Here’s a column I filed after Michael Phelps shattered fellow swimmer Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Phelps accomplished the feat in the summer of 2008; Spitz made his mark in Munch in 1972.
From Beijing, I filed this column in August 2008 after men’s breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima picked up his third Olympic gold medal (en route to his fourth, thus repeating his 100-200 double).
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 25, 2015) — Her latest story appears on Page 1 of the International New York Times, bundled together with The Japan Times as a two-newspaper package available throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. In this piece, also displayed prominently on The Times’ website, she writes with clarity and depth about the state of men’s golf in 2015.
One brief passage, which appeared on the story’s jump page, immediately grabbed my attention because of its clever word play and broad viewpoint: “He has a twinkle in his eye, a strut to his step, a howitzer for a driver and 2.3 million Twitter followers.”
She was writing about Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland.
She is … Karen Crouse, a 1984 graduate of the University of Southern California and former Lady Trojans swimmer.
She has paid her dues in this business, reporting for newspapers located on the West Coast and East Coast. Her career has included stops at the the Savannah (Georgia) News-Press, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Palm Beach Post and The New York Times.
I recently conducted this interview with her.
Who are three or four must-read sports journalists you read on a weekly basis? What makes their work appealing to you?
Anything by J.R. Moehringer, and if you read his piece on Alex Rodriguez in ESPN The Magazine, the reason why will be self-evident. His collaboration with Andre Agassi on Agassi’s autobiography is the gold standard of sports memoirs. I greatly enjoy our Sports of the Times columnists, especially Michael Powell, whose dexterity with the English language is laudable. His column from Madison Bumgarner’s dad’s home during the decisive game of the World Series was an instant classic. Sally Jenkins consistently writes thought-provoking columns, and her writing is so lyrical it could be set to music. I’ll read anything by Chris Ballard or S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated because of the depth of their reporting and the loveliness of their prose and I always look for Johnette Howard at ESPN.com. I read a LOT of non-sports non-fiction. I just finished “Leaving Before the Rains Come” by Alexandra Fuller, whose writing is beautiful.
Do you have an all-time favorite favorite print journalist?
Jim Murray, because he could wound without drawing blood – he wasn’t vicious in his criticism – and his columns were unfailingly original, entertaining and artfully crafted. And a more humble person you will NEVER find.
Considering the ebb and flow of an NFL game (one of your past coverage beats) and a “typical” day of pro golf, how does your note taking, reporting, writing, interviewing … the whole enchilada differ?
In football, I filled my notebook with facts and numbers. In golf, my notes contain much more description of scenes, of player and crowd reactions, of dialogue. I have much more freedom in golf to find different stories because of the sheer number of players posting scores every week, and because they are in action from dawn to dusk, I have a lot more time to sniff out stories and report them than when I was limited to 15 minutes of watching practice, a half hour of locker room access or one game a week.
Is pro football and golf reporting equally intense, but different?
The misconception about golf is that it is a deadline dream job because it ends before dark. The reality, for me, anyway, is that I’m typically at the course from dawn to dusk most days, which is much longer than I spent at football stadiums on game days. I love the freedom the sport affords me in plucking stories from all over the course. But one of my friends, after observing me at work one week, said it’s like I’m trying to write like (John) Cheever while keeping a wire service reporter’s hours. I’m not sure about the Cheever part, but the days are very long and four years into the beat, I haven’t really figured out how to strike a better balance.
What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?
My curiosity, my ability to ask good questions (which is a consequence of pretty exhaustive research, if I’m working on a profile), my genuine interest in what makes the people I’m writing about tick, my doggedness (a leftover quality from my competitive swimming days, I suppose), my desire every day to tell the readers something about my subject that they haven’t read before.
There are challenges, biases, and obstacles that female sports journalists have faced and continue to face that their male counterparts never do. But is there additional respect given to you when you identify yourself as a New York Times journalist? Does that open doors or provide greater access/opportunities that you wouldn’t have normally received in past newspaper jobs that you have had?
I definitely get calls back from people who almost certainly would have ignored me if I had contacted them when I was with any of my nine previous employers. I never take for granted the doors that open to me, if only a crack, because of where I work. And I never kid myself about why many people choose to talk to me – while I’d like to think it’s because of my sparkling personality or reputation (ha!), in many cases it is entirely because of I have the Times’ stamp of approval.
I’m not sure I’m automatically accorded more respect because of where I work. If anything, my work and how I carry myself is more closely scrutinized by people inside and outside the business. I’m keenly aware there are many people who would love to have my job, and who think they would be better at my job, and so in some respects I feel like I have to work harder than ever to prove to outsiders that I’m worthy of occupying such a prized position. I remember not long after I was hired by the paper, I was covering a football game and a fellow sportswriter, a man, congratulated me on the job and said, “I didn’t know they were looking for a woman to fill that position.
”Bless him, but it never occurred to him that the editors might have thought I was the best hire for the job. He assumed that if I was hired, it was because I was a woman and the paper was looking to diversify its sports section.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in this profession?
Treat the people you cover the way you’d like to be treated. Remember they are people first, athletes second. Don’t assume anything.
Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned, and perhaps this is unique to me, is all these years I’ve been digging into people’s lives and asking all kinds of questions, it is ostensibly because I’m trying to make sense of their lives, but what I’m really trying to do in a very elemental way is make sense of my own and our collective lives.
A mentor’s words of wisdom?
Don’t try to fit in because it’s your differences that set you apart.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
Steer clear of the comments under your stories
A past lesson you learned that served you well for future work?
At the 2012 Masters, I was misquoted in a national sports blog – in the headline, no less — and suffered greatly for it. It was an invaluable experience, being on the other end of an interview and seeing firsthand how your words can be a boomerang that knocks you off your feet. It gave me a greater appreciation of how vulnerable people become when they entrust you with their stories and their beliefs. The experience strengthened the empathy I already felt for the people I cover.
These days, because of their prolonged time away from the game, how much of a void is there without Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa winning frequently and traveling the world over for the LPGA? Which LPGA golfer now in the game do you feel has the greatest potential for legendary status?
Lydia Ko is 17 years old and already No. 1 in the world. Never mind Rory McIlroy, Lydia may end up being the next Tiger Woods. She has said she plans to play until she is 30 and then embark on another career. She has a bubbly personality, a beautiful swing and is as gracious as Lorena, which is saying a lot.
Who has a better sense of humor in a one-on-one setting with a reporter for an interview — Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps?
I’ve been told Tiger has a wicked sense of humor, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen shades of it over the years. But since I’ve never had a one-on-one with Tiger, unless you count walking and talking to him as he strides purposefully to the practice range or his car, I’ll have to say Michael.
Has there been a years-long Phelps boom in increasing popularity in swimming that’s clearly noticeable in terms of participation numbers
There has been a noticeable Michael effect. There was a definite spike in club swimming participation after the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I didn’t appreciate how much he transcended swimming until he showed up at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina Country Club outside Chicago to play in the pro-am and drew a larger gallery than any golfer, Tiger included. Michael made swimming look fun and effortless. Of course, the rub is that anybody who gets into it on a year-round level quickly discovers the sport can be very time intensive and demanding, and the sensory deprivation can be so great — staring at a black line for hours on end is not everybody’s cup of tea, and so while Michael may have brought a lot of people to the pool, he alone cannot make them love the grind. That has to come from within and not everybody is wired that way. For that reason, I’m not sure the sport will ever take off, though when you see teens like Katie Ledecky and Michael Andrew, there’s reason to hope.
in the U.S.
Are there female U.S. Olympian swimmers who also ought to be recognized for helping achieve this?
Natalie Coughlin has been huge, Missy Franklin, by her actions and her attitude, has won over a generation of impressionable youngsters while endearing herself to the casual fan. Katie Ledecky, through her humility and her dominance, is raising the profile of the sport stateside.
And now … a bit of word association and descriptions that immediately come to mind from your experiences observing them and interacting with them over the years…
-Paola Boivin – one of my best friends in or out of the business, writes with humor and compassion
-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings
-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend
-Donald Sterling – personifies a very small subset of Los Angeles
-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated
-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer
-John Daly — complicated
-Arnold Palmer — beloved
-Jacques Rogge – the Beijing Olympics on his watch taints his legacy
-Gary Hall Jr. — showman
-Don Shula — old-school
-Joe Namath – misunderstood
-Teemu Selanne – a prince of a player and a person
-Jackie MacMullan — fierce
-Linda Robertson – wonderful writer, one of the best in the biz
-Jim Murray – singular talent; my favorite writer of all-time
-Bruce Jenkins – terrific wordsmith, I’ll read ANYTHING he writes on baseball
-Natalie Coughlin – admirable longevity and I’d eat meals she concocts!
-Federica Pellegrini – broke freestyle barriers with the help of the buoyant suits
-Pat Summitt – the all-time greatest college basketball coach of either gender
How many Olympics have you reported from?
Nine (every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2006)
Which assignment(s) brought you the greatest thrills/adrenaline rush to watch and report on them?
The Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1993 – I hadn’t covered much hockey and was thrown into this incredible postseason run, starring Gretzky and including series in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are the cradle of the NHL. And Michael Phelps collecting his eight golds in the 2008 Olympics. I started swimming competitively after watching Mark Spitz win seven golds in 1972 so to be able to cover the man who supplanted Spitz in the record books for The New York Times felt like my sporting life had come full circle.
And which off-the-beaten path Olympic stories are among your favorite stories you think you’ll be recounting to family, friend and colleagues in 20-30 years from now?
At the very first Olympics I covered, in 1992, two of the U.S. Olympic team members were swimmers I had grown up training with in Northern California. So it was kind of surreal to be covering their races as a journalist. And Mike Bruner’s victory in the 200 butterfly at the 1976 Olympics is a result that will always be near and dear to my heart. He let me interview him for an eighth-grade project before the Olympic Trials. I brought a copy of the interview to the Trials, which I attended with my father, and he later credited the interview with putting him in the right frame of mind to make the Olympic team.
What do you think is the biggest misconception the general public and/or sports fans have about a sports reporter’s job?
That it is glamorous and easy. That we come at our jobs as fans when, in truth, most of us bring to the workplace the detachment of anthropologists observing unfamiliar tribes in their natural habitats.
What are three must-read sports nonfiction books and three non-sports books you would recommend to anyone to read?
“Open” by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer; “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox; Jim Murray, “The Last of the Best, Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand
And a sampling of my favorite non-sports books; “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs; “Gold” by Chris Cleave; “Glass Castle”s by Jeannette Walls. “The Skies Belong to Us” by Brendan Koerner. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “The Good Spy” by Kai Bird. “Fire in the Lake” by Frances Fitzgerald.
Is Dan Jenkins’ sense of humor (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2014-12/dan-jenkins-fake-interview-with-tiger) something that Tiger will refuse to relate to? Or was Tiger’s reaction to what Jenkins wrote a by-product of his drop in win totals and simply a public way to blow off steam?
My sense is that Tiger Woods’ inner circle was more upset by what Dan wrote than was Tiger, who I really, truly (believe) does not seem to care what anybody writes or says about him.
You’ve written, I believe, several thousand articles now during your colorful career in this business. Can you think of three or four stories that resonated the most with readers (and your professional colleagues)?
These are some stories that resonated with readers and that I’m also proud of because of the positive impact they had on their subjects:
In 2005, during the first month of my first Jets season, I wrote a profile on the receiver Laveranues Coles in which he talked about for the first time publicly being sexually abused as a child. After unburdening himself of this secret, his personality blossomed. I had a Jets front-office official come up to me a few years later and tell me that that story helped Laveranues come out of his shell and set him on the path to becoming one of the most beloved (instead of misunderstood) players in the organization.
While with the Palm Beach Post, I did a project in 2004 on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team and how the members were among the first competitors to face a playing field tilted against them because of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. The anchor of the piece was Shirley Babashoff, who might have equaled Mark Spitz’s Munich gold medal outlay in Montreal if not for the fact she was going up against East German competitors pumped full of steroids. Shirley was famously reclusive, but I persuaded her to talk and the result was a really powerful piece that I hope gave people who don’t see understand why athletes using PEDs is such a big deal a different perspective.
In 2010, I did a series of pieces for the Times on the challenges faced by women whose prime years as child bearers coincide with their prime years as athletes. I did a piece on the golfer Cristie Kerr, who was considering surrogacy; on the tennis player Gigi Hernandez and the golfer Jane Geddes, who adopted two children after Gigi battled infertility; on the driver Sarah Fisher, who retired from racing so she could try to start a family, on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a WNBA player then with the (New York) Liberty who experienced motherhood right out of high school, scuttling her college plans, and then again after she was established as a professional.
Also in 2010, I wrote a profile of the swimmer Amanda Beard in which she talked for the first time about her struggles with drug abuse, bulimia and cutting. The story led to her writing her autobiography for Simon and Schuster.
In 2008, I wrote a really fun profile of Kurt Warner and I included 8 Family Rules for being a Warner. It also was developed into a book, which Kurt and (his wife) Brenda did with the help of a ghost writer.
In 2012, I wrote an essay for the New York Times sports section about how I became a sports journalist and told the story of interviewing Mike Bruner when I was a youngster, and how impactful it was when he credited the interview with his making the Olympic team. That story really resonated with readers and colleagues alike, I think because it’s such a pay-it-forward type of story, a really feel-good tale for these tough times in journalism.
During your times covering the NHL, was Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux the more magnetic superstar in your view?
Definitely Wayne, because even though he is a shy man, when he had the puck on his stick your eye was inexorably drawn to him.
Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren
Here’s a link to her New York Times archive: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/karen_crouse/index.html
This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 21, 2004.
Lafontaine is living an adventure
By Ed Odeven
Like all young lads growing up in Quebec, Canada, Pierre Lafontaine dreamt of being a professional hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens. And it didn’t take him very long to figure this out.
“I could skate by the time I was 2 years old,” Lafontaine was saying Thursday during a lunchtime interview. “You’d skate with a hockey stick in your hands so you could stay up. That’s just what you do.
“…We’d be on the lake from eight in the morning ’til eight at night playing hockey.”
Little did he know it at the time, while skating on the frozen water of the Montreal suburb Pointe-Claire, but Lafontaine found his niche in an unexpected place: on an unfrozen surface of water, a swimming pool.
“My mother was a principal at a school for disabled kids and she needed somebody to teach swimming lessons to the kids,” Lafontaine recalls. “So I started teaching the disabled kids, and then the Johnson brothers (Tom and Dave), who are now coaching the Canadian team, asked me to coach the 8-and-unders (at the Pointe-Claire Swimming Club) and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that while I go to the university.’ And I’m in Australia now.
“I got my start with the 8-and-unders,” the 47-year-old says proudly.
Little by little, Lafontaine worked his way up the coaching ranks. He coached the 9- and 10-year-olds, then the 11- and 12-year-olds at Pointe-Claire while learning the ins and outs of the craft.
The rest is history. Nowadays, Lafontaine is a senior assistant coach at the Australian Institute of Sport and an assistant coach for the Australian Olympic team, which began a three-week training camp at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex last Saturday. (Heralded stars like Olympians Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Klim and Petria Thomas are taking part in that camp. The other half of the Olympic team is competing in the Mare Nostrum 2004, four big meets in three weeks in Europe.)
After several years of coaching in his hometown, Lafontaine moved on to the University of Calgary, where he worked from 1984 to 1988 with the university’s club team and intercollegiate squad. After that, he took a post at the newly formed Phoenix Swim Club in 1988.
It’s a job that opened up a world of opportunity for Lafontaine. Charles Keating and Gary Hall Sr. invested a lot of money into establishing the PSC and transforming it into a world-class training center where up-and-coming stars like Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time Olympic medalist, and Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for the Olympic gold in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2000 Sydney Games, perfected their skills. Lafontaine worked at the club until 2002, save for a three-year stint (1994-97) when he coached at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta.
Then in 2002 the AIS announced it was looking for an assistant coach. It was a no-brainer, a wonderful career move for Lafontaine. An exciting change of scenery for his family — wife Alisa and their four children: Marie-Eve, 14; Pierre-Philippe, 12; Anne-Marie, 10; and Marc-Andre, 8.
“We looked at it more as an adventure than an opportunity,” Lafontaine says. “To me, life is made up of a sum of experiences, and that was going to be a neat experience. Everybody’s always looking at Australia and (saying), ‘Ah, that’s kind of an exciting place to try and visit.’ Well, we had a chance to go live there for a while, so that’s what we did. We made an adventure more than anything else.”
The Lafontaines’ adventure revolves around Canberra, the nation’s capital, which is about 90 miles inland from the nation’s East Coast. The city of 300,000 is a great place, he says, noting there are more than 1,000 kilometers of bike trails and it’s only 1 1/2 hours from the beach. “It’s similar to Flagstaff in terms of a lot of open space,” he adds, saying it conjures up images of the Old West.
“Remember the ‘Mad Max’ movies? It’s just like that. It’s bare,” he continues. “There’s properties in Northwest Australia that are (huge) … There’s one property that is as big as the state of Arizona. It’s a cattle ranch.”
The Australian government’s support of swimming is as big as that ranch — maybe bigger. In addition to the major aquatic clubs in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, there are public pools all over the country, sort of like a Circle K at every intersection in the Valley.
“If there’s a town of 1,500 people, they’ll put a 50-meter pool in it,” Lafontaine says. “Every little village with 1,500 people or more has a pool. So there’s a lot of kids that come in from the little towns to the clubs that have no place to go. That’s when they come to train with us; that’s kind of a neat setup.”
This national commitment to swimming certainly deepens the sport’s talent pool. And it continues at the elite level.
For instance, the Australian team currently in Flagstaff consists of 19 swimmers and a support staff of 14 (that includes three physiologists and a massage therapist).
“It’s really the strength of the Australian team,” Lafontaine says. “Whenever we go away, there is always a lot of support staff. It’s not so the coach can do less, it’s so the coach can do more specific work and pay more attention to the needs of the swimmers.”
Having lived in Phoenix for many years, Lafontaine grew accustomed to how much press coverage baseball and football get in the U.S. He says it’s comparable to the media attention swimming receives in Australia.
“You are going to hear about somebody’s ingrown toenail in baseball,” he says, laughing. “That’s why he’s not going to play tonight, and there’ll be a page about his ingrown toenail here. … Well, there’s half a page about a swimmer that went out to the movies with his girl at a certain time in Australia. And every week there’s things about swimming in the paper in Australia, which is kind of fun also.”
How long will he live in Australia?
Lafontaine admits he’s not sure. His contract is up in December. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in a hurry to leave the Land Down Under.
“They’ve approached me (about) staying there for the next four years,” he says, “and that would be interesting to do. But I think sooner or later I would love to coach in a college setup in the U.S. I think that would be really good. We are keeping our doors open right now.
“I think my family would probably like to stay until 2008, only because the Chinese Olympics are in 2008, and the world championships are in 2007 in Melbourne and the Commonwealth Games are in 2006 in Melbourne. There’s a huge amount of things happening in swimming, and I think in sports the Asian-Australian corridor in the next four years will really be an exciting time in life.”
This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.
Headline: Italian Olympian roars to stardom
March 5, 2006
By Ed Odeven
It’s probably safe to assume that the best birthday present Federica Pellegrini ever received was in 2004, her sweet 16th.
The gift arrived six days late, though, on Aug. 11, when the Italian swimmer received a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the Athens Summer Games.
After this life-changing performance, Pellegrini, who has been dubbed “the lioness of Venice” because of her fondness for collecting photos of lions, as noted by Swimming World’s Phillip Whitten in a 2004 article, told reporters she didn’t expect to be on the awards podium, but that she showed no fear during the race.
Talk about displaying maturity. Talk about grace under pressure. And talk about, well, becoming a national hero in the process.
Nearly two years later, Pellegrini, who completed a three-week stay in Flagstaff (she trained twice a day at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training with the Italian National Team), is a seasoned swimmer, and a proven competitor on the world’s biggest stage.
“Now she is more confident in her swimming,” Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said after Thursday’s workout, the team’s final training session in town, at the Wall Aquatic Center. “Her character is very strong. Normally, it’s happy, but maybe in the water her character is (more focused).”
This was Pellegrini’s first training camp in Flagstaff, though some of her teammates, like Massimiliano Rosolino, have been here several times. Like her teammates, Pellegrini expressed optimism looking ahead to competing in Shanghai, China, in early April and the European Long Course Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in late July.
“We trained very well, and when you train very well you are happy … I work very, very hard always and am happy about the work I’ve been doing up here,” she said through Rosolino, who serves as the team’s unofficial interpreter. “So I’m very hungry to start the next few meets.”
Can you blame her? Pellegrini has thrived in big-time competitions. In addition to her effort at the 2004 Olympics, Pellegrini garnered national attention by setting three national records (in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle races) at the 2004 Italian Winter Championships in Livorno in March 2004. She set records with times of 25.47 seconds, 54.40 and 1:59.23, respectively.
Sociologists and sports talk-show hosts point to a definitive time when a star athlete, quietly or noisily, announces they’ve “arrived.”
This might happen during a press conference — “I’m the greatest,” Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, told reporters and backed it up in the ring — or at a sporting venue.
For Pellegrini, 2004 was her time. It was the year she splashed onto the radar. To put her accomplishments into perspective, remember this: In 2003, she wasn’t ranked in the world’s top 200 in any of her three events.
She’s coming off another magnificent showing at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal last July, earning a second-place finish in the 200 free 1:58.73, or 13 hundredths of a second (less time than it takes to blink once) behind France’s Solenne Figues.
“I think when you do very well when you’re young you can stay positive and things can only get better,” said Rosolino, a three-time Olympian
“She’s still very young, but in two or three years … ,” added Castagnetti without completing the thought.
A visible display of excitement was on Castagnetti’s face when he made those remarks. In other words, he expects her to have a bright future.
Pellegrini began her international career as a sprinter, focusing on the 50, 100 and 200 free events. In the years to come, Castagnetti said her best event should be the 400 free.
That’s why her coaches have tailored her training to make that tradition to middle-distance sprints.
“I think that in Beijing (the 2008 Summer Olympics) she’ll swim the 400 freestyle and not the 200,” the coach said. “Normally, now she’s not so strong in the 400.”
Castagnetti said she’s shown some frustration in making this transition, But he’s urged patience for his young pupil.
“I think she’ll come back really strong before Beijing next year in the world championships in Australia,” he added.
When Castagnetti makes these observations, it’s useful to remember that he competed in the 1972 Olympics and knows a thing or two about gauging talent, such as:
“For me, (her success in Athens), is not surprising because I hoped she would win and not (place) second. But for the people in Italy, it’s a surprise.”
Maybe then, but not now. These days, this cheerful signorina has remained level-headed about her accomplishments, enjoying the process of training and competing and starting from scratch after a marquee meet.
After her final March workout at NAU, Pellegrini was content to say that her stay in Flagstaff was a rewarding experience, a chance to take full advantage of this city’s 7000-foot elevation and complete a challenging training camp.
Previously, she had trained at high altitude in Spain and at a ski resort’s pool in northwest Italy.
Naturally, her stay here wasn’t all work, work and more work in the big pool that’s been used by international standouts from all corners of the earth — and locals as well.
Leisure time was part of the plan, too. Two Sundays ago, Pellegrini went horseback riding — on a white horse; she likes white horses, she said, smiling — with a few coaches and teammates in picturesque Canyon de Chelly.
“When I went horse riding I was very happy,” she said.
OK, so it wasn’t a birthday activity, but it was a well-deserved day of fun.
This feature article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Jan. 3, 2004.
JUST ANOTHER ATHLETE
By Ed Odeven
Elisabeth Walker is one of the best athletes you’ve never heard of.
Take 1999, for instance, when she set four world records in a span of 10 days.
The encore? A year later, the Canadian swimmer captured three gold medals at a prestigious international competition in Sydney, Australia. All told, Walker set eight world records during the year.
Since then, Walker has continued to establish herself as one of Canada’s aquatic stars. At the Ontario University Athletic Championships in February 2002, Walker shattered four world records in the 50-meter butterfly, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley in one weekend.
While watching Walker swim, you see the graceful, efficient techniques of a seasoned veteran.
It isn’t until she steps out of the pool that you realize, in a sense, that she’s different than other world-class athletes: Walker happens to make her mark competing for the Canadian Swimmers With A Disability (CSWAD) national team, of which she’s been a member since 1992.
Walker does not have the full use of her arms. Below the elbows, her forearms only measure about four inches long; and, as she has abnormally developed hands, she needs to grip most things with both of them clamped together.
Walker has a condition known as dysmelia, which according to the Web site http://www.books.md, is “a congenital abnormality characterized by missing or foreshortened limbs, sometimes with associated spine abnormalities; caused by metabolic disturbance at the time of primordial limb development.”
That hasn’t stopped Walker from competing in the S7 category, which includes swimmers with paraplegia, restricted arm and leg movement and partial amputations, as well as cerebral palsy and other disabilities, from doing what she has loved all her life: swimming.
But as she’s grown older, she shrugs off the notion that she’s truly different than other athletes.
Simply put, she says she wants to be recognized as an ordinary person.
“At times, it’s very frustrating,” Walker said after a recent afternoon training session at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center. “People tell me that I’m amazing. But I want them to know that I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too.”
Nonetheless, she relishes the opportunity to be a role model for others with various disabilities.
“I find that fulfilling,” she said.
TRAINING IN FLAGSTAFF
Walker, 26, and the CSWAD team spent Dec. 25-30 training at NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex.
The group, which consists of 15 swimmers ranging in age from 18 to 32, and a support staff of nine, is currently wrapping up its stay in Arizona with a six-day training stint at Phoenix Brophy Prep High School.
Generally, elite-level teams spend three weeks training in Flagstaff’s high altitude (7,000 feet) before returning to train at lower elevations. But highly regarded Canadian sports physiologist Dr. Stephen Norris, who works at the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary and accompanied the team to Arizona, has tailored the 12 days of training to maximize the impact it will have on the athletes.
Thus, the twice-a-day training sessions at NAU were anything but easy.
“It’s very tiring,” Walker said of training at high altitude. “But it’s worth it.”
Added teammate Walter Wu, a 31-year-old visually impaired swimmer from Richmond, British Columbia: “It’s basically eat, swim, sleep for the whole time we’re here.”
Well, mostly. After all, the team did attend the Coyotes-Kings game on New Year’s Eve at the brand-new Glendale Arena.
During the course of the year, CSWAD members train at their hometown clubs with other able-bodied swimmers. Walker, for example, resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she works out at Brock University pool for 10 training sessions each week. Occasionally, the swimmers will get together for national camps, which also provide them with a chance to develop team unity and camaraderie.
The next big meet the team will prepare for is an international competition in Denmark in early March.
Canadian coach Craig McCord, who has run a Vancouver swim club for 20 years, said Walker is one of the team leaders.
“Lis has been around for a while, and she comes into these camps with a very business-like attitude,” McCord said. “She knows what she wants to get done and she knows what the expectations of the coaching staff are.
“I think it’s just her level of professionalism. She’s very personable and well spoken. She’s the athlete rep, the person I interact with in regards to how the athletes interact with the coaching staff.”
Walker is a veteran of three Paralympics. As a 15-year-old, she went to the 1992 Summer Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Four years later, she participated in the Atlanta Games and earned a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke.
At the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, she continued her rise to stardom, by earning three gold medals (50 butterfly, 200 IM and a team gold in the 4×100 medley relay) and setting world records in all three events in the process. She also finished fifth in the 100 butterfly.
“To be more than a second below the world record (in the 50 butterfly) is unbelievable,” Walker told reporters in Sydney. “This was my pressure event and it’s a big relief to get it out of the way. The caliber of the athletes at these games has really shot up compared to four years ago.”
Walker’s stepped up her level of performance, too, and even exceeded her own lofty expectations.
“The last one was by far my most successful,” she said, reflecting on competing in Sydney. “I had a goal of one gold medal and one world record there, and I came home with three gold medals and (three) world records.”
Walker has a twin sister, Rebekah, who has customary use of both arms but has a slight learning disability. Growing up, the two were always together, practically inseparable.
Walker said she and her sister are best friends and learned to help each other as kids. Elisabeth took longer to learn everyday tasks like buttoning a coat and tying shoes, while Rebekah was a little behind in her scholastic endeavors.
“For each other, we are the perfect complement,” she said.
Nowadays, Rebekah juggles several jobs, working as a full-time nanny, at a bar and as an artist.
Rebekah also had the opportunity to share one of the most exciting times in her twin’s life four years ago, when she accompanied her sister to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympics. After the conclusion of the games, the two spent three months backpacking through the Australian countryside.
“What a wonderful experience that was to share with my sister,” Walker said, smiling.
LIVE AND LEARN
Dr. Norris, who regularly works with Canada’s able-bodied national-team athletes, such as the speed skaters, downhill skiers and hockey players, said he was initially nave about how to interact with disabled athletes. But, he said, “In 72 hours, that disappeared.”
Now, he’s as impressed with Walker’s athletic ability as anyone else.
“Of the six billion people on the planet that can swim, she’s in the 99th percentile. She’s a fine swimmer,” Dr. Norris concluded.
Coach McCord, meanwhile, said he’s learned that CSWAD swimmers don’t want special treatment.
“You’re going to obviously have to modify workouts and routines to fit their disability, but in general they get trained the exact same way the able-bodied athletes get trained,” he said.
Walker will compete at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, which will be Sept. 17-28. Not surprisingly, she’s thrilled about the opportunity to compete in the historic city.
“To be there in Greece, where the Olympics originate from, will be an amazing experience,” said Walker, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and recently took a leave of absence from school (she’s working toward a master’s in occupational therapy) to devote more time to prepare for the upcoming Paralympics.
Summing up the rewarding experiences she’s had as a Paralympian, Walker stated, “You get to see the best of both worlds: the great athleticism, and the chance to learn about what people with ‘disabilities’ can do.”
Reporter’s viewpoint: Kosuke Kitajima was destined for Olympic greatness. That much was certain, even in 2003.
Swimming Technique, summer 2003 article
By Ed Odeven
Although short in stature, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima — blessed with extraordinary technique — is a giant among breaststrokers.
Size doesn’t always matter. But let’s face it: elite male swimmers, such as Australian Ian Thorpe and American Michael Phelps, are usually big, strong fellows.
Kosuke Kitajima is an exception to the rule. The skinny, 5-foot-8 3/4-inch Japanese native is a world-class swimmer who relies more on skill than size.
The 20-year-old from Tokyo had a breakthrough year in 2002, highlighted by a gold medal finish in the 200 meter breaststroke at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea in October.
In that race, Kitajima shattered the oldest record in men’s swimming, winning the 200 meter breaststroke in 2:09.97. That bettered the mark (2:10.16) set by American Mike Barrowman in 1992 at the Barcelona Games. With the record, Kitajima became only the second Asian male to set a world record in the pool since 1972 when Nobutaka Taguchi set a WR in the 100 breast. (Kitajima’s mark was lowered even further as Swimming Technique was going to press, when Russia’s Dmitri Komornikov clocked 2:09.52 on June 14 at the Mare Nostrum meet in Barcelona.)
Kitajima and his Tokyo Swimming Center teammates trained at Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex this past spring for three-and-a-half weeks. After a morning workout in early April, Kitajima and his longtime TSC coach, Norimasa Hirai, sat down with Swimming Technique and spoke about Kitajima’s success, his beginnings in the sport as well as his training.
That record-shattering performance last October shocked even Kitajima.
“I honestly didn’t know I was going that fast,” says Kitajima through interpreter Eri Ono. “It was only when I hit the wall and looked up that I realized it was a world record.”
“A world record at this Games — in Asia — is a big, big thing for me,” he continues. “I have worked hard for this for a long time, and I don’t feel I have even reached my limit.”
Neither does Hirai: “We believe Kitajima will break the world record again.” Others share the coach’s opinion, because, in the words of Japanese team manager, Shigeo Ogata, “His technique is perfect.”
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Kitajima hasn’t always been a world-class athlete. Like many children growing up in Tokyo, Kosuke began swimming at a young age.
Between the ages of 5 and 7, “I just swam with the other kids for fun,” he recalls. Then it got more serious — a scheduled activity, not just a hobby.
When he turned 7, Kosuke joined a swim team. By age 10, he began competing in Japan’s Junior Olympic national championships. And this forced him to expand his in-the-water skills.
“When I turned 10, I used to do the individual medley,” he says. “But in order to attend these competitions, I added the breaststroke to my repertoire.”
At 14, he started preparing for years of international competition by joining the Tokyo Swimming Center, where he started working under the watchful eye of Hirai.
That was in 1996, and instantly, Hirai became aware of Kitajima’s unique ability.
“His strength is that he really has strong ankles,” Hirai says.
The coach provided a fine analogy to explain why strong, flexible ankles are vital to a swimmer’s success. He likened the ankle snap to a baseball pitcher’s wrist. That quick snap enables the pitcher to get more movement on his pitches. Similarly, for a swimmer, a quick ankle snap is an integral part of swimming side by side against Olympic-caliber foes. (See sidebar, “Kitajima’s Ankle Snap,” by Hideki Mochizuki.)
Says Hirai: “He had it naturally. He originally had this ability, so we put more attention to developing it.
“When I met him for the first time, I knew a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of his swimming techniques, but I thought the ankle snap was really a strength for him,” the coach continues. “So I encouraged him to develop the ankle snap instead of finding out his weaknesses. I know gliding is a really important factor to have higher speed, but when I met him and saw his strengths, I knew that the ankle snap could be applied to him. I just put more attention on developing his strengths rather than changing his weaknesses.”
Says Kitajima: “He encouraged me to develop this technique since the very beginning.”
Recalling Barrowman’s gold medal-winning, record-setting performance a decade ago in Barcelona, Hirai says his philosophy and Barrowman’s share one common characteristic: “Strong gliding is a key.”
In simple terms, according to Hirai, Kitajima’s formula for success in the breaststroke consists of four key aspects:
- Ankle snap
The process of mastering these steps, Hirai explains, begins by improving the ankle snap.
How is this accomplished? For Kitajima, “We’ve done training-in-the-water sessions using a pull-buoy,” Hirai says. “Usually when we’re using a pull-buoy, he wouldn’t use the snap — well, maybe a little bit.”
Essentially, the kinetic energy of the snap to the kick to the glide serves as a catalyst for the most important part of the race, i.e., the actual breaststroke.
Or as Hirai puts it: “At that moment, his speed comes so fast.”
Ideally, in Hirai’s master plan, the well-orchestrated gliding will cut down on the number of strokes his pupil has to take.
By observing many breaststroke specialists, Hirai estimates that most of them use between 21 and 24 strokes per 50-meter lap. He’s fine-tuned Kitajima’s process to have him get it down to an average of 18-20 strokes per lap — which still is several more than Ed Moses takes.
Why is this so critical? Less repetitions help Kitajima maintain his arm strength as well as power and quickness in the final stages of each race.
“This is one component that helps contribute to (a quicker) time,” Kitajima says.
Another component of Kitajima’s success is his unique dryland training. He became the first swimmer in Japan to make Olympic weightlifting a part of his workout regimen. These are the type of exercises — squats, snatch and clean-and-jerk, for example — that are generally done by rowers and speed skaters, not swimmers.
Kitajima trains six days a week. His workout timetable generally stays the same, although he and Hirai revealed that they reduced his workload when they were in Flagstaff, which is situated at an elevation of 7,000 feet.
“We are more exhausted training in this town compared with training in Japan due to the higher altitude,” Hirai says. “So we just reduce the tough training and the length of the training.”
Yet, even with the intensity and length of training somewhat reduced, Kosuke realizes the value of high altitude training. That’s why he visits the United States on a yearly basis_he’s made eight visits to NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex over the past few years and generally stays for three-week training stints.
“Whenever I come here, I always improve my time,” he says.
His eye-popping results support that claim.
In fact, his ascent to an Olympic-caliber swimmer was a quick one. He went to Sydney in 2000 as a 17-year-old, certainly a young age for a male Olympian. The young Japanese standout did not disappoint in his Olympic debut. He placed fourth in the 100 breaststroke in 1:01.34 and was 17th in the 200 breast in 2:15.71.
Since that time, Kosuke has trained vigorously to improve his rankings, his technique and his stamina. He’s even had to fight through pain to get to where he is today.
He injured his right elbow at last summer’s Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Yokohama, Japan — and after winning the 100 breaststroke in a record-setting time for an Asian, he had to withdraw from the 200.
But you wouldn’t have known it from his 200 breast world record performance a few months later in Busan, South Korea. Kitajima was also victorious in the 100 breast and helped his countrymates win a gold medal in the 4 x 100 medley relay.
At the recent Japanese National Long Course Championships, held April 22-27 at Tokyo’s Tatsumi Pool, Kitajima had, what some might call, a “big splash.” He finished first in the 50, 100 and 200 meter breaststroke, setting a national record in the 50. (His time of 27.99 in the semis shaved 6-hundreths of a second off the old mark). His times in the finals: 28.02, 1:00.23 and 2:10.59. In the 100 semis, Kitajima came close to another world mark — his time of 1:00.07 was 13-hundredths off the world record set by Russia’s Roman Sloudnov, and it makes him the second fastest man in history in the 100 meter breaststroke.
Up next: Kitajima will compete in the world’s most prestigious meet held in a non-Olympic year: the FINA World Championships, which will take place in July in Barcelona.
Kudos to Kitajima
For his exemplary efforts, Kitajima has certainly received his fair share of awards. He received Samsung’s MVP (Most Valuable Performer) Award as the finest athlete at the 2002 Busan Asian Games. The other finalists: Zhang Nan, China (women’s gymnastics); Wu Peng, China (men’s swimming); Makhld Al Otaibi, Saudi Arabia (men’s athletics); and Lee Bong-Ju, Korea (men’s marathon).
“I am excited,” Kitajima says of the honor bestowed upon him at the Asian Games. “Competitive swimming isn’t very popular in Japan, so getting a world record will hopefully bring more attention to our sport.”
Other awards made 2002 an unforgettable year for Kitajima, who turns 21 in September. Asahi Shimbum and Daily Yomiuri and other Japanese newspapers named Kitajima the nation’s athlete of the year.
And he’s certain to receive more. Why?
“Being tall or big is not the most important reason (why Kitajima has become a standout swimmer),” says Hirai. “Good technique is the most important reason, and Kosuke’s is one of the best.”