Just the Fax: How to Swim in Hawaii When Your Coach Is in Wisconsin

Harry Howe/Allsport

One of the nice perks of writing for Active.com is that I can track down my personal rivals and competitors and, under the guise of an in-depth interview, uncover their training secrets and race strategies to my own advantage.

Such was my intention with John Flanagan, a long-distance open water swimmer who has a long list of accomplishments on his athletic resume (one of which was beating me at the 2000 Waikiki Roughwater Swim last September). John lives and trains in Hawaii, which is more commonly known to host world-class surfers and outrigger-canoers.

Although the widespread perception is that the tropical islands would be an ideal place to groom world-ranked swimmers, the reality is that a scarcity of Olympic-distance pools and programs make it very difficult for any pool-bound athlete to excel. With limited resources, coaches, or access to national and international competition, it is rare that a Hawaiian resident ever ends up on the U.S. National Swim Team.

But in spite of these drawbacks, John Flanagan has managed to excel. A 1994 Olympic Festival champion in the 400-meter freestyle, John also made his mark as a member of Auburn University's NCAA championship team in 1997. Upon graduating magna cum laude in finance that same year, he continued his swimming career in open water, earning gold medals at the 1998 World Championships and the 1999 Pan Pacific Games.

None of this came easy. Armed with a grueling training schedule and some impressive discipline, John has risen through the ranks largely on his own, with no teammates and a coach who is two time zones away. Now, at the ripe old age of 25, he is a rarity in the ageist world of distance swimming, where athletes reach their prime in their late teens or, if they're lucky, their early 20s. By the way, I can call John old because, as one of his longtime (and long-in-the-tooth) competitors, I am no rookie at 31.

While most of us wake up with the sound of a clock radio buzzing, John's wake-up call every morning is the shrill sound of his bedside fax machine. Jack Pettinger, his longtime coach, is faxing him his daily workout routine from Pettinger's residence in Wisconsin.

"I've known Jack since 1993," John explains. "But I've only trained with him one summer after my freshman year in college. When I finished college in '97, I gave him a call to see if he could help me train and I've been with him ever since. He's been coming to Hawaii every year at Christmas time for years, and really understands where I am coming from. He is by far the nicest guy I have ever known, and has been willing to give so much of his time to help me keep swimming. I really enjoy his workouts, and trust in what he is doing, even when it hurts."

John readily admits that if he was left to his own devices, he'd have a hard time going to the pool and making up a workout for himself.

"I think if I had to come up with something on my own every day, I would spend most of the time in the Jacuzzi!"

His typical workouts range from 7,000 to 11,000 meters in a 50-meter pool, with a longer warm-up that lasts 3,000 to 4,000 meters. Personally, it takes me a long time to warm up as well, and it was reassuring to note that my rival spent 50 percent of his training time warming up for a main set!

As for the main part of his workouts, John's sets range from 3,500 to 6,000 meters with lots of speed and interval changes that keep him conditioned for changing speeds efficiently. In open water, it is important to adapt to different situations, and interval training is one way to prepare yourself to handle any given current.

Looking for specifics? John's favorite set is 15x400. That's 6,000 meters, or four miles. Granted, the distance may not seem daunting given his pedigree of 25K races, but get a load of the intervals!

  • First three 400s: 5:10-5:00-4:50
  • Next three: 5:20-5:00-4:40
  • Next three: 5:30-5:00-4:30
  • Next three: 5:40-5:00-4:20
  • Last three: 6:00-5:00-Max

His last few 400s end up in the teens--4:19, 4:18, 4;15 on a good day

Sets like the one above are even more impressive when you note that John has no poolside coach to urge him on, no teammates to race during the long, challenging sets. Although swimming is by definition an individual sport, national team coaches often claim that it is as much a team sport as basketball, hockey, or soccer.

Swimmers depend on their teammates and training partners for support, motivation and guidance in the trying times, and in stressful competition. John only has his trusty fax, and the willpower to do it alone.

John usually trains doubles Monday through Friday, and once Saturday and Sunday. A couple of mornings a week, to break up the monotony of the pool workouts he will paddleboard, surf or bodysurf in the ocean. Not an avid cross-trainer, John occasionally ventures into the ocean for an open-water workout.

Alternating between a few thousand meters in the ocean followed by a 1,000-meter run on the beach, John will spend a few hours heading in and out of the water as a way of practicing his open-water entries and exits. Many of the races he competes in have beach finishes where the transition from swimming to running has been quite literally the downfall for many a talented athlete. John is one of the few who is well-balanced on his sea-legs after a long swim, and a tough one to beat if it comes to a land sprint.

Given the amount of swimming John does in competition, there is little time to cross-train. He needs to dedicate all his training time to the water. However, he spends his time coaching when he isn't training. Head coach of the Kamehameha Swim Club in Honolulu, he coaches swimmers ranging in age from 6 to 18, up through the Junior National level.

"I love coaching and hope to be able to make it a career," John says. It is a nice change every day to watch swimmers do laps rather than do them yourself. Hawaii has had many great swimmers in the past, and hopefully I can do my part to help the sport of swimming in Hawaii.

Next: John offers advice for open-water swimmers and talks about a few shark encounters out in his native waters.

A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in—and wins—numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race.

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