There is danger that this rampant "anything goes" spirit is being abused. Mutterings of anabolic steroids being used to build up some swimmers have been heard, and Swimming World magazine reported that the West German swimming establishment tried pumping compressed air into the large intestines of several top swimmers in an effort to make them more buoyant. According to the account, the experiment, dubbed Operation Balloon, was discontinued when some of the swimmers developed cramps and one complained that his feet kept coming out of the water as he swam.
The exotic aside, even the everyday workouts undertaken by swimmers—five hours of pool time is not unusual—can astound other athletes, particularly when one realizes that most swimmers are full-time students as well. Ask swim people why they labor so diligently, and they reply that even their so-called sprints are, in fact, endurance events requiring distance training. For example, Jonty Skinner's world record of 49.44 in the 100-meter freestyle is five times slower than the time it takes trackmen to cover that distance. But the notion that swimmers have to put in long yardage may be less important than the fact that they can. This is because the water both cushions and cools the body.
Swimmers in the '50s typically logged 5,000 meters a day, requiring two hours in the pool. Today's swimmers plow through as many as 20,000 meters. (The Russians, with a view toward excelling at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, are reportedly experimenting with 30,000 meters a day.) Swimmers are also training at an ever faster rate, reeling off much of their yardage in all-out bursts called "repeats," punctuated by rests of as little as four to five seconds. They monitor their repeats by checking the large sweep hands of poolside pace clocks.
To build endurance in leg muscles, swimmers immobilize their arms by clutching kickboards. To strengthen their stroke they entwine inner tubes about their ankles and grip flotation devices with their legs. They also wear hand paddles. Some swim in panty hose, T shirts and layered swimsuits, not to mention "Dragin," a suit with pockets that fill with water, like tiny sea anchors. The well-dressed swimmers also wear snug goggles that make them look like popeyed waterbugs. Goggles won acceptance four or five years ago as a way to protect the eyes from chlorine at workouts, but more and more swimmers are also using them (sometimes fitted with prescription lenses) during races, because they provide a window-clear view of opponents and the wall while making turns.
Gimmicks are not confined to the physical side of swimming. Former Olympian Debbie Meyer recited Shakespeare to herself during workouts to relieve boredom, Shirley Babashoff sang songs to herself and another world-class swimmer says he thought a lot about "Coleridge and sex." But Peter Daland cautions, "Swimming laps is like driving on the highway. You can relax a bit, but you also have to concentrate on what you're doing." All of which makes it a relief when swimmers taper off in their training in order to rest and sharpen themselves for major competition. From the maximum of 20,000 meters a day, over the course of three or four weeks swimmers cut down drastically to about a third of their normal yardage, leaving themselves with energy to burn at meets.
"If you hit the taper right, your kids are ready to rip the clocks off the wall," says Mark Schubert, whose Mission Viejo ( Calif.) Nadadores are the country's No. 1 swim club. "They're ready to go crazy."
Of late, even when swimmers towel off they may not be through for the day. Some coaches now put their people through 45 minutes of dryland workouts, exercise that was once avoided for fear of turning svelte swimmers into heavily muscled sinkers. Bulk is still considered undesirable, but coaches have come to believe that speed can be better developed with dryland exercise. Buttressing this conviction is the fact that East Germany's brawny but supple women, while merely rumored to be on muscle-building steroids, are known to be into intensive weight training.
A prime mover in dryland training, as in so much else in swimming, is Indiana's James E. (Doc) Counsilman, the U.S. men's coach at Montreal. The 56-year-old Counsilman can often be seen at meets, descending with mask and underwater camera into the warmup pool to collect footage for his series of instructional films on stroke mechanics. Counsilman is also a pool consultant. He invented the first pace clock. His book, The Science of Swimming, is in its 16th printing. And a few years ago he became a consultant and part owner of Mini-Gym Inc., a Missouri-based manufacturer of "isokinetic" exercise equipment.
Conventional weight training is relatively slow and static—and it builds bulk. By means of an intricate arrangement of pulleys and centrifugal brakes, isokinetics provides high-speed exercise through a full range of body movement, building explosiveness rather than brute strength. Counsilman helped the Mini-Gym people devise units that strengthen specific swimming muscles. Then he spread the gospel. "To swim fast, you have to build muscle at high speed," he intoned. "That's what isokinetics do."
Today most leading U.S. swim clubs use Mini-Gym exercisers, and the East Germans and Russians have bought some, too. And this is one swimming innovation that has had rippling effects in other sports. A couple of years ago Counsilman put Indiana basketball Center Kent Benson on his Mini-Gym, and in six weeks Benson increased his vertical jump from 22 to 26 inches. Mini-Gym's basketball sales have been rising ever since, and the company is now drumming up business in track and field, tennis, baseball and football.