark Fraser

The Russian embassy in Guyana was only open from 9-11am, two days a week and as my 7am flight to Guyana from Piarco was now leaving at 8:30, there was little possibility of getting to the Embassy in Georgetown in time. I seriously thought about just going home. It was out of my control, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I this was a sign of whether I was or wasn’t meant to undertake the six remaining stops of the 2013 FINA Swimming World Cup.

The whole process was running last minute because my passport had to be renewed and I desperately needed to get that Russian visa in time to travel to the first stop of the remainder of the series in Moscow. However, all kinds of coincidences lined up and I was able to make it through the double gates of the Russian Embassy in Georgetown with just 5 minutes to spare.

I had already won one gold, and two bronze medals at the first two stops back in August in Eindhoven and Berlin. Since I didn’t have another really important competition to focus on until the Commonwealth Games next summer, I felt that this five-week stint of constant racing in Moscow, Dubai, Qatar, Singapore, Tokyo and Beijing would be an excellent opportunity to experiment with some new ideas and practice racing.

After two days of travel, I arrived in Moscow with just two days to recover before competing.

At the competition, I felt terrible, I could hardly move, I was so stiff. Every cell in my body wanted to be in my hotel room asleep due to the eight-hour time change.

At night, my body thought I was taking a nap and during the day was ready to catch up on the lost zzz’s. I brought some sleep aids with me to help overcome the jetlag but they were stolen by the hotel cleaning staff the second day. With the help of a few cups of coffee, I managed to force my sleep-deprived body up and down the pool fast enough to clinch a bronze in the 100 metres IM and another bronze in the 50m freestyle.

I knew that these performances were the starting point from which I would undoubtedly improve. I had to. During the first effort, I managed to somehow strain a muscle in my neck-shoulder blade area. Since the T&T team was just a one-man show without a physio, this would prove to be a nagging hindrance for the rest of the tour that would force me to heat the area up under a scalding hot shower before getting into the pool to warm up for my races. Constant stretching was needed to keep it loose.

The day after Moscow, I caught a seven-hour flight to Dubai. I arrived feeling optimistic about my prospects and believing that the worst was behind me. I had just one day to practice and recover from the trip before the competition resumed. At this point, I started again to sleep through the night.

The setup in Dubai allowed for some enjoyable social interaction which naturally led to some friendly trash talking that made my bronze in the 100m IM and especially the silver in the 50m freestyle a little more satisfying, since I beat two of my long-time rivals, Anthony Ervin and Roland Schoeman into third and fourth.

It was becoming very obvious that the Russian Valdimir Moriziov was the man to beat as he racked up ever more points and gold medals. Getting beaten into second by him served to motivate me to find ways to keep improving. I would watch the videos of the races and sought intuitive feedback from coach Anil Roberts. To beat him was now the obvious challenge and was going to be a process.

There was just one day off with which to travel to Qatar, before resuming competition. In Qatar, the level of the competition rose even further with the presence of Olympic 50m champion Florent Manadou and Olympic and World championship medallist Fred Bousquet, my former university teammate. That would mean that mean that six of the eight World Championship finalists in the 50m freestyle from Barcelona would be present. There would be no room for error or a casual qualifying round. The physical toll I had been placing on my body finally caught up to me, and I started to fight off a cold.

I had trained through headaches, sniffles and coughs throughout my career and continued to keep up my perpetual state of motion----wake up and pack, breakfast, bus, hot shower, stretch, warm up, suit up,  race, warm down, bus, lunch, nap, bus, hot shower, stretch, warm up, suit up, race, warm down, drug test, bus, dinner, bed. Throw in some traveling, and you get a vague idea of what it was like.

In Qatar I managed a bronze in the 100m IM and a disappointing close fourth in 50m freestyle, but my fastest time in the tour for both races.

To obtain a visa for China so that I could compete in Beijing, I had to remain a few extra days in Qatar, and thankfully was hosted by some good friends who had recently moved there. I was very relieved once that visa headache was behind me and came into Singapore ready to rock. With the extra few days to recover and an awareness of what I could change and fix to go faster, I fought back and won silver in the 100m IM and another silver in the 50m freestyle.

My times were getting down into the range of some very fast swimming, but it wasn’t enough, I was still behind Morizov. There was more work to be done.

After the eight-hour flight to Tokyo, I had a day to recover and prepare to race. I remember practising turn after turn the evening before the competition, to the point where my better judgment had to step in  to prevent me tiring myself out. I had to break the streak. I carefully visualised and planned the race, had a long meditative warm-up and then unleashed it.

In the last lap of the 100m, the freestyle, I found myself in front as I powered home to the wall. I ecstatically reached out for the wall knowing I had beaten Morizov. I think it was this excitement that caused me to perhaps not finish as hard as I should have, thinking I had won and to my utter surprise and disappointment I was second by a few hundredths of a second to a Japanese swimmer on the other side that I had not seen because I was focusing on the Russian. Silver again, this time bittersweet.

The following night in the 50m sprint, I clinched bronze in a very close race despite misjudging the turn. As the tiredness accumulated and it became harder and harder to muster the energy to go fast, I found that the constant racing was making me increasingly skillful and it was this conscious effort towards nailing the details that allowed the continued improvement of my times.

One day to travel and another to recover and prepare before the final showdown in Beijing. This time I intended to use a different strategy. I feigned tiredness in the morning and purposely qualified in eighth position, so as to race in lane eight where I could make a big push on the third lap without being seen so as to catch everyone off guard. To add to the excitement, butterfly and IM specialist, Olympic gold medallist, and world record holder Chad Le Clos, was swimming the IM. Out there in lane eight, I swam my own race, everything according to plan and touched the wall only to see that I was second again to Morizov despite swimming incredibly fast. I had done everything I could. But somehow on the last stop of the tour when everyone was the most tired, he had dropped half a second to go his best time. Wow.

The following day was the 50 freestyle, another showdown with five of the fastest men in history in the field. “One more, last one, fast one” I kept telling myself.  There was to be no Hollywood ending but an anticlimactic, disappointing, close fourth place.

Part of me was relieved it was all over. I was so tired, physically, and mentally. It was a huge challenge and thrill but not easy to do alone against swimmers from fully supported teams with massage therapists, coaches and managers.

All the stress, strains, racing, traveling, and logistics had taken its toll on me. I had a lost a lot of weight.  I have since recently returned home and am back gearing up for the next challenge and proud of being ranked second, fourth and sixth fastest in the World for 2013.