Greece lightning

July 30, 2004

With two weeks to go, Britain's swimmers are powering their way to the Olympics. Matthew Baker talks to the postgraduates who are preparing them in the latest in our series

When Andrew Cruickshank, a 22-year-old MSc exercise physiology student at Loughborough University, was invited to work with the elite squad British Swimming recently, he hardly imagined the swift transition from theory to practice he was about to make.

As one of 11 students picked by Mike Peyrebrune, a senior exercise physiologist for the English Institute of Sport, based at the university's 50m pool, Cruickshank is not only reaping the benefits of what is best described as an intense finishing school, he is also contributing to what could be Britain's most successful Olympic medal haul for swimming.

Cruickshank carries out a number of supervised tests with the athletes at the pool. "There's nothing like being poolside and working with these guys. There's a lot of responsibility on you, so there's pressure.

You'll have a swimmer powering through the water towards you; he's just finished a 100m swim and is gasping for air - there's water all over his face and you've got to prick his ear lobe to get a drop of blood for a lactate test (high levels of lactate show high levels of effort are being used).

"You can't get any contamination in the sample or it's useless, and when you're dealing with swimmers of the calibre of James Gibson (world 50m breaststroke champion), they don't want to be messed around. You've got to be quick, too, because they're off again in seconds. They expect the best support and they need it."

According to Peyrebrune, the decision to expose high-quality students to elite athletes preparing for an Olympic Games is the only way of bridging the gap between theory and practice.

"The programme was introduced with two objectives in mind. First, we needed extra hands to service the number of swimmers on the elite programme in Loughborough. Second, we're looking to train sport scientists of the future.

"The head coach of British Swimming, Ian Turner, is very supportive of what we're doing with the students and says the more sport science support we can provide, the better it is for his team. His view is that the coach can give a lot to the athletes, but when there's a team of sport scientists around, it raises the bar a bit and tightens the whole process. The swimmers often focus more when they've got these support mechanisms around them monitoring their every move."

Now in its second year, the programme is the only one of its kind in the UK and is the ideal means to promote sport science among undergraduates, Peyrebrune says.

Sport science has helped usher in a new era of professionalism in British swimming.

After the disaster of Sydney, where Britain failed to win a single Olympic medal in the pool, performance director Bill Sweetenham built up an impressive sport science team. At Sydney, the British swimming team had just one sport science employee - now, at their Loughborough base there is a team of scientists providing biomechanics, physiology, strength and conditioning, plus 11 MSc students.

Because Peyrebrune and the swim team's technology consultant, Henryk Lakomy, have recently moved from the university's sport science department, they have strong links with the academic side of the discipline. Peyrebrune says the academic departments encouraged the partnership with the MSc students to give them "professional development in applied sport science, not just the academic theory".

Twenty-six-year-old MSc student Judith Allgrove says: "I'm learning so much. Not only am I applying the science in the pool, but I'm also learning about swimming and how to deal with coaches and elite athletes.

"We have to build up a relationship with the coach and the swimmers and make sure we're always working with the coach and not interfering with a session. We always give information to the coach and not the swimmer because if the swimmer is getting three different messages from those poolside, it will undermine the coaching process," Allgrove says.

"If I were to summarise what I've gained, I'd say it's made me feel extremely confident," Cruickshank says. "Before, I thought I had the knowledge, but I didn't really know how to apply it. Now I'm confident I can go out in any situation and be able to deal with that scenario."

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