Presidents Notes August 2021

This July several of our Senior swimmers were finally able to get back to competition after more than 15 months of covid lockdowns. Nine SWSC swimmers travelled to the modified Summer National Long Course meet in Bangor, County Down. Unlike previous years there were no age groups and qualifying times were tighter, with morning heats leading to A and B Open finals spread over three days. Health restrictions meant only swimmers, coaches and officials could enter the actual pool, with parents being reduced to intermittent observation from the pool restaurant. I was lucky to be allowed to attend as a coach assisting Richard Cassidy, and was delighted to be back at an actual competition. Our swimmers swam 22 events and to our delight, 14 were in personal best (PB) times. This indicated a faster than expected return to pre-pandemic form, and may have been aided by the four-times a week online exercise sessions during the lockdowns.

Andrew Feenan, training at NAC Limerick where he is enrolled in the University, was our only swimmer not to have long periods out of the water during the lockdowns because of membership of one of the Swim Ireland Elite squads. In his best events, the 50, 100 and 200 breast strokes, he finished 4th, 3rd and 2nd. These are probably the most competitive events for Irish swimmers Internationally, with Darragh Greene being part of the nine strong team at the Tokyo Olympics. Andrew’s 200 is now consistently at 2:15 (WR 2:06) down from races of 2:20+ a year ago.

Sharon Semchiy, now a second year UCC student, achieved the best result with a win in the 50m Fly and 2nd in the 100 Fly A finals. Both swims were PBs and the 50 time of 28.76 broke Emma Cassidy’s long standing club record.

Andrew’s younger brother Mike finished 6th in the 200 breast stroke A final in a best time. Marc Galland had a PB by almost two seconds in a highly competitive 100 free, while James Ryan was 3rd in the 100 back A final, again with a best time.

The other four female swimmers all performed excellently. Two of these, Anna Feenan and Beth Nolan were fresh from the stressful Leaving Cert year. Anna was narrowly second in the B final of the 200 free (like the Men’s 100 and 200 freestyles, these were by far the most competitive events), whereas Beth was 3rd in the 200 back A final in an almost one second PB.

Our younger competitors Lauren Farr and Isabel Kidney, both born in 2007, swam five and four events respectively and each had four PBs. Laurens best placing was 4th in the 200 back A final, whereas Isabel was 5th in the 50 breast stroke A final.

Overall these are excellent long course times after a two year hiatus and bode well for the upcoming season. The major events in the autumn will be the SC Munster and National Championships.

As noted in early April, Liam Custer, Andrew Feenan and Sean O’Riordan were selected to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic trials, which many of you watched on TV. Liam travelled over from Florida especially for this meet, observing all of the required health regulations. He finished second in the 800 and 1500 free events in times very close to his PBs. Because of continuing travel difficulties he then elected to stay in the USA. He subsequently swam in the US Olympic trials (often regarded as a more competitive competition than the Olympics themselves), where he improved his ranking in the 1500 from 34th to 25th. In the trials, Andrew swam to a SWSC record of 1:02.99 in the 100 breast stroke and a good PB of 2:15+ in the 200 breast stroke. Neither reached the very difficult Olympic QTs but both are on upward trajectories that look good for the future.

Sean improved his pre-pandemic 400 free PB by a second but failed to reach the tough Tokyo Paralympic QT of 4:34. Unlike Andrew he had not been able to train consistently through the latter nine months of 2020 and this longer event, which requires large amounts of consistent training, obviously suffered. All three are to be congratulated on their achievements in being selected to participating in the trials. We hope to have many more swimmers doing so in future!

Tom Cross

SWSC President

Presidents Notes April 2021

It now looks like open water swimming will be possible in May and that the pools may be able to reopen in June. Swimmers-all of your efforts to keep engaged during to worst of the lockdown will pay off in a rapid return to great performances. After all these land exercise sessions your athletic ability is now better than ever! 

  Meanwhile elite training has continued, culminating in the Olympic and Paralympic trials this week (April 20-24) in Dublin. SWSC have three competitors, Andrew Feenan, Sean O’Riordan and Liam Custer. And our Head Coach Richard Cassidy will be attending the meet, which is being held under very strict health regulations.  

Andrew, who is part of the National Squad and has been training with John Szaranek in NAC Limerick where he attends UL, will swim his two best events-the 100m and 200m breast stroke. In a recent time trial he improved his PB in the 200m by three seconds. Tapered he should be able to challenge both times. Ironically, these are the events in which Ireland has its best competitors so his major aim will be to maintain his great progress and qualify for International meets in future years. 

Sean will compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle in the Paralympic trials. He has the best chance of qualifying in the 400 but the QT is a very tough 4:34. He swam this event for Ireland in the Para World Championships in 2018 but the QT was then 4:48. His best before lockdown was 4:41. After an interrupted 2020, he has been training in the NACs in Limerick and Dublin since Christmas, and has just returned from a 10day camp in Tenerife, so hopefully his fitness has returned and improved. 

Liam, who hails from Sarasota Florida, has been a valued member of SWSC for several years. Since he holds joint US and Irish passports, he is eligible to declare for Ireland. He is one of the best 16 year olds in the USA, and will compete in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles at the trials. Since his 800 and 1500 times are better than the Irish U19 Junior records, he should have a good chance of qualifying for this summer’s European Junior Championships in Rome. We applaud his efforts to get to Ireland which were greatly facilitated by Jon Rudd and his team in Swim Ireland! 

I am sure you will all be watching their endeavours! And let’s hope all the rest of you can back in the water as soon as possible! 

Tom Cross

SWSC President

SWSC President Notes January 2021

I want to begin by wishing all competitors, their parents, our coaches and teachers, committee and sub-committees, and all members-including Masters, a very Happy New Year. Two thousand and twenty one should eventually be much better than 2020 because of the roll out of the vaccines. However, it is obvious that it will take some months to get out of the present serious situation. Meanwhile let’s be as positive as possible!

Thank you all for your efforts and major enthusiasm in 2020. Swimmers- you did far more land work than in previous years, and this increased athleticism transferred to the pool, allowing you to maintain or even improve competitive times. We will continue with remote exercise sessions this month. If you have ideas of other things the club might offer, then let us know.

Competitive swimmers are by definition extremely organised individuals. They have to be to balance academic life at school or college with the demands of elite swimming. (And they are often the best scholars!) With lockdowns and remote learning it may be necessary to plan your own days. The most important thing is not to feel isolated either academically, swimming-wise or socially. Ask questions! Keep in regular contact with your friends.

Several of you are in your Leaving Certificate year. If you are finding the demands of swimming too much, then work out a reduced programme with your coaches. But do not quit altogether! You have probably heard about the findings of an English neurologist that aerobic exercise improves brain function and academic performance. We hope you will continue to swim for the next few years. Most people can improve greatly in their early 20s with a good programme. Let us know if we can help with future choices!

You were all very enthusiastic in the pre-Christmas time trials. Unfortunately, the progress of the pandemic prevented these from being completed properly. The Swim Ireland idea was to introduce a virtual competition between clubs, including those from Britain. The first competitions allowed this spring will probably be intra club time trials and your coaches will work with SI to introduce a major inter-club competitive element.

When you got back in the water in early December it was envisaged that the SC Nationals would go ahead. Twenty eight of our swimmers qualified-a record number! However this format was cancelled because of the disease situation, much to the disappointment of most of our Senior squad. The meet went ahead in NAC Dublin in a much reduced form, restricted to elite swimmers (National squad members) and Paralympic Tokyo “possibles”. It was also decided to run SC events in the morning and LC of the same events in the evening. This is an arrangement that had been run in the USA earlier in 2020 and is very tough for the swimmers. We had two swimmers involved; Andrew Feenan who is on the National Squad and has been training in NAC Limerick with John Szaranek since the end of the first lockdown in July and is enrolled in UL, and Paralympian Sean O’Riordan who is in 3rd Speech & Language Therapy in UCC and holds a Sports Scholarship there. Andrew recorded a great series of breast stroke PBs-the 50, 100 and 200 LC; and 100 and 200 SC, where his 1:02.01 and 2:14.30 were club records. This was in a meet where there were very few PBs. Sean recorded PBs in the 50 freestyle and breaststroke and was near his best in the 400 SC free, but struggled in the LC event; the latter demonstrating the effect of the lockdown on fitness for longer events. Much more difficult qualifying times have been introduced for the Tokyo Paralympics than for the previous World Championships (in which Sean qualified), and the 400 freestyle is the only event in which he is in reach of qualifying.

Meanwhile our US member Liam Custer was far less affected by lockdown since he trains in a club-controlled outdoor 50m pool in Florida with Sarasota Sharks. This pool is 25 yards wide and was set up during 2020 with a large number of SCY lanes with two swimmers in each maximising social distancing by starting from opposite ends. Outdoor meets were also possible and Liam recorded a remarkable series of LCM times in late autumn (Free: 200 1:55.46; 400 3:58.14; 800 8:09.69; 1500 15:35.69; 200 Back 2:05.29; 400 IM 4:28.23). Both the 800 and 1500 qualify for the US Olympic trials and importantly surpass the current Irish Junior Records. These records are for U19 swimmers and Liam is currently 16! We look forward to him swimming with SWSC when he is next permitted to visit Ireland.

Tom Cross

SWSC President

Most successful Summer Nationals in recent years-many Personal Bests, Medals and Records.

Twenty-four SWSC swimmers competed in last weeks Irish Age Groups and Summer Nationals in the 50m pool in the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin. Individual age groups were 12/13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 and older. The latter age group was particularly competitive with for example Danielle Hill and Mona McSharry setting Irish Senior records (Danielle’s 50m Back would have made a World Championships Semi Final!). Relays were 14 and under and 15 and over. All but two SWSC swimmers had achieved Division 1 times; the others Laoise Deasy and Peter Higgins were drafted to swim in relays (they were great). The meet was highly competitive with German and Danish Senior teams, and excellent swimmers from for example Hamilton Aquatics and Ealing. Our swimmers, other than those recovering from the Leaving Certificate (Luc Galland and Sharon Semchiy) were given a single aim “swim personal bests!” They responded magnificently!
Out of 100 swims over five days, 63 were PBs-including morning heat swims. This is the highest proportion of PBs at this competition in recent years. Photographs of medallists have already been displayed on this website, as has a recording of the club records broken. Munster records are currently being investigated.
Looking through the results (listed elsewhere on this site) four individuals stand out:
• Lauren Farr won several 12/13 medals (see photos below) competing in seven individual finals. Probably her most impressive performance was in the 200m Backstroke where she won by more than five meters and took 7.8 sec off her entry time recording 2:26.82.
• Ellen Lee won 14 year medals and swam a great 1:06.00 to take an emphatic win in the 100m Fly.
• Paul Higgins swam four finals in the 16 year age group winning two medals. The best of these was a 1st place in the 100 Fly in 58.76.
• Perhaps best of all were the Breast stroke performances by Andrew Feenan. Coming second in the very tough 17 and over age group he recorded a time of 2:20.91. He has progressed almost five seconds in this event since February!
Other great swims, looking at final places and/or major time improvements (using an alphabetical list and with apologies for anyone not mentioned) included:
• Laoise Deasy who swam in three relays, with Lauren and Rachel Farr and Ellen Lee, two of which won bronze medals, and reduced her 200m Freestyle by 12.15 sec in leading off the 14 and under 800 FR.
• Anna Feenan who made six finals in the 16 year age group and took 8.85 sec off her 400m Freestyle.
• Michael Feenan who made two 15 year finals and took 6.06 sec off his 200m Breast stroke.
• Marc Galland who swam three finals in the highly competitive 14 year age group and took 5.49 sec off his 400m Freestyle.
• Beth Nolan and Aoife O’Shea who each made two finals in the 17 and over and 16 year age groups respectively, with two of Beth’s swims being Club Records (see below).
• Luke O’Sullivan’s 1:58.9 in the 17 and older 200m Freestyle.
• James Ryan who made three 16 year age group finals and reduced his 200m Backstroke by 3.98 seconds.
• And Sharon Semchiy who made two 17 + finals and looked great for the first half of her races (looking forward to seeing you get your fitness back after the LC Sharon).
Coupled with excellent relay performances, and good swims from Sean and Cian O’Riordan, Rory Lee, Drew and Suzy Lynch, Penny Semple, Illan Wall and Rowan Walsh; this made for a great meet for SWSC!

Tom Cross

SWSC President

Scottish Open Championships – Aberdeen 2019

Multiple best times and two club records from our three girls swimming in the Scottish Open Nationals with the Munster Squad!

Despite being in the middle of heavy training for the Irish Summer Nationals, our three elite swimmers Anna Feenan, Ellen Lee and Beth Nolan performed very well at the Scottish Open Nationals last weekend. In this long course meet Anna had two PBs in the 100m F/c and 200 IM, Ellen improved her PBs in four events (100m F/c, 50m & 100m B/c, 100m Fly), while Beth had six PBs (50m F/c, 50m B/c, 50m & 200m Br/s, 50m & 100m Fly). In the Breast stroke events Beth broke two club records-the 50m which had been held for a decade by Lorna Cummins and her own 200m record set in January. In the latter event Beth also qualified for the B final in this highly competitive Open meet. Well done girls!

SWSC Committee

Positive Report on 2019 Irish Open Championships

Observations on the 2019 Long Course National Championships

These Championships were held over five days in the NAC Dublin at the end of March. There were World Class swims from Darragh Greene (100 & 200 breast stroke), Brendan Hyland (200 fly), Shane Ryan (100 back), Jordan Sloan &Jack McMillan (200 free) and Niamh Coyne (100 breast stroke). The most prominent visitor was Hanna Miley from Scotland. The previous European Champion and fourth place winner in the last two Olympic Games in the 400 IM is now 30, and still swimming well. She gave a master class in race preparation and won a large number of events.

The only downsides were the absence of relays and the lack of a club points competition. I believe that both of these issues are vital in fostering team spirit and will be raising their omission at the upcoming Swim Ireland AGM.

SWSC had 12 swimmers at this meet including Para brothers Sean and Cian O’Riordan. Both qualified for this summer’s Para World Championships and Sean in particular swam a great 400 free, beating the QT by four seconds. The team achieved 24 personal best times and reached 27 Senior or Youth (female 17 & U; male 18 & U) finals. All of their times are listed elsewhere on the website. Podium positions were reached by Andrew Feenan (3rd in the Youth 100 breast stroke), Ellen Lee (3rd in the Youth 50 back); Beth Nolan (3rd in the Youth 100 back & 200 breast stroke) and Aoife O’Shea (3rd in the Youth 400IM).

Beth also broke the SWSC record in the 100 breast stroke, and Paul Higgins swam under the minute for the first time in the 100 fly. (The first Irish Senior man to break the minute for the 100 SC fly was “Chalkie” White in Douglas in 1978). Special mention goes to Luc Gallant and Sharon Semskiy who competed despite being in the final stages of Leaving Cert preparation. Together they swam in four Senior finals.

So what did I, as a Sport Scientist, particularly note?

  • The best swimmers had a much more organised and extensive warm-up routine both on land and in the pool, than SWSC swimmers. They also had a much more vigorous pre-start routine (as exemplified by Hanna Miley) and did much more warm down swimming.
  • They are more powerful from extensive land work and more flexible in the shoulders, lower back, hips, knees and ankles.
  • They combine great conditioning with superb technique (see free daily GoSwim videos).

TFC                                                                                                                 8 April 2019

Information for Parents

SWSC Committee

The Sports Gene by Sports Illustrated journalist

I am very enthusiastic about this book and mentioned it at the Swim Ireland Performance Advisory Group earlier this year. National Performance Director, John Rudd, asked that I write this review, largely for coaches. What resulted (see below) should be of more general interest to all of those interested in competitive sport. I submitted the finished review to John Leonard of the American Swimming Coaches Association and he agreed to publish it in their Newsletter.

I strongly recommend this book for your Christmas reading. It is even reported that Barrack Obama was seen buying a copy!

Review of The Sports Gene: talent, practice and the truth about success.

By David Epstein, 2013. Yellow Jersey Press, London.

(Published in the American Swimming Coaches Association Newsletter, November 2018)

The Sports Gene by Sports Illustrated journalist, science graduate and middle distance runner David Epstein is an intriguing, widely researched and informative book. It should be required reading for all those interested in competitive sport. Perhaps this reviewer, being both a professional geneticist and swimming coach, is biased, but the way Epstein presents things, using a mixture of stories about individual athletes and modern research concepts, should appeal to a very wide audience.

    Though the title suggests that this book is all about genetics and how genetic principles apply to sport, it is in fact much wider than that. The broader question is whether elite sporting prowess is a consequence of genetics (“nature”) or the environment (“nurture”) or some mixture of both. Despite favouring one or the other in different sections of the book, Epstein concludes, in a more recent afterword to the Paperback edition, that obviously both are involved. Regardless of genetically-based aptitude for a particular sport (the “nature” part), a person will not perform optimally, particularly in endurance sports like most competitive swimming, without a huge amount of training (conditioning or “physiological adaptation”) augmented by technique optimisation, and accompanied by additional elements like nutrition and positive psychology-the “nurture” part. The book makes little reference to competitive swimming, concentrating instead on track and field athletics (the author’s specialisation), baseball and basketball, but most of these examples have general sports science relevance.

    The Introduction identifies individuals with exceptional sporting talent and frames the nature vs nurture question. Epstein then describes the Human Genome Project which was completed in 2003 and shows how this led to a series of experiments which attempted to relate single genes to variation in performance. However we know that for the majority of traits (the so-called phenotype i.e. the trait that can be observed and measured), multiple genes plus the environment are involved, greatly adding to the complexity of detection. (Think human height, where so many genes are involved that inheritance is described as omnigenic and where there is also obvious environmental influence, e.g. nutrition, health etc.). Several individuals can undertake the same training regime and yet perform very differently in races so the must be a major genetic component to performance. In contrast, Chapter one entitled “Beat by an Underhand Girl” describes a situation where experience rather than genetics is paramount. The softball pitcher Jeannie Finch was able to beat professional baseball players because they were unfamiliar with her technique and therefore could not “read” the direction of flight of the ball from her wind up. It seems that what is involved here is not lightning fast reactions, though these are endemic in top softball and baseball players, but lack of familiarity with either’s technique. The chapter then goes on to describe how experts (e.g. chess grand masters) vary from “just” good players by their ability to read the game and “chunk” information into packages, which, of course, brings us back to genetics. In the conclusion of this chapter and into the next, a variety of slightly confusing but intriguing case studies are presented. The 10,000 hour rule is discussed. This is the idea that 10,000 hours of practice are required for a person to reach their full potential in a specific activity, be it a sport or in orchestral music. (This idea was proposed by a psychologist working with young elite musicians but was leapt on by the popular press as an invariant “rule”.) A description is given of a golfer who is half way through that number of hours of practice and hopes to reach the top ranks. Frustratingly, the final outcome is not described but it turns out that 10,000 hours is an average figure with a wide variance, and, in any case, is influenced by innate ability. It is also interesting that in longitudinal studies (looking at the same individual over time) future elite performers often do less practice in a specific sport or other activity initially, than less able performers. They only start to put in longer hours in response to progress to elite level, perhaps arguing against early specialisation in a particular sport.

    A mixture of relevant topics is then presented. Two world class high jumpers are discussed, one of whom had particularly stiff Achilles tendons enabling greater spring, but then also practised intensively, and another with amazing natural ability. Visual acuity as an asset within a sport like baseball or tennis (but not between sports as mentioned above) is then presented. This is followed by something rather different-the difference between male and female performance. Sex testing at top International level was originally based on sex chromosomes, but testosterone level is now the approved measure. The latter can of course be influenced by ingestion of anabolic steroids (banned substances), which result in females getting closer to male performance and accentuation of male performance.

    The chapter entitled “The talent of trainability” is perhaps the most relevant and important for swimming coaches. It begins by describing the incredible improvement of the World Record mile runner Jim Ryun; showing a high level of innate ability and then great improvement on one of the heaviest training regimes then extant. The scientific basis is demonstrated in the HERITAGE study by Claude Bouchard and colleagues. When they tested the aerobic improvement, expressed as improvements of V02max, of a large number of college students it was shown that while the majority showed average improvement, a minority improved very little (termed low responders) and another small group improved greatly (the high responders). Similar results were found in the GEAR study and more recently in a study in Nottingham University in England. These results held regardless of initial level. Obviously, for endurance sports, high responders have an advantage. Further molecular work has isolated 29 genes, each of which occurs in two alternative forms, which act as predictors of this talent. There is a strong association between individuals which have the “beneficial” form in a majority of these gene markers and great response to aerobic training.

    In this and the next chapter the theme of muscle fibre composition is explored. Human and other vertebrate animal skeletal muscles consist of fibres of two distinct types-white fast twitch explosive largely anaerobic fibres and red slow twitch aerobic “endurance” fibres. The proportion of these fibres is genetically determined-nature again; as proven by identical twin studies where the twins have been trained in completely different ways. Among elite runners those excelling in sprints have high proportions of fast twitch fibres (>75%) with middle distance specialists (and much of humanity) at 50:50 and long distance types having a preponderance of slow twitch fibres (up to 80%), as demonstrated by calf muscle biopsy. Improvements in strength again have a major genetic component with individuals gaining from 0 to 250% improvement with training in leg and chest presses in trials. Variants of certain well-characterised genes such as IGF-2 and myostatin are involved here. Matching muscle composition to event has been particularly successful for example in moving a Danish kayaker from short to long events resulting in Olympic qualification and World Class performances.

    The next chapter describes how body types in specific sports have morphed from what was considered a single ideal “sporting” body type in the early 20th century to the present situation where there are highly specific body types in most sporting events. This is followed by a detailed consideration of extreme height in professional basketball players. All of this implies extreme selection of those that can excel in many sporting events today. There follows a chapter on human evolution and the so-called “Out of Africa” hypothesis of modern humans. This subject has been described in far more detail elsewhere and is perhaps less relevant to the main theme of the present book. Jamaican sprinters are then considered, focussing particularly on the part of the island where Usain Bolt was born. Again, while it is not specifically stated, the mixture of genetics (nature) indicated by a high preponderance of explosive fast twitch fibres and the environment (nurture), since sprinting in Jamaica is regarded as the most important National sporting activity, is evident. This high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres in individuals whose ancestors were brought forcibly to the Americas from West Africa is considered by some scientists to be a response to natural selection caused by malarial infection in ancestral regions of Africa.

    The focus then switches to distance running and the supremacy of the Kenyan Kalenjin in this sport. Here both the environment (nurture-running long distances in daily activities and the high altitude of their natal area) and genetics (nature) underlying body type are important. Most top Kalenjin runners have proportionately long legs with narrow light extremities, enabling a highly efficient running style. The physiological characteristics produced by being born and growing up at altitude are obviously beneficial for distance runners, but it is also interesting to learn that different physiological adaptations occur in East Africa, Nepal and the Andes. As an aside, the subject of high altitude training for sea level athletes is evolving all the time, though of course no direct genetic correlation is suggested here.

    Themes like the breeding of Alaskan sled dogs for long distance races and genes that have detrimental effects in exercising humans (for example those genes involved with cardiac myopathy) are then introduced. The final descriptive chapter deals with a single gene mutation in a Finnish cross country skier. This very rare variant involving the haemoglobin gene resulted in the individual having significantly more circulating red blood cells than normal, catapulting him to world class. However, it is interesting to observe that his lifestyle involved a huge amount of skiing as a youngster and later as a border patrol agent, providing the perfect combination of nature and nurture. The Sports Gene concludes with an Epilogue called The Perfect Athlete, which again reiterates that having the ”right” genetics for a particular sport ( and there may be several varieties of “right”) certainly helps, but this is useless without many years of dedicated practice. And genetics is not sufficiently developed to do more than help in the effort to develop more proficient athletes!

Relevance to competitive swimming: So what does all this mean for developing elite competitive swimmers? In the first place genetics of traits for athleticism are not sufficiently understood to recommend any form of early testing of individuals i.e. testing 8 to 10 year olds and on the basis of results saying that the potential is there to reach the top after several years of optimal training, or at the other extreme-“you are wasting your time in this sport”. A big problem is to define natural (=genetic) ability. Which trait are we seeking? Is it the ability to learn to swim quickly; to optimise techniques such as starts, turns, finishes and underwater and surface strokes, pacing and other racing techniques; to improve rapidly through the stages of the competitive programme; to appear at one with the water in terms of feel of strokes and streamlining; superior ability in speed or endurance; ability to train and compete hard over many years; to avoid chronic illness and recover from injury, or some other trait? All of these traits are likely to have a genetic basis, and in all probability a somewhat different suite of genes will be involved in each. It is also likely that each of these traits are influenced by multiple genes (what geneticists refer to as polygenic inheritance), where each gene has a small cumulative effect. Traits influenced by single genes in humans or other animals (what geneticists refer to as monogenic inheritance), are extremely rare. Think of the cross country skier referred to above who seems to be the only individual amongst millions of humans having this specific mutation. Thus the search for the Olympic champion single gene is likely to be illusionary, and even if detected, genetic technology is not sufficiently advanced to allow safe manipulation. Given these considerations, what might be usefully done with genetic testing?

    Testing takes two overlapping forms-tests which provide information which do not allow manipulation (measuring height in fully grown individuals) and the more useful measurements where some action can be taken (like measuring VO2max regularly as the season progresses). Two recommended “genetic” tests, given the current state of knowledge, are muscle fibre proportion and trainability. In the case of muscle composition, while the “gold” standard is muscle biopsy, a simple vertical jump test (see Maglischo and other earlier swimming literature for details) gives a good measure of muscle fibre composition. The result when applying the vertical jump test to a large number of performance pathway swimmers will be a normal distribution (a bell-shaped curve where the majority will be 50:50 in terms of fast and slow twitch fibres), but a minority of individuals will be high in explosive fast twitch fibres (sprinters) or slow twitch fibres (800, 1,500 and open water specialists). Even though this is a test of phenotype (phenotype = genotype plus environment; termed G + E), it gives a good measure of genetic differences, because most of good competitors within a geographic region will be experiencing a similar environment. We have tested this with high school students in a PE class and found excellent correlation with running sprint speed (unpublished results). It may be that we are trying to train athletes in the wrong events because muscle fibre proportion is an innate trait influenced very little by conditioning i.e. one cannot make a sprinter great at 1,500m or vice versa for a distance type in the 50m, and the optimal training regimes are very different.

    Another trait which can be measured in trainability. Of course, this can be measured empirically i.e. how do elite swimmers respond to say 12 weeks of a good training regime in terms of VO2max. However, as mentioned above there is a significant positive correlation with having a majority of certain variants at 29 designated gene marker SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and high levels of trainability. An inexpensive and rapid molecular genetic test will determine genotype at these 29 genes. If for example a swimmer scores low on the trait of endurance trainability, one may be dealing with a potential sprinter (as a simultaneous muscle fibre composition test should show) and/or the swimmer might be encouraged to make additional efforts in technique development. Similar tests of potential strength acquisition are available and more tests will become available as the rapidly advancing genetic field progresses. It is not suggested that genetic testing should supersede other physiological, anatomical, biochemical, nutritional, biometric, hydrodynamic (video) and psychological tests; but they should form part of the “toolbox”, when more efficiently attempting to produce faster competitive swimmers.

Tom Cross

Great performances at the 2018 Irish Short Course National Championships in Lisburn

This was my third consecutive year at this meet and my most enjoyable so far. Described by Head Coach Richard Cassidy as his “favourite meet of the year”, Lisburn is a great venue! The racing pool is the 25m eight-lane format with a separate warm up/warm down pool. All events are Senior, with A and B finals in all individual events, except the 800 and 1500 freestyle which are HDW and the six 4 x 50 relays (two Women’s, two Men’s and two Mixed), which only have an A final. Spectator accommodation, though restricted, gives a very good view of the races.
At 21, we had the biggest SWSC team in recent years-nine female and 12 male qualifiers. Their performances were really impressive with 77 personal best swims, and six club records- three for Liam Custer (400 IM, 400 & 1500 freestyle), two for Beth Nolan (100 & 200 breast stroke) and one for Luke O’Sullivan (200 freestyle). Good morning heat swims meant many swimmers made A or B finals.
Despite all of this we didn’t win any medals since, as stated above, this is a Senior meet and our team is relatively young. Also, Irish swimming is rapidly improving with eight National records broken. One of the best of these was by Mona McSharry in the 100 freestyle, where she broke Michele Smith’s record from 1995 (which I was present for at the Nationals in the Grove pool in Belfast). The National Centres in Dublin and Limerick and UCD, with great access to facilities and full time coaches, are particularly successful.
Having said that, SWSC swimmers had great representation in A and B finals. In A finals, Liam Custer featured in three (two 4ths, 8th), Andrew Feenan in one (5th), Luc Galland in two (5th, 7th) and Sharon Semchiy in four (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th). Many made B finals-Liam (9th, 10th, 11th), Andrew (9th, 12th, 15th), Luc (13th), Paul Higgins (13th), Ellen Lee (11th), Rory Lee (14th), Beth (two 10ths, 12th, 13th, 16th), Luke (13th) and Sharon (two 9ths, 10th, 11th). In addition we featured in four of six relay finals, finishing with two 6th places and two 8th places.
For me, our best swims were Liam in middle distance events (great strokes and turns), Andrew and Beth at 200 breast stroke (true grit), Sharon at 100 and 200 freestyle, and 100 butterfly (doing everything right), but also from others like Lauren Farr at 50 back stroke, Ilann Wall at 100 freestyle and Ellen at 50 and 100 Butterfly, and many many more!
So what do we need to improve faster than the rest of Ireland? The “secrets” are more time (already Richard has instituted 06.45 starts in the mornings), consistency and constant attention to technique. Ards swim 16 hours each week! Why don’t we? Does everyone turn up for all sessions? We’re doing very well, but let’s try harder!
(Details of swims are on the SWSC website and John Rudd’s comments of top performers on the Swim Ireland website.)

Tom Cross

President’s Notes – July 2018

In April 2018 I attended the Commonwealth Games swimming in Australia. The venue was a 50m outdoor pool on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane with seating for 8,000 spectators. I had forgotten the excitement of major live events; last time being the 2005 World Championships in Montreal. Granted you see more detail on television but totally miss the atmosphere! The extremely partisan Australian crowd really got behind their team. Their Women’s 4 X 100 Freestyle Relay set a World Record of 3:30.05 on the first night, with Cate Campbell anchoring in 51.00, the fastest relay split ever. Another highlight was the Women’s 100 Backstroke final. Despite torrential tropical rain, both the winner Canadian Kylie Masse (58.63) and second place local Emily Seebohm (58.66) finished within 0.6 sec of Masse’s world record from Rio. There were also upset victories by swimmers from countries neighbouring Ireland. Duncan Scott of Scotland (with really great stroke technique) won a very tight Men’s 100 freestyle in 48.05, while Alys Thomas from Wales won the Women’s 200 butterfly in a superb 2:05.46. The latter is 28 years old and has persisted through sometimes difficult times. In the shorter fly events her stroke lacks flow, whereas it really worked in this longer event. While the Commonwealth Games only involves about one third of the world’s top swimmers, the results were of a very high standard. Teams from smaller countries get to compete for final and podium positions, with for example the team from Northern Ireland performing very well.

For me there were several “take home” messages which I think are relevant at club level:

  1. In general, the medallists had the best techniques in terms of starts, turns finishes and underwater and particularly surface strokes. To be the best one must optimise fitness and technique. The skilled and fit swimmer will nearly always beat the “just” fit swimmer! Do you know what works best for you and think about it all the time in practice?
  2. Top swimmers do far more warming up and down than most Irish swimmers. I know this is constrained by absence of additional practice facilities at many venues. However, where these are available at, for example, most Irish National events, I think we don’t use them enough.
  3. Most swimmers at the Commonwealth Games were aged between 18 and 30. Swimmers are physically best at these ages. Why do so many individuals of great potential in SWSC quit when in their mid-teens? With detailed organisation it is possible to excel both in swimming and at school. In fact, a recent study by an English neurologist has indicated that people do better in exams if they continue to do reduced training. My friend Jim Martin, who coached SWSC with me in the early 1970s and is now Head of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, says that sportspeople make the best PhD students, because of their level of planning and their determination. As a University educator, I heartily agree! We want individuals to treat swimming as a lifelong sport through Masters events and triathlon!

The European Championships are being held in Glasgow from 3-9 August this year. I hope you will be watching. I know I will! See you at the Summer Nationals!


Tom Cross,

SWSC President